James Ivory’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View is divisively stylised with a satirical portrayal of aristocracy, and with notes of nostalgia for quaint Britishness. In 2019, 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 deem ARWAV 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 period representation as central to its irony. Of course, The Favourite is not heritage cinema, but I’d like to suggest that ARWAV isn’t either. That description, one charged with negative connotations, disservices ARWAV‘s complexly satirical portrayal of aristocrats and tourism, of romance and subjectivity.
It is one of many films that constitute 1980’s emergence of such nostalgic films, a movement we can largely attribute to Thatcher’s governance turning British creatives towards a reimagining and commodification of the past as their subject matter. With its success perhaps largely indebted to its popular cast of actors, ARWAV, if nothing else, upholds as a prototypic rom-com in its critical acclaim. However, I shall suggest it exhibits a far more sophisticated perspective altogether, one that 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 absurdly ‘English’ name, Italy personifies a repressed, passionate spirituality, a sensual and romantic freedom that is inhibited back in England. Britishness is far from an idyllic vacation in spatial and figurative measure. In their position as affluent tourists, the characters gaze upon Italy and project their own fantastical versions 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. Of course, this creates a neat dichotomy in cinematic terms, the distinguished and opposing spaces and their distinct affectations. However, herein this separation lies a contention of which Ivory is entirely aware.
When paired with tourism, the act of gazing refines what we mean when we try to draw the parameters of what a tourist is and what they essentially do, and this complicated, problematic position. Gazing is a historically and culturally specific action that implies hierarchy and mobility. It is far more penetrative and active than seeing for this implication of power. Gazing, as active, contains a superior gazer and implies a less autonomous, more passive, subject. Take classical art for example, the masculine gazer and his feminine subject trace back to antiquity. This action can be applied to ARWAV, wherein gazing is exercised to satirical excess and generates the fluidity with which English characters orient Italy on an entirely separate plane to Italian inhabitants. Guided by selectivity, they construct a vision of Italy that either challenges or reinforces their touristic imagination, never slipping below the surface of whichever envisioned ‘Italy’ they desire.
A scene that evidences this constructed view is the stabbing in the square, wherein Lucy faints at the sight of a brawl-turned-stabbing, yet quickly returns to the side of the street, quite literally, to her position as tourist. Her safety is secured in a shaded spot, having acquired evidence of her preconception that Italians are passionately violent. This marks one of the only interactions, if one can even call witnessing an interaction, between Lucy and an Italian space. Of course, this moment is certainly obscured for how unlikely it is to witness a stabbing in the street in Florence, but nevertheless, in catching one moment of tragedy, violence is sewed into Lucy’s fabric of Italy. The rest of Lucy’s experiences, of course, are contained within the titular room from which she views, or in the haze of her memory upon returning to England.
Though ARWAV demonstrates a love for highly aestheticised gentility, it undoubtedly suggests it is a privileged, inauthentic position to be a tourist. Touristic gazing renders an authentic experience impossible, and it seems that this does not matter for the aristocracy. 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. And this is not such an action they choose, for their preconceptions are rooted in a greater agenda within which Italy is a tool. For Eleanor Lavish (Judi Dench), Italy is the blueprint of her upcoming novel, thus her conceptions are of commercial benefit. Characters’ view of Italy is always, willingly, tethered to their preconceptions, every moment charged with a bias that is either confirmed or contradicted. All experiences are measured against a touristic vision they have imagined or hoped for. They are either disappointed or gratified with all that they see, and both assume a preexisting vision, a vision that is exercised through the act of gazing.
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 vision of Italy, though it is clear that we are not to take their vision as reality. Yet, of course, the film is glorious to look at it, with abundant cinematography of rural and urban Italy. One then asks, 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 rapid love often seen in the novels of Forster and Austen, noted influencers of the heritage movement.
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.