The Heiresses (1980) is best understood as Márta Mészáros’s take on a Henry James novel. She shifts the action from late nineteenth-century Italy to mid-1930s Hungary and removes the callow, American heroine that typically stood at the centre of one of James’s stories, but she retains many of the conventions that could be found in a traditional Jamesian narrative. She seems primarily concerned with the question of whether mutually exploitative relationships can yield positive outcomes and casts a fairly non-judgmental eye on characters who make morally questionable judgments. She populates the film with untrustworthy figures who have come to terms with their own cruelty and see no reason why they should let their moral scruples get in the way of getting what they want. Fans of her earlier films might not have expected something so ruthless and hard-hearted out of the woman who made Diary for My Children (1984) but Mészáros was never one to do what was expected of her. 

She opens this film with a shot of Szilvia (Lili Monori), a wealthy socialite, ordering bon bons and cake from an upscale dining establishment. She is decked out in designer clothing and flanked by an entourage of saleswomen who praise her taste in expensive baked goods but one still gets the sense that Szilvia is trapped in a hostile environment. When we later learn that she and her husband Ákos (Jan Nowicki) are Jewish, everything begins to click into place. They are a wealthy couple but they remain on the outskirts of high society because of their ethnicity. Szilvia is imprisoned in an ivory tower of sorts and believes that her increasingly unhappy marriage could be saved if they were able to have a child together. Ákos also wishes to have an heir to hand his fortune down to and is frustrated by the fact that his wife is sterile and therefore incapable of having children. Szilvia ultimately decides to rectify this problem by using her poor, lower class friend Irèn (Isabelle Huppert) as a surrogate mother for their heir. Irèn is offered financial support in exchange for the use of her body and ends up reluctantly accepting the deal that Szilvia offers her but her romantic attraction to Ákos complicates the arrangement. 

Mészáros and Ildikó Kórody concoct a screenplay that is full of surprising twists and turns but this isn’t nearly as talky as you might expect it to be. Most of the time, Mészáros lets the cold, painterly visuals do all of the work. Elemér Ragályi renders 1930s Hungary as a harsh, unforgiving environment in which social acceptance is just a facade. He appears to have taken a leaf out of Leon Shamroy’s book and imitates the uncanny visuals that could be found in his work on Leave Her to Heaven (1945), the rare film noir to have been shot in glorious Technicolor. Ragályi’s world is full of vibrant colour and people with disturbingly delicate features but he refuses to introduce too much light into the chilly atmosphere that he has created. In part, this occurs because the film is largely set inside palatial mansions and swanky department stores that are full of ladies who lunch. Szilvia is so disgustingly affluent that she can completely avoid the outside world and remain cocooned inside of these buildings. She can remain a vampiric, mysterious figure who refuses to let daylight in on the glory. These people live in a world that is full to the brim with bright, colourful objects that they could purchase on a whim but they know that this is all they will ever have. Gentiles are willing to keep them around for as long as they can make money out of them but there is always the expectation that they will remain inconspicuous and ‘know their place’ in a society in which they are still seen as outsiders. The garishness of their interior decoration and the enormous sums of money that they clearly spend on maintaining their houses will never provide them with the freedom and security that they deeply desire. 

Fanny Kemenes’s exquisite costumes also provide insight into the dilemma that the characters face. Irèn’s plain, unadorned coats and smocks clearly mark her as a working class woman who doesn’t have enough money to pull any weight in high society. This means that people develop preconceived notions about her and see her as somebody who can easily be taken advantage of. Szilvia faces an entirely different struggle, as she has the funds to afford the most fashionable clothing. She is laden with fur coats, silk evening gowns, chiffon cardigans and an obscene amount of flashy jewellery but she never quite looks like she fits in. The gentile women who frequent the stores that she shops at are always seen to be dressed in slightly more minimalistic designs. They face less pressure to ostentatiously display their wealth and social status, which makes them seem even more classy and sophisticated. Szilvia is left in the awkward position of looking like a middle class poser who doesn’t fit into any social class. She is judged by middle class women for thinking that she’s better than them and looked down upon by upper class women for not measuring up to their ridiculous, arbitrary standards.

Mészáros is primarily concerned with considering the manner in which the three individuals at the centre of the story use different societal prejudices to cut each other down, even though they know that they will all eventually become lambs to the slaughter. She tells this story with restraint and very few moments of emotional catharsis, which leaves the viewer feeling tense right up until the moment that the film ends. We are left with plenty of questions to mull over and very few definitive conclusions that can be drawn about Szilvia’s motivations. 

Rating: ★★★★

The Heiresses is screening as part of Janus Films’ ‘The Films of Márta Mészáros‘ series at the Lincoln Centre between the 21-26 January, 2022.