FILM / The Last Detail : Film's latest fashion victims? Gilbert Adair on Merchant Ivory

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IN THE contemporary cinema Merchant Ivory would seem to enjoy a rare privilege - that of being widely perceived as a trademark, a brand name. We tend to refer to a Merchant Ivory film rather than a James Ivory film, we may even describe a specific style of film-making as being 'Merchant Ivory', even if neither Ivory nor his producer, Ismail Merchant, has been involved.

These two felicitously linked names, themselves connoting a rare harmony between the businessman (merchant) and the artist (ivory), have now definitively coalesced into one, and their films are perhaps the only ones in the world that come with a guarantee - a guarantee that every gaiter button will be impeccably 'period', every silver salver exactly so. That, however, is just where the danger lies.

Consider one brief transitional shot in Howards End filmed at Admiralty Arch on the southern rim of Trafalgar Square. Passers-by pass by in immaculately Edwardian drag and motor cars chug along, gleaming and stylish. Cars are in fact crucial to movies set in the recent past: the director has only to stick one in a vacant corner of the frame for us to be whisked back to whichever decade is being evoked. Yet it's these same cars that may well contribute to dismantling the whole meticulously constructed illusion. For they aren't 'new' cars (as they are meant to be in the film), nor even 'old' cars (since they look too new), but 'vintage' cars. As such they are still around today - in magazine spreads, on the London-to-Brighton run and various similar rallies. The very word 'vintage', indeed, is suggestive less of the past itself than of the present's nostalgic infatuation with its most cherishable artefacts.

And so, in its way, is Howards End. As a catalogue of 'collectibles', it's stuffed full of objects that most of us would love to possess now and feel we could assimilate without too much strain into the textures and trappings of our lives in the Nineties. The strange paradox of Merchant Ivory, then, is that the perfection of its Edwardian re-creations has helped to foster a taste for that period's decorative art, a taste that may ultimately undermine the nostalgic precision of the films themselves.