Gazing Outwardly from A Room With A View
James Ivory's adaptation of E.M. Forster's A Room With A View is stylised with a satirical portrayal of the aristocracy, and with notes of nostalgia for quaint Britishness. In 2020, it invites revision. Twice removed from its 1980's production of Edwardian subject matter, ARWAV maintains a rather obscured position in the cultural imagination. It has, since its genesis, divided critics, as has heritage cinema generally, for its ascribed sordid, banal vision of rather enervating caricatures that depend on conservative nostalgia, and a longing for a time of sensibility and anti-progressivist values. It's worth noting here that these views constitute that of those who are anti-heritage cinema altogether and categorise ARWAV as an example of such. Others suggest ARWAV is not a heritage film, but a product of transnational creative effort that sought to deconstruct class and sexual stereotypes across social boundaries. Much like recent period-erotica Yorgos Lanthimos' 2018 The Favourite, ARWAV borders on a camp aesthetic in its embellishment and decorative priority, refined with its romantic centrality and its witticism, with its faux period representation as central to its irony. While The Favourite does not count as heritage cinema, I'd like to suggest that ARWAV does not either.
Heritage cinema as a description, one charged with negative connotations, disservices ARWAV's complexly satirical portrayal of aristocrats and tourism and their specifically romantic subjectivity. It is one of many films that constitute 1980's emergence of kindred films, a movement we can largely attribute to Thatcher's governance, wherein British creatives turned towards a reimagining and commodification of the past. With its success perhaps largely indebted to its popular ensemble of actors, ARWAV, if nothing else, upholds as a prototypic rom-com. Yet, I think it exhibits a far more sophisticated perspective, one that actually assumes anti-heritage cinema in its portrayal of heritage filmmaking.
ARWAV essentially follows a group of English tourists as they traverse rural and urban Italy, attempting to soak up its culture while remaining detached and voyeuristic. For Miss Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter), note the 'English' name, Italy personifies a repressed, passionate spirituality; a sensuous and romantic freedom that is inhibited back home in England. Chiefly, characters' positions, as affluent tourists, render their vision of Italy a fantastical version of its culture, carving out a utopian space upon which they are far more attuned to their emotional sensibilities and romantic intuition than social convention would usually allow. In cinematic terms, this creates a neat dichotomy: the opposing spaces and their distinctive affectations.
This spatial dimension to the film turns us towards how these spaces are experienced. Here, I refer specifically to the act of gazing, and its historic implication of hierarchy and mobility. Gazing is far more penetrative and active than seeing. As active, gazing infers a superior gazer and implies a less autonomous, passive subject, a dynamic which can be traced back to antiquity. The same dynamic can be applied to ARWAV, wherein gazing is not only exercised but to satirical excess. Gazing generates the fluidity with which English characters orient Italy on an entirely separate plane to Italian natives. Guided by their own selective hearing and feeling, they construct a vision of Italy that either challenges or reinforces their touristic imagination; never encountering authenticity, only the Italy they desire.
Touristic gazing renders an authentic experience impossible, and it seems that this does not matter for the aristocracy. Thus although ARWAV demonstrates a love for highly aestheticised gentility, it undoubtedly suggests that it is a privileged, inauthentic position to be a tourist. The English tourists in ARWAV are bound to their position unless they expel their preconceptions of the terrain upon which they wander, in search of evidence for their own idealised, fabricated space: a romantic yet violent, exotic yet civilised, Italy that pertains to a vision that they long to see.
The act of touristic gazing extends beyond the narrative and into cinematic reception. We too, as critic Ellen Strain names us ‘armchair travellers’, imagine what we see rather than experience it, or at least the filmmakers imagine for us. In ARWAV, Italy is not just a mise en scène as a touristic metaphor, but it is, of course, literally a mise en scène. This complicates where exactly our sympathies are directed, as they seem tethered to the English tourists and their experiences of Italy, though it is clear that we are not to take their experience as an inclusive reality.
Thus, does ARWAV's indulgently, beautiful construction merely constitute nostalgic, romantic filmmaking or does it quietly reinforce the film’s premise, including the audience in the role of touristic gazer? I think the latter is far more interesting to consider, and it does not exclude the former. We, as audience, don’t see Italy. We see Italy on film. And perhaps this vision is comparable, if not entirely similar, to the characters’ own satirised and detached gaze, their position as the indulgently naive voyeur.
If ARWAV is heritage cinema, it would be far less self-critical. If heritage cinema longs for nostalgia and commodifies itself as an agent of a simpler past, then ARWAV presents its antithesis. It presents a stock characterisation of the past. It's a cartoon, not a fresco. It's a mockery of Edwardian aristocracy. It plays with absurdity and with the Forsterian and Austean rapidity of slipping in and out of love.
ARWAV is inappropriate and ridiculous, unreal and lavish. It is not heritage cinema, rather, a union of convention and critique that doesn't for a moment take itself too seriously.