THREE STARS – Thought-provoking
In the classic style of a Somerset Maugham novel, “Up at the Villa” is a tale of romance and intrigue set within the changing politics of pre-World War II Florence. Building on Maugham’s own experience as a spy for his native Britain during the first World War, the film presents a cynical view of life as it explores the motivations and relationships of the wealthy expatriates living in that beautiful city.
The central figure of the tale is Mary Panton (Kristin Scott Thomas) who is the beautiful but destitute widow of a man whose alcoholism had not only bankrupt his family but also evolved into a physically abusive marriage with Mary before his accidental death due to driving under the influence.
But now, through the generous provision of unnamed persons, Mary has been given the use of an exquisite villa in the hills of Florence.
She is there to find a husband.
This quaint plot is made interesting not only because of her affluent parties and friends, but also because Mary is so damaged by her first marriage that when she is given the choice between a stable and mature husband and a promiscuous playboy who plainly admits he could never be faithful to her, she chooses the latter.
This is one of the most intriguing aspects of romantic attraction. Observed here by Maugham, the most financially successful novelist of the 1930’s, modern therapists have identified this tendency to repeat the same mistakes in the choice of mates as being a major cause of failed second marriages.
The mature offer of marriage comes from Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox). A man of integrity and duty, he is offered the position of governor of India due to his fine reputation and solid character. It is obvious that the wise choice, affirmed by all Mary’s friends, would be to marry Sir Edgar and live in the pomp and circumstance of his honored position.
The alternative to this choice does not come in the form of a marriage proposal, for Rowley Flint (Sean Penn) offers only to get on a train with her and go away together. Steadfastly determined to neither make commitments or plans, Rowley is not only promiscuous but is also still married to a woman he has abandoned but not divorced.
This is the second intriguing aspect of romantic attraction. Unlike mature love which involves the entire person - body, mind and spirit - romantic love is a cathexis of desire that is just as likely to cause a person pain as joy.
The premier example of this reality occurs when Mary takes a tale of desire described by Princess San Ferinando (Anne Bancroft) as a model for her life. The Princess described a night in which she committed adultery with a poverty-stricken man in order to give him a night of opulence and sexual delight as a gift.
When Mary decides to model her own life on this immoral act, the consequences for her night of passion are dire and lead to a defining moment for both her and Sir Edgar. It is only after these consequences that the Princess admits that she was only making up the tale and she never actually committed such an empty act.
This is the third aspect of romantic love. Often, the very models on which we pattern our lives end up being fictions which when lived out destroy us. This is perhaps a lesson we all need in a day when the role models of leaders and the tales of entertainment are of such obvious immorality but claim to hurt no one if practiced. Nothing could be further from the truth.