“LOUISIANA” (1984) Review

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“LOUISIANA” (1984) Review

Twenty-nine years ago, HBO had aired a three-part miniseries about the life and travails of a nineteenth century Southern belle named Virginia Tregan. The miniseries was called “LOUISIANA” and it starred Margot Kidder and Ian Charleson. 

Directed by the late Philippe de Broca, “LOUISIANA” was based upon the “Fausse-Riviere” Trilogy, written by Maurice Denuzière, one of the screenwriters. It told the story of Virginia’s ruthless devotion to her first husband’s Louisiana cotton plantation called Bagatelle . . . and her love for the plantation’s overseer, an Englishman named Clarence Dandridge. The story begins in 1836 in which she returns to her home in Louisiana after spending several years at school in Paris, Unfortunately, Virginia discovers that the Tregan family plantation and most of its holdings have been sold to pay off her father’s debts. Only the manor house remains. Determined to recoup her personal fortune, Virginia manipulates the breakup of the affair between her wealthy godfather, Adrien Damvillier and his mistress, Anne McGregor in order to marry him and become mistress of Bagatelle. Virginia also becomes frustrated in her relationship with Clarence Dandridge, who refuses to embark upon a sexual relationship with her.

During their ten-year marriage, Virginia and Adrien conceive three children – Adrien II, Pierre and Julie. Not long after Julie’s birth, Adrien dies during a yellow fever epidemic. Virginia hints to Clarence that she would like to engage in a serious relationship with him. But when he informs her that they would be unable to consummate their relationship, due to an injury he had sustained during a duel, Virginia travels to Paris for a year-long separation. There, she meets her second husband, a French aristocrat named Charles de Vigors. They return to Louisiana and Virginia gives birth to her fourth and final child – Fabian de Vigors. Virginia and Charles eventually divorce due to his jealousy of his wife’s feelings for Clarence and his affairs. Fabian, who feels left out of the Damvillier family circle, accompanies his father back to France. During the next ten to fifteen years, Virginia experiences the death of her three children by Adrien, the Civil War and Reconstruction. The story ended in either the late 1860s or early 1870s with Virginia using a trick up her sleeves to save Bagatelle from a Yankee mercenary, whom she had first encountered on a riverboat over twenty years ago.

If I must be frank, “LOUISIANA” is not exactly “GONE WITH THE WIND” or “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy. But the 1984 production does bear some resemblance to both the movie and the other miniseries. I noticed that the character of Virginia Tregan Damvillier de Vigors strongly reminded me of Margaret Mitchell’s famous leading lady from “GONE WITH THE WIND”, Scarlett O’Hara. Both characters are strong-willed, ruthless, charming, manipulative, passionate and Southern-born. Both had married at least two or three times. Well, Scarlett acquired three husbands by the end of Mitchell’s tale. In “LOUISIANA”, Virginia married twice and became engaged once to some mercenary who wanted Bagatelle after the war. Both women had fallen in love with a man who was forbidden to them. Unlike Scarlett, Virginia eventually ended up with the man she loved, despite losing three of her children. Apparently, the saga’s original author felt that Virginia had to pay a high price for manipulating her way into a marriage with Adrien Damvillier.

“LOUISIANA” also shared a few aspects with another famous Civil War-era saga – namely John Jakes’ “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy. Both sagas were based upon a trilogy of novels that spanned the middle decades of the 19th century – covering the antebellum period, the Civil War and Reconstruction. Mind you, “LOUISIANA” lacked the epic-style storytelling of the television adaptation of Jakes’ trilogy. Not even Virginia’s journey to France and her experiences during the outbreak of the Revolution of 1848, along with another journey to France during the first year of the Civil War could really give, “LOUISIANA” the epic sprawl that made the “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy so memorable. However, the miniseries, like “NORTH AND SOUTH”, did depicted the darker side of the Old South’s plantation system. It did so through the eyes of four characters – Clarence Dandridge; one Bagatell slave named Brent; another Bagatelle slave named Ivy, and Virginia’s French-born servant/companion, Mignette.

Like both “NORTH AND SOUTH” and “GONE WITH THE WIND”“LOUISIANA” suffered from some historical inaccuracies. I found it interesting that Bagatelle did not suffer the consequences from the Panic and Depression of 1837, which lasted until the mid-1840s. Especially since it was a cotton plantation. The economic crisis had not only led to a major recession throughout the United States, it also dealt a severe blow to the country’s Cotton Belt, thanks to a decline in cotton prices. Unlike the 1980 miniseries, “BEULAH LAND”“LOUISIANA” never dealt with this issue, considering that the story began in 1836. I also found the miniseries’ handling of Revolution of 1848 in France and the California Gold Rush rather questionable, as well. Gold was first discovered by James Marshall in California, in January 1848. But news of the discovery did not reach the East Coast until August-September 1848, via an article in the New York Herald; and France became the first country to fully experience the Revolution of 1848 on February 23, 1848. Yet, according to the screenplay for “LOUISIANA”, Charles de Vigors first learned about the California gold discovery in a newspaper article in mid-June 1848 . . . sometime before France experienced the first wave of the Revolutions of 1848.

