In Henry James’ 1897 novel What Maisie Knew, the girl Maisie is a blameless bystander and victim of her narcissistic parents’ divorce. What makes What Maisie Knew a “modernist” novel is its point of view. The story is only told from Maisie’s perspective, so as readers we experience her six-year-old mind trying to understand.
“The Cathedral” is a story that, while fiction, feels as though it could be autobiographical. Ricky D’Ambrose tells the tale of his parents’ divorce from a child’s perspective, but also weaves in the various and difficult adult relationships he was exposed to growing up. If the story was told from the adults’ perspective, it would be very boring and cliché. However, from the confused (and yet perceptive) point of view of a child, the same story is destabilizing and emotional.
“The Cathedral” creates a beautiful marriage between form and content. A voiceover (Madeleine James) uses the third person perspective to “objective” The playing cards are aesthetically beautiful, with spectacular artwork that includes vibrant scenery and still-life pictures: postcards of the locations mentioned (Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, Atlantic City), news clips from the period, resurrecting old scandals (Chandra Levy, George W. Bush’s 30-day vacation) or major events (Desert Storm, TWA flight 800). The film’s narrative is not crowded by a flip-book style of editing. Adult voices are heard as the camera focuses on a sunny carpet, a child’s drawing, food on tables: half-eaten birthday cake, catered cuisine provided at events in the kid’s life such as birthdays and confirmation, high school graduation. This particular style, along with the voiceover in the background, creates a feeling of detachment from the characters. What we see unfold—a marriage falling apart—is mundane. In actuality, almost 50% of marriages end in divorce. The distant shot and tight point-of-view allow us to get inside of a character’s head, on a deeper level. There are few, if any, close-ups in the film.
Let’s go back to the beginning. The narrator explains that Jesse Damrosch was born during his parents’ holiday in Puerto Rico, around the time when his My uncle died of AIDS, but the family pretends he succumbed to liver disease instead. Uncles, aunts, grandmothers, a great-grandmother, and many others are not in communication with each other or are on the verge of breaking up. This is a family that keeps grudges. Jesse (portrayed by Robert Levey II and William Bednar-Carter) is a serious young boy who appears to be trying to make himself unnoticeable in order to protect himself from the tumultuous emotional lives of the adults in charge of him.
His parents, Lydia (Monica Barbaro) and Richard (Brian d’Arcy James), have a great relationship. However, the voiceover early on gives hints that something might not be quite right, particularly with Richard. The reveal is deliberate and methodical: Lydia’s father does not like or approve of Richard. Richard is insecure, and he lashes out. Lydia’s mother and aunt have been feuding for many years, and no one knows what started it. A great-grandmother is passed from one of her children to the next. She never receives any attention. Lydia and Richard’s marriage crumbles apart. They both remarry years later. Rickman makes a hilarious impression as the scampish husband to Thompson, who goes by her ladylike alter ego Matilda Wormwood (Emma Thompson).
Interestingly enough, the voiceover in this film is only concerned with adult melodramas, even though Jesse barely says a word throughout. But I never said anything; instead, half of the time I wanted to break in and ask how Jesse was doing. “What are his interests? What are his hobbies?” The distant style of writing provides readers with questions such as, “Does he have friends? How is he doing? Why isn’t anyone concerned with how Jesse is doing?” This question prompts Henry James’ novella. Adults are so absorbed in themselves that they reveal their full ugliness to a six-year-old without considering the consequences.
I read a review in which Jesse is referred to as “calm and unperturbed.” The child I saw was surrounded by adults who were unpredictable and constantly going against each other. He has now learned to dissociate as a way to protect himself from them.
In “The Cathedral,” the acting feels “caught on camera” rather than “performed.” The staging and acting are similar to what Joanna Hogg’s actors do: she sets up the camera at the edge of a room so that people can enter and leave frame, as well as conversations heard in the next chamber. This necessitates a staged reality in terms of performance. D’Ambrose is concerned with feet, hands, and other ancillary aspects as voices are heard over the soundtrack: talks may be civil banter at times, but there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface. To do this style justice, actors have to be extremely accurate and on point. This is shown through Brian d’Arcy James’s close-up shots where he gives a heart-wrenching performance of a man who is consumed with self-pity and anger. He makes it known that he feels let down by the world and believes that it should be more accommodating towards him. Previously, on a dreary vacation to Atlantic City with his son and new wife- at the last minute he realizes that all hotels are booked. Angered, he exclaims down the phone “Nothing is easy.” Richard can come across as scary sometimes. He often causes family gatherings to be ruined; everyone becomes frightened of him and what he might do next.
The opening title cards read, “This is not a love story. It’s about two girls who go to high school in New York City.” This isn’t a romantic tale. It’s about two young women attending high school in New York City who are attracted to one another but know nothing about sex. The first scene begins as the teenagers walk into Jesse and Karla’s (Sterling K Brown) house just after ten o’clock on a rainy night, with flashing lights from police cruisers outside. As Jesse looks around the room, he notices the light and details that we’ve seen in other still-life shots throughout the film. Although this Monologue does not expressly state it, there is a sense of mourning throughout. The details of the material world are always on Jesse’s mind. The chaos and pain of his childhood is something that he can see in the way the light falls on a rug. It is something that will be with him always.
Justo Gallego Martínez