Cousin Bette was the film debut of Des McAnuff, the theatre and opera director (and until 2014 artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario) noted for his showmanship, and his flamboyant treatment of Honore de Balzac’s classic novel is a feverish exercise in gilding a lily. Balzac’s rich canvases of la comedie humaine neither require nor invite the sort of overheated cinematic flourishes and over-italicized archness with which McAnuff has chosen to goose up his interpretation. (The necessarily stripped-down, but serviceable, screenplay is by Lynn Siefert and Susan Tarr.) The result comes close at times to subverting an authoritatively low-key, and wickedly sly, performance by Jessica Lange in the title role of an embittered spinster, appearing pale but steely in a black wig of late-19th century sausage curls.
Lange, who recently won the 2016 Best Actress Tony Award for her current appearance on Broadway as Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, is the chief reason to see this version of the classic tale of a poor relation who quietly sets about getting back at the self-involved Parisian relatives who have treated her with arrogant dismissiveness all her life. The film’s dissonance might have been avoided had McAnuff trusted this already lusty potboil of great material from one of the world’s juiciest novelists as self-effacingly as Lange does her title character. The director seems to have difficulty in adapting for the camera the sense of scale that serves his stage productions so well. The film as a whole is entertaining enough, just too eager; it simply doesn’t jibe with the integrity of its source or of its central performance.
We’re off on an enticingly foreboding note when Lange, at the deathbed of her rich sister (Geraldine Chaplin), promises to fulfill the last wish of the vain woman who has forever treated Bette with thoughtless disdain—that she take care of her family. With a setting of lips and a curdlingly controlled tone not heard since Faye Dunaway scratched the ice of Joan Crawford, Lange purrs: “I’ll take care of them all.” Her long-fused revenge is then tweaked yet again when her brother-in-law offers her the job of housekeeper instead of a proposal of marriage which she had expected.
Lange does a fine job of tracing the emotionally threadbare fabric of Bette’s lonely existence as a talented seamstress in the theatre district. The woman has pride, strength, and a measure of dignity despite the callousness with which life has treated her. And she has no illusions until, heartbreakingly, she takes up an impoverished Polish sculptor (Aden Young) who lives in the next garret and whom she perceives as a sort of last possibility for real human connection. With her superb capacity for portraying people who are risking a final gamble out on the margins, and her sinewy physicality and vocal technique, Lange suggests that Bette at first tries to believe that she is nurturing the sculptor for reasons of art and the spirit, but layer by layer she reveals that this tightly coiled, undeluded observer of the worst of human nature, is actually exposed—out, quite humanly, for love. When this last chance is whisked out from under her by her spoiled niece, the long-banked fires roar into a conflagration of revenge.
Given Bette’s demeanor and long-tested will, even this plot to get back at the pack of them is assiduously machinated; the seamstress becomes a black widow of sorts, stitching her plot quietly, with an attention to detail that aids her scheme of bringing about the downfall of all who have abused her. She plays the sculptor’s vanity off against the individual foibles and collective, effete self-absorption of the relatives. And she involves the services of Bob Hoskins (delightful in a small role as the rich mayor and ladies’ man manque) and Elisabeth Shue as a deliciously vulgar follies star. It’s malicious fun, and would have been more so had McAnuff not felt compelled to frame it all with such punched-up fervor. Fortunately, as he goes into overdrive for the final stretch Lange seems to take on extra gravity and manages in the end to leave us with a quietly memorable portrait of Balzac’s sorely put-upon woman, severe and drawn very near to breaking, who decides she will no longer be overlooked by life. Finding love unreachable, she turns to making–like her costumes for the follies–the only magic she can from the materials at hand.
– Hadley Hury