As I watched Gillian Anderson and Eric Stoltz sparring in the early scenes of The House of Mirth, I thought of Josef von Sternberg, because of the way Terence Davies exaggerates social behavior into abstraction. But the resemblance is superficial. Sternberg opens up a big space between the characters and the way they behave, and then fills that space with his own awareness. (I used to resist Susan Sontag's categorization of Sternberg as camp, but now it seems to me fairly accurate, if one allows that camp can be a serious business.) Whereas Davies loves the idea of behavior as ceremony, and fully commits his characters to it. The cross-currents and complexities in their personalities may eventually be revealed (more later about how they are revealed), but in the moment the actors represent a central idea very clearly and very forcefully.
The beauty of the careful compositions and the elaborate decor also seems to express the same emotional commitment to surfaces. A fascinating aspect of Davies' artistic personality is that he is willing to undercut all the sources of his and our pleasure: not just the joys of elegance and the love of ceremony, but also any delight to be had in the catfighting power struggles that organize the fiction. Some filmmakers might take a compensating spiritual pleasure in Lily Bart's hardwon but Pyrrhic moral discipline as she approaches her destiny - Davies takes none. Thus the remarkable bleakness in Davies' work: beyond the beautifully dressed women and the opera music, there is only absence and death. Perhaps there is a masochism at work here to make Sternberg's look trifling by comparison.
There is an elaborate psychological schema at work in this movie. Lily is not merely bushwhacked by predatory society: she is deeply complicit in her own downfall, reacting so violently against the part of her that desires social position that she destroys her own ability to cope and survive. This theme is present everywhere in the narrative; it does not require inference. The interesting thing is that this psychology barely manifests in Gillian Anderson's performance: Davies wants from her a tragic and ceremonial demeanor, not tipoffs. It's actually quite hard to tell whether there is a disconnect between the material and Davies' directorial sensibility, or whether Davies rigged the story to express the psychology (he did adapt Edith Wharton's novel, after all) and then suppressed that same psychology on the set.
In many writer-directors, one feels that the writing and the directing are of a piece, that they are aspects of the same process. Davies may be a test case for another paradigm, according to which the roles of writing and directing would be separated, and even opposed.