June 01, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

”If obliquity were a vice, we should all be tainted,” deadpans Lily Bart, Edith Wharton’s famously failed practitioner of strategic obliquity. Deftly played by Anderson (whose shallow, snared-rabbit breathing communicates more terror than the last three seasons of The X-Files), Lily emerges here as the tragic objet d’art Wharton intended her to be, a turn-of-the-century socialite-cum-”spectacle” who only grows more feverishly luminous as her plight worsens. Her best attempts to land a rich husband are sabotaged by a slightly overdeveloped soul, which drives her ineluctably toward the chilly, penniless Selden (Stoltz), a dispenser of flirty sophistries like ”Your genius lies in converting impulses into intentions.” Though at first the dialogue seems indigestible in the actors’ mouths, director Terence Davies gently ushers his cast (and his audience) into smaller and smaller rooms, until all those corseted anxieties sweat right through the fine fabric. ”I am a useless person!” sobs Lily as her shrinking social circle asphyxiates her; and, God bless her, she’s absolutely right.

140 minutes
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