If there is one aspect of “LOUISIANA” that reigned supreme over both “NORTH AND SOUTH” and “GONE WITH THE WIND” are the costumes designed by John Jay. The costumes lacked the theatrical styles of the John Jakes miniseries and the 1939 Oscar winner. But they did project a more realistic image of the clothes worn during the period between 1830s and 1860s. And fans of“NORTH AND SOUTH” would immediately recognize the plantation and house that served as Bagatelle in “LOUISIANA”. In real life, it is Greenwood Plantation, located in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana. Aside from serving as Bagatelle, it also stood in as Resolute, the home of the venal Justin LaMotte in the first two miniseries of the “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy.

The story for “LOUISIANA” seemed pretty solid. It seemed like a Louisiana version of “GONE WITH THE WIND”, but with the epic sprawl of “NORTH AND SOUTH”. But only in length . . . not in style. Margot Kidder, Ian Charleson, Andréa Ferréol, Len Cariou, Lloyd Bochner, Victor Lanoux, and Hilly Hicks all gave pretty good performances. Kidder and Charleson, surprisingly managed to create a strong screen chemistry. The miniseries indulged in the romance of the Old South. But as I had earlier pointed out, the miniseries also exposed its darker aspects – especially slavery. When the story first began with Virginia’s arrival in Louisiana with her maid, Mignette; the entire production seemed like a reflection of the “moonlight and magnolias” myth of the Old South, until the story shifted to the cotton harvest fête held at Bagatelle. In this scene, slavery reared its ugly head when the plantation’s housekeeper becomes suddenly ill, while serving a guest. Slavery and racism continued to be explored not only when Virginia’s conservative beliefs over slavery clash with Clarence’s more liberal ideals; but also with scenes featuring encounters between Bagatelle slave Brent and a racist neighbor named Percy Templeton, Mignette’s Underground Railroad activities, and a doomed romance between one of Virginia’s sons and a slave named Ivy. Yet, despite Virginia’s conservative views regarding slavery, the miniseries allowed audiences to sympathize with her through her romantic travails, the tragic deaths of her children and her post-war efforts to save Bagatelle from a slimy con artist-turned-carpetbagger named Oswald.

If you are expecting another “GONE WITH THE WIND” or “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy, you will be disappointed. But thanks to Maurice Denuzière’s novels and the screenplay written by Dominique Fabre, Charles E. Israel and Etienne Périer; “LOUISIANA”ended up as an entertaining saga about a woman’s connections with a Louisiana plantation during the early and mid 19th century. For anyone interested in watching “LOUISIANA”, you might find it extremely difficult in finding the entire miniseries (six hours) either on VHS or DVD. And it might be slightly difficult in finding an edited version as well. The last time I had seen“LOUISIANA”, it aired on CINEMAX in the mid-1990s and had been edited to at least three hours. If you find a copy of the entire miniseries or the edited version, you have my congratulations.

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“WASHINGTON SQUARE” (1997) Review

“WASHINGTON SQUARE” (1997) Review

I suspect there might be a good number of movie fans who have seen William Wyler’s 1949 movie, ”THE HEIRESS”. This film, which led to a second Academy Award for actress Olivia DeHavilland, was based upon both Henry James’ 1880 novel, ”Washington Square”, and the 1947 stage play of the same title. In 1997, another version of James’ novella appeared on the movie screens. Directed by Agnieszka Holland, ”WASHINGTON SQUARE” starred Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Ben Chaplin and Maggie Smith. 

Anyone familiar with James’ tale should know that it told the story of one Catherine Sloper, the plain and awkward daughter of the wealthy Dr. Austin Sloper in antebellum Manhattan, who falls in love with a penniless, yet handsome young man named Morris Townsend against her father’s wishes. If one thinks about it, the plot sounds like a typical costumed weeper in which a pair of young lovers kept apart from outside forces – in this case, a disapproving parent. But James had added a few twists to make this story. One, the story kept many in the dark on whether the penniless Morris actually loved Catherine. Two, Dr. Sloper not only disapproved of Morris, but also harbored deep contempt and resentment toward his daughter’s plain looks and awkward social skills. Her crimes? Catherine’s birth had led to the death of his beloved wife. And his daughter failed to inherit her mother’s beauty and style. After a great of psychological warfare between Catherine, Dr. Sloper, Morris and Dr. Sloper’s sister Lavinia Penniman, the story ended on a surprising note for those who have never read the novel or seen any of the film or stage versions. Those familiar with the tale at least know that it ended on a note of personal triumph for the heroine.

