‘A Room with a View’ – James Ivory, 1985
A crystalline voice broke amidst the many murmurs of tourists, between the walls of Roskilde cathedral. A young woman had come to practice her singing here, accompanied by a pianist. I recognised the song immediately. It was Puccini‘s aria ‘O mio babbino caro’, and it sent a wave of delight through me. I recognised it because it is the opening piece and musical signature of the film ‘A Room with a View’, which I have just seen recently. A most curious movie really. A light British romance made in 1985 by the American director James Ivory, based on the 1908 novel of the same name by E. M. Forster. But the film is more than it seems. I encourage you to watch it, for I have a theory about it. The film — and therefore the novel — has been secretly made as an allegory for the seeking of truth.
The film opens up with Lucy arriving at the Pensione Pertolini in Florence, with her cousin and stiff chaperone Charlotte. This is a place where many British citizens come to spend their holidays. We are at the beginning of 1900s, with upper-middle-class characters steeped in the repressive culture and morals of Edwardian England. They come here to have a taste of the more wild and unconventional atmosphere of Italy, along with the beauty of its culture and landscapes. Of course, this film is not specifically about a spiritual search. It is a love story. But not frankly so. It lingers on the edge, giving us some food for thought. Behind the conventional clothing of a delightful romantic romp, it leaves a whole collection of little pebbles in its trail that points to a reflection on life that is both profound and open to interpretations.
First there is the title, ‘a room with a view’, which symbolises Charlotte and Lucy’s first disappointment as they take possession of their room in the pensione. It is dull, and lacks of the view which they were promised to have. “This is not at all what we were led to expect,” said the disappointed chaperone to the young Lucy as she opened the shutters. These are the very first words uttered in the movie. Indeed, life is not satisfying, not what we had expected it to be. There is this obstinate sense of lack, of not feeling quite complete. Where is this room with a view? Not the stiff and habitual life with walls erected around us, but the place in ourself where we are afforded to have a view, where we can contemplate ourself and the world in peace and freedom. A place in which we can rest and breathe at last.
As for the small pebbles that the film leaves on its track, the first scenes are rich with them, in the form of a few delightful sentences. Around the dinner table, we meet Mr. Emerson, a free thinker and his son George, a young handsome man. The conversation flows freely: ”It is only by going off the track that you get to know the country,” says proudly an old lady. Charlotte is exposing the fact that their room lacks of a view. As soon as a search is voiced here, an answer comes in this rather biblical manner: a father and a son appear! Mr. Emerson jumps in: “I have a view! I have a view!” And he then adds: “I don’t care what I see outside, my vision is within. Here is where the birds sing, here is where the sky is blue.” He offers them a most courteous exchange, but the proposition is experienced as an outrage by old-fashioned Charlotte.
Such is the stiffness of this society that they find “most indelicate” that a man and his son staying in a room with a view propose them an exchange. Isn’t it so that the coming of truth is always experienced as a threat for the old, established, fearful, separate self? The rigid Edwardian traditions embody this resistance. But Lucy has a milder, freer character. The film is a slow unfolding of her love, and shows how the heroine is slowly coming to term with an understanding, a realisation of where lies her true happiness. The good society of England is an image of separation and contrivance, while Italy seems to embody a sense of openness and freedom. The photography is beautiful, as is the language which is rather literary. As the film editor Catherine Shoard wrote in The Guardian: “This is incredibly fresh and arresting film-making: moving and amusing, swooningly romantic and socially ferocious — nothing less than a full-frontal (in every way) assault on your soul.”
Book cover art by Chris Silas Neal – Wikipedia
The film lacks of the usual suspense used in similar romantic stories. There is a general sense that this love story is about something else. George has left a big question mark in Charlotte’s room after the exchange. Speaking of the Emersons, the reverend Mr. Beebe, another character at the pension and a friend of Lucy, says rather wittingly: “Father’s something of a radical. The son, full of possibilities.” The film is not what it seems. Life is like that, isn’t it? There is a background of awareness in everything we experience. Our doing seems to be the real deal, the first and only thing that happens, which we rate as good or bad, drama or romance, but is in fact second to a prior and more ultimate reality. That reality is pure consciousness, which is our innermost and foremost self. It is hidden, unseen, veiled by the second reality of objective experience — which we ignorantly take to be the first.
