The woman in grey in “House of Cards” (2013)

12 February 2013

hoc-ph-22120r-babd299b44de4b096fc2d563c31bb2398737e5d5-s6-c10This is a list, in order, of the first things you notice about Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) in the new Netflix series House of Cards:

  1. She has the best haircut.
  2. She is a walking advertisement for the virtues of pilates. That posture!
  3. Her jaw and eyes are so steely as to render her the handsomest mannish woman ever.

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What takes longer to notice is that she appears in only three colors: white, black, and grey. Grey more than anything else. Perhaps the costume experts wanted to convey an ice queen, but I want to believe they were going instead for a statement about her moral ambivalence. (Or was it to capture the grey dreariness of D. C. in winter?)

(No plot spoilers here, I promise.)

With only minor exceptions, the character of Claire has proven, to me, the most interesting aspect of this series. No — she’s the best part of the series. And what I want to emphasize most of all is her physical acting, as you’ll see farther down the post.

You’ll be forgiven if you fall for the obvious and think this is Kevin Spacey’s show. As Claire’s husband, the brilliant and Machiavellian Sen. Frank Underwood, Spacey turns conspiratorially to the camera and fills us in on at least some of how he wages the warfare of politics and power in Washington, D. C. He’ll talk us through his rages and his machinations, but he hides from us too: it takes forever before we see his true endgame, and the show gets progressively darker as we get closer to the truth — and see how he’s willing to get there.

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Perhaps Claire’s nonprofit, the Clean Water Initiative, might appear a convenient vanity project for a beautiful woman whose primary job is to make her husband look good. Certainly the CWI rises and falls with Frank’s political tides. And he shows no hesitation in using its green bona fides for his own political ends. But you’d be mistaken to think her work with the group doesn’t matter to her, or that its goals always compliment Frank’s.

The calculus of fidelity in their relationship is, hands down, the most interesting I’ve seen for ages. I love the way the show leads you at the very beginning to make assumptions, for Claire and Frank look like people who’d hold secrets from one another or lead completely separate lives. Nothing could be further from the truth. That single cigarette they share late at night is a measure of their utter complicity, their frankness and love for one another. But neither do they consider monogamy to be interesting or important. As a result, their loyalty to one another is both all-encompassing and yet still fragile to the upheavals of circumstance, unrelated to sex.

HOUSE OF CARDS

Most of all, what Robin Wright gets so utterly right about this character is her physical presence. Take another look at the way she plays every single scene, and you’ll know what I mean. Wright certainly doesn’t get the best lines, but she carries her history and class around on her ramrod posture and carefully draped limbs in a way that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a woman achieve onscreen. That body is saying, “I am a refined woman who commands attention,” but it also conveys, “I am a coiled spring, a panther waiting to strike.” Wright’s achievement with her body gives her a fascinating dimension she doesn’t get with her lines.

No wonder we don’t know what to make of her. We don’t encounter this kind of woman in our lives.

HOUSE OF CARDS

No, that’s not exactly right. We’ve encountered lesser versions of Claire Underwood — middle-aged women who still wear the same clothes they wore in high school, women who attract men to them through a certain beguiling passivity that seems to call forth from men a fantasy that she might be theirs for the taking. Women who don’t dwell on the past. The only things we learn about Claire’s past are that 1) her mother wanted her to smile more; 2) she turned down many offers of marriage; and 3) Frank promised her (correctly) that life with him would never be boring.

This is not a woman who thinks that sex equals power. Claire is far too smart for that; she’d doubtless look down her nose at such a crass calculation. She doesn’t carry herself as one who needs any man to be attracted to her. She takes it for granted they will be, and doesn’t particularly care.

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If we know enough about her bearing to know she’s not to be trifled with, we also know that her body is vital to her entire persona. It takes only the slightest tweak for her to shift from a finishing-school elegance to a cat eyeing its prey. Indeed, watch Robin Wright as she squints her eyes slightly. Only a fool would believe those eyes could twinkle. Physical control is Claire’s raison d’être. See that, Mother? we can imagine her thinking at some point, years ago. I didn’t need to smile more.

