The Insidious Mastery of The House of Yes
If there’s one film in the festival canon of the past twenty-five years that possibly deserves its place on the list of misunderstood masterworks, it’s Mark Waters’ arthouse hit, The House of Yes. The 1997 film was a surprise draw at Sundance that year, and justifiably so. “Take it from one who knows.”
It’s Thanksgiving 1983 in Maclean, a wealthy Virginia suburb of Washington D.C. where a well-to-do Franco-American family are all preparing for the holiday, the return of the prodigal son and an approaching hurricane. It sounds like a perfectly contrived plot storm (pun intended); storms the magnitude of a hurricane are rare this far North, but eighteen have been recorded in history. I checked. “These things happen.” The palatial home of the Kennedy family is visible from the Pascals’ leaded glass windows which are in the process of being taped up to prepare for that approaching storm. Three of the family are waiting inside, going up the windows as they wait for Marty’s arrival from New York. Except he’s bringing a friend for the holiday who will stay the night. “Marty has never had a friend before.” Nah — nothing odd about that. As the curtain rises our anti-heroine is seeming to rather enjoy a diabolical, manic mood upswing as she prepares the scene for her beloved twin brother’s return.
“Maybe we should do the chandeliers!”
We’ve all been in this situation. Well, I have, and that’ll do for the sake of argument. You find yourself acutely aware at a party, reception or similar gathering somehow separated, excluded or somehow entirely out of your element. You don’t talk posh, didn’t go to the right schools, aren’t well travelled, and you work in retail. This is the case for poor little Lesly, who has literally driven through a hurricane to meet her future in-laws and whose only mistake has been to accept the proposal of a young toff named Marty.
“Goo is what tape is all about. Goo is what makes it tape instead of paper”
The House of Yes is a story of ridiculosity. At its heart lies the snobbery of a family holding to its last vestiges of wealth and position. Anthony shops for respectable clothing at a nearby secondhand store, having recently dropped out of college, albeit a perfectly good college. Jackie is just home from a mental institution. Last week she almost lost it over flat seltzer water. Marty has escaped yet makes the mistake of returning to the fold, with a companion. A fiancée. “An anti-Jackie.”
“Does this happen a lot?”
“Every goddamned hurricane!”
Mrs Pascal, the mad-hatter matriarch played to poise by Genevieve Bujold is, of course, the sort of person who looks down on her son’s future wife. After all, you’re not supposed to marry the girl who serves you at the doughnut store, who comes home smelling of powdered sugar. You’re not even meant to fall in love with her kind. You have a sweet little affair and invoke those memories to comfort you in your twilight years. She has passed on this wisdom, teaching her daughter well that love is just a tiny little emotion and “for tiny people.”
What unfolds is a grand mockery of high society’s ridiculous expectations that the leaders of the future must come from a select few privileged families. Lesly by the end of this road trip to Maclean thinks that she is about to be welcomed into a nice, upstanding family and take her place in its folds. Fine people of good stock, the Pascals do not seem a whole lot unlike the legendary Bouvier family who spurned Jackie-O (the real one) and her sister, Princess Lee Radziwill. She is about to meet her happily ever after fairy-tale ending, the poor thing. The unfolding comic madness is difficult to describe and distil. More than slightly absurdist, it’s as though the Addams Family is getting a new retelling through the eyes of Tennessee Williams or Shirley Jackson and directed by Hitchcock late in his career (the mother has perfected that uppity mid-atlantic accent that so reminds me of Family Plot). What Lesly encounters in the guise of hospitality, fluffy towels, bobby pins and girl talk is a thinly-veiled warning.
“Jackie and Marty belong to each other. Jackie’s hand was holding Marty’s penis when they came out of the womb.”
At the centre of this family is Jackie, or Jackie-O as she is known and delights at being called. Jackie-O has style. She also has issues. The Thanksgiving hostess is gracious, elegant, poised and criminally insane. You might think that you know someone with a mild JFK/Jackie-O obsession. But the queue starts back there. You simply have no idea. This has been going on since a long-ago Ides of March party when Marty and Jackie went dressed as the fated first couple, he in a dark suit and she in a pink Chanel suit with pieces of macaroni glued to it to simulate…well, you know. It’s probably a whole lot more tasteful and glamorous than it sounds.
Reactions to The House of Yes were a bit of a mixed bag. Some viewers called the back-and-forth dialogue sparkling while some critics of the script adapted by Mark Waters called the conversation stilted, stagey and pretentious. There is no way of denying the delicious camp of some of those stagier moments and yes, much of the movie takes place in three rooms so it will seem not unlike a filmed stage play. There’s a piano duet in the dark during which the twins trade candlelit barbs.
One Austin, Texas critic opined that The House of Yes was too staged, and stagy, suggesting that filmgoers in a nod to that decade’s first lady, just say no. But this movie is worth your screening, not despite its staginess, but because of it because it is that theatrical restraint that makes it appealing. Its dialogue could never have worked with a more natural and relaxed delivery and setting.
There is also that thing between Marty and Jackie. It would be bad enough that they share much, much more than a birthday. Their shared sexualized and fetishised reenactments of the Kennedy assassination were an understandable dealbreaker for mainstream movie fans in what might very well have been a vehicle produced by Aaron Spelling to showcase the talent of his daughter Tori, along with Posey, Josh Hamilton and Freddie Prinze Jr. in only his second film role. The charm and appeal of The House of Yes is an allure that is the sum of its imperfections. Critics and audiences were conflicted, and rightly so. Jackie is obsessed with all things Kennedy. She is also obsessed with her twin who has made himself scarce lately, realizing from watching at a distance that he might be the catalyst that sparks Jackie’s illness.
Something predictable usually happens during the adaption of a story from stage to screen. Adaptions to screen usually require attention and changes to soften that exaggerated theatricality of a stage version. Dialogue often has to be softened, especially at the beginning and end of scenes to help speech seem and sound more…well…conversational. Some of the more successful attempts to adapt from stage to screen have given us such unforgettable films as Driving Miss daisy and Amadeus. What is unique about Mark Waters’ adaption of Wendy Macleod’s play is the directors’ seemingly unapologetic refusal to be any less theatrical than the original. The screenplay is kept surprisingly intact during its transcription; the film is one of those rare examples of an adaption in which characters were not fleshed out, additional players added, scenes moved outdoors or to public places, or entire scenes broadened and lengthened so as to seem more natural and realistic, as was done in the adaptions of Six Degrees of Separation and Shirley Valentine. But add to this equation a sweeping, otherworldly soundtrack by Rolfe Kent (then in the first decade of his ubiquitous career), and it only helps to add emphasis to these characters’ confinement by the hurricane in some sort of moral, ethical void.
It’s not for everyone; The House of Yes deals with a revered chapter of American history with unapologetic irreverence. It makes a mockery of what has become a privilege industrial complex of sorts, wherein we expect leadership to somehow be inherited, even in North America where aristocracy does not historically exist, but we still continue to expect leaders based on lineage and pedigree instead of the merit and hard work. The Pascals personify this phenomenon, if perhaps a little teensy-weensy bit amplified.