So this is about Lucy and George. It is understood. They are drawn to each other. And that particular dance, that hide-and-seek game between the lover and the beloved is also, in the spiritual tradition, an analogy for the search of truth, the lover being the person in search of happiness, and the beloved the reality that lies in his or her very heart as consciousness, or god. Lucy’s qualities are ones of perfect discipleship. Her character, behind her being brought up in, and conditioned by the good manners of Victorian society, shows an obstination for truth and a genuine honesty. A mix of candour, willingness, openness, fearlessness, and a love for freedom. She is in all occasion carefully watching, not from a position of judgment, but of quiet observation, and of good-hearted indifference. She is also an image of truth herself, powerful in her powerlessness, intimate in spite of her remoteness, strong yet vulnerable. Are we not all, like Lucy, feeling behind the stiffness of our conditioning and upbringing, all the genuine qualities that are at the core of our being?
George has a strange presence that doesn’t impose itself in any ways, doesn’t try to seduce. His qualities are ones of aloofness, mysteriousness, and freedom. Truth never tries to seduce you, does it? Its presence is rather felt in particular meaningful moments. George is like that. He appears and disappears without leaving a trace. He seems to be withdrawn, without any desire, but can burst with a passion that is overwhelming. He knows how to render his presence remarkable and somewhat unforgettable. Mr. Emerson thinks that his son is “very muddled”, and asks Lucy if she “could stop him from brooding,” He eloquently pleas her: ”Make my boy realize that, at the side of the everlasting ‘why’, there is a ‘yes’. And a ‘yes’ and a ‘yes’!”
There is a moment in the film when the little community leaves the pension to spend a day in the countryside. People spread in the fields, forming small groups, chatting along. George climbs a nearby tree and shouts forcibly at the top of his voice: “Joy! Beauty! Truth! Love!” To which his father explains to his acolytes: “He’s saying his creed. … He’s declaring the eternal ‘yes’.” In fact, in his own stubborn way, he is hammering these very same truths to Lucy. He presents these realities to her in short, sudden ways, as if to imprint on her mind the inescapability of his presence in her life. The pivotal scene of the movie comes. Lucy is approaching the young man in a field of wheat and red puppies. This is a pure vision of cinema. There is beauty around. The sun is declining. Puccini’s exquisite music ‘Chi il bel sogno di Doretta’ from ’La Rondine’ accompanies them. George notices her and comes bluntly to her, to kiss her. But Charlotte saw it all. She breaks it all apart, and brings Lucy back into the righteousness and protective cove of her society.
A first encounter with truth is always a striking event, and will leave an indelible trace inside you. This is what happens when you daringly approach truth. It will suddenly come to you and embrace you. But this is the most difficult part of the journey, for it is the moment when you can be held back by the surging up of thinking, conditioning, separation, which brings you back into the good society of imitation and blind acceptation. You will have subsequent other meetings with truth, and you will run away again, and again, and again — against your will. Nevertheless never forgetting, and waiting for the right occasion, and your readiness too — that makes it all, the readiness — to engage yourself fully, let yourself go completely and melt your being with the being of the beloved. This, precisely, is Lucy’s journey.
‘A Room with a View’ – Julian Sands & Helena Bonham Carter
There is a contrasting moment now in the film. Lucy is confused, unable to let truth in in her life. Everybody has now returned to Surrey in England, and we find Lucy entangled with the most outrageous personification of constraint and separation. She is engaged with Cecil, a snobbish and priggish man that everybody secretly finds unsuitable for the soft and unpretentious Lucy. She is obviously muddled and lying to herself and everybody. When we are not in line with truth, failure is at every corner. We don’t seem to be able to grow, and are somehow stuck where we are, unable to move forward in any meaningful and spontaneous way. The resolution will come in the form of a meeting with George’s father. A meeting with the father always clarifies the situation, renders things clearer. To take our stand as awareness is always a position of truth, the place of resolution, simplification, flow, happiness. Every substantial growth is really only a letting go.