Many movie fans and critics seemed incline to dismiss ”WASHINGTON SQUARE” as a poor remake of the 1949 film. I will not deny that in many respects, ”THE HEIRESS” is superior to ”WASHINGTON SQUARE”. However, I would not be inclined to dismiss the 1997 film as a failure. It still turned out to be a pretty damn good adaptation of James’ novel. In fact, it turned out to be a lot better than I had expected.

Jennifer Jason Leigh did an excellent job of portraying the shy and socially awkward Catherine Sloper. Even better, she managed to develop Catherine’s character from a shy woman to one who became more assured with herself. However, I do have one small quibble regarding Leigh’s performance. She had a tendency to indulge in unnecessary mannerisms that would rival both Bette Davis and Cate Blanchett.

Maggie Smith gave an illuminating performance as Catherine’s silly and romantically childish aunt, Lavinia Sloper Penniman. I found myself very impressed by Ben Chaplin’s portrayal of Catherine’s handsome and charming suitor, Morris Townsend. The actor struck a perfect balance of charm, impatience and ambiguity. And his verbal battles with Albert Finney’s character left me spellbound. Judith Ivey gave an intelligent performance as Catherine’s other aunt, the sensible and clever Elizabeth Sloper Almond. I especially enjoyed one scene that featured a debate between Catherine’s father and Aunt Elizabeth over her relationship with Morris.

But in my opinion, Albert Finney gave the best performance in the movie as Catherine’s aloof and slightly arrogant father, Dr. Austin Sloper. The interesting thing about Finney’s performance was that he able expressed Dr. Sloper’s concern he felt over the possibility of Catherine becoming the victim of a fortune hunter. At the same time, Finney perfectly balanced Sloper’s concern with the character’s lack of affection or warmth toward his daughter. My favorite scene with Finney featured an expression of disbelief on his face, as his character noticed Lavinia’s enthrallment over Catherine and Morris’ musical duet.

If there is one aspect of ”WASHINGTON SQUARE” that impressed me more than Wyler’s 1949 adaptation was Allan Starski’s production designs. Under Holland’s direction, Starski worked effectively with costume designer Anna B. Sheppard, Jerzy Zielinski’s photography and the visual effects supervised by Pascal Charpentier to transport moviegoers back to antebellum New York City. In fact, the movie’s late 1840s setting struck me as superior to that shown in the 1949 movie. And because of this, the movie managed to avoid the feeling of a filmed play.

Holland and screenwriter Carol Doyle’s adaptation of James’ novel seemed a lot closer to the original source than the earlier version. At least the movie’s last twenty minutes adhered closer to the novel. I suspect that the movie’s first ten to fifteen minutes – which focused upon an embarrassing childhood incident regarding Catherine and her father’s birthday party – had been the screenwriter’s invention. Personally, I found this sequence rather unnecessary. Doyle could have easily used brief dialogue to reveal the origin of Dr. Sloper’s coldness toward Catherine. But in the end, Doyle’s screenplay basically followed James’ novel.

But after watching the movie’s last twenty minutes, I found myself wishing that Doyle and Holland had followed Wyler’s adaptation and the 1947 stage play. The movie nearly fell apart in the last twenty minutes, thanks to a decision on Holland’s part. Most of the dramatic moments in ”WASHINGTON SQUARE” appeared in the last half hour – Catherine’s realization of her father’s dislike, Morris’ rejection of her after discovering her decision to endanger her inheritance, Dr. Sloper’s death, the reading of his will and Morris’ second attempt to woo Catherine. Out of all these scenes, only Catherine’s reaction to her father’s will generated any real on-screen dramatics. All of the other moments were performed with a subtlety that robbed filmgoers of any real drama. The fact that I could barely stay awake during Catherine’s final rejection of Morris told me that Holland made a serious mistake in guiding her cast to portray these scenes in a realistic manner. There is a time for realism and there is a time for dramatic flair. And in my opinion, those final scenes in the last half hour demanded dramatic flair.

Despite my disappointments in the movie’s last half hour, I must admit that I managed to enjoy ”WASHINGTON SQUARE”. It may not have been just as good as or superior to 1949’s ”THE HEIRESS”. But I believe that it still turned out to be a pretty damn good movie.