What Is The Aspern Papers Even About?

Vanessa Redgrave and Jonathan Rhys Meyers star in this psycho-sexual period drama filled with models, mayhem, and masquerades galore.

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Rare are the days when one stumbles upon a trailer so interesting that a viewer can immediately tell that the film is going to be an instant cult, camp classic, but today, the trailer for The Aspern Papers was released. The Aspern Papers may be a psychosexual period drama filled with models, mayhem, and masquerades galore, with a trailer that takes four or five viewings in order to approach an understanding of the film’s narrative, but you have to admit it does look deliciously entertaining and stylish.

In the film, Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays the narrator and protagonist, a duplicitous American editor named Morton Vint, who travels to Venice under a fake identity in search of Juliana Bordereau (played, in the main timeline, by the legendary Vanessa Redgrave), the former lover of the fictional Romantic poet Jeffrey Aspern (played by top male model Jon Kortajarena) and the love letters shared between the two. Her niece, Miss Tina (yes, the character’s name is really “Miss Tina”; she is played by Redgrave’s real-life daughter, Joely Richardson), agrees to help Morton find the papers written by Aspern, but at a significant cost.

The first film adaptation of The Aspern Papers was actually produced in 1947 and was billed as a noirish thriller; it was called The Lost Moment and starred Robert Cummings, Susan Hayward, and Agnes Moorehead, and was slammed by critics at the time. The contemporary adaptation had its world premiere at Venice Film Festival (a fitting location considering the story’s setting) in 2018, and will be given a wider release in January 2019. There is actually so much going on in the trailer for The Aspern Papers that unraveling the meaning behind every single frame might seem daunting, but we’d be remiss if those layers remained unpacked.

The Cast and Cameos

First and foremost, this film stars award-winning theater royalty Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter Joely Richardson, and marks the fourth film project they have both starred in together (The Charge of the Light Brigade, Wetherby, and Anonymous came before The Aspern Papers). But even more impressive than that particular mother-daughter movie- star pairing is that there are also appearances from Poppy Delevingne, Morgane Polanski (daughter of Roman Polanski), Jon Kortajarena (as the titular character), notoriously eccentric socialite Daphne Guinness, Nicolas Hau, and former Germany’s Next Top Model winner Barbara Meier, which means the entire supporting cast of this film is made up of models-slash-actors. Even the director, Julien Landais, is a former model himself.

The Timeline

When does this movie even take place? The short story Henry James wrote called The Aspern Papers was published in The Atlantic in 1888, and Kortajarena’s character is long gone by the time Meyers’s character shows up. So we’re actually looking at two separate timelines here—the latter half of the 19th century is where the story begins, before flashing back to the previous decades in which Aspern and Bordereau shared their love letters.

The Aspern Papers/YouTube

The Looks

In this trailer, Meyers wears a hefty amount of velvet, a kimono or two, and a dashing embroidered vest. Redgrave blesses us with a chic bright green visor-veil moment (while shouting, “I spy on you!”). There also appears to be a masquerade party, which could bring this film into Eyes Wide Shut territory if its not careful. It looks like The Aspern Papers is a peak display of late Victorian-era menswear.

The Aspern Papers

The Aspern Papers/YouTube

The Subplots

A quick viewing of this trailer would lead one to believe that this film likely includes some sort of threesome subplot in the early Aspern timeline, presumably between Aspern, a young Bordereau, and an unnamed character who is listed on iMDB as “The Romantic Poet” (and is played by Hau, the French model who rounds out the supporting cast of model/actors). There also appears to be a romance (the legitimacy of which remains to be seen) of sorts that unfolds between Vint and Miss Tina, and there might even be a murder (bloody hands in the trailer are a dead giveaway).

The Creative License

You might be wondering, were any of these poets or editors or lovers real people? The short answer is no, they were not, but they are based on very real, very famous people. The Aspern Papers is based on a novella of the same name by modernist writer Henry James, and is based on actual letters written by Percy Bysshe Shelley—the Romantic English poet known for Ozymandias—and sent to Claire Clairmont, the stepsister of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley (Percy’s wife). For what it’s worth, Claire Clairmont was romantically involved with Lord Byron, and was the mother of his daughter Allegra, just to give you a little taste of the star power behind the real-life love quadrangle that went down in the early 19th century.

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