There is now an absence of union. The son seems to be desperately attached to the father. There is no actualisation of potentiality. Awareness is present, but aloof, in the background, hidden. The self is caught too. Glued to its conditioning, its patterns, its separateness. Both parties are apart, yet linked intimately by love. George’s father is disappointed. He says to Lucy: “I told him to trust the love. I told him, ‘George, love and do what you will.’ It’s what I taught him. So you see, it is all my fault.” Charlotte finally encourages the union of Lucy and George, and leaves quietly. The way she withdraws is rich with meaning. The sense of separation, that little me that you thought was so glued to you, can really easily accepts its defeat and bow to the majestic presence of the self. It will gladly and most respectfully let go when its time has come. Why wouldn’t it? It is a hard thing to die, but that death is repaid a thousandfold.
Now Lucy is about to leave for Greece to finally escape the whole situation. She says it is impossible to cancel the journey. The philosophical Mr. Emerson gives her this beautiful answer: “There’s only one thing impossible. That’s to love… and to part.” There is no doubt that the film, which starts with the search for ‘a room with a view’, will finally end with the finding of it. The sense of separation causes the absence of a view, and it is by consciously reuniting with our true nature of peace and oneness, that we are brought to live, like a reunited couple, the blessing of having a room with a view.
This is a film where very few things actually happen. The plot is nowhere to be found, except that people are talking, playing, travelling, rejoicing, arguing. This seems to imply that real life comes only at the moment of spiritual union. It seems to imply that truth — and therefore life — is not to be found in the danse of forms, in the ephemeral apparitions, but in the undefeatable presence that is at their core, both behind it and as it. The battles of the ego have no consistency, as does the infinite peace and stillness of consciousness. Both are absences. They find substance at the moment of union, and this substance is love. George the son leaves the father to unite with the world of forms. And Lucy the seeking self surrenders, through her union with the son, when she meets the father. What they find is love, which is the father’s essence.
To kiss your lover in a timeless moment, sitting by the window in a room with a view on Florence, with the bells of the basilica chiming out! — it doesn’t get better than that, does it? To abide in awareness is also the real deal. Kiss that reality. It won’t go better than that either. This is the spring of life. As Lucy says to George when they receive a card from her brother who thinks he’s being dignified, “everybody knew we were going away in the spring.” In the end, your search for truth is really just a love story. Just a plain abiding in love, if you know how to bow and find your radiance.
Film by James Ivory (born 1928)
Text by Alain Joly
‘A Room with a View’, 1985 – Directed by James Ivory
Based on the 1908 novel ‘A Room with a View’ by E. M. Forster
Music by Richard Robbins – Cinematography by Tony Pierce-Roberts
(With actors Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Helena Bonham Carter, Julian Sands, Daniel Day-Lewis…)
Screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
James Francis Ivory (born in 1928) is an American film director, producer, and screenwriter who worked for Merchant Ivory Productions, a professional and romantic partnership that lasted 44 years. He directed 28 feature films, among which ‘Quartet’, ‘Howards End’, ‘Maurice’ and ‘The Remains of the Day’. He won many awards, including an Oscar and BAFTA for ‘Call Me by Your Name’, which he wrote and produced. His film ‘A Room with a View’ won three Academy Awards, and received universal critical acclaim. We can read on Merchant Ivory Productions’ website: “Merchant Ivory’s films have been praised for their visual beauty, their mature and intelligent themes, and the shrewd casting and fine acting from which they derive their unique power.”
Listen here to Giacomo Puccini‘s song ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ by Kiri Te Kanawa, along with extracts from the film ‘A Room with a View’…
– ‘A Room with a View’ – by E. M. Forster – (Penguin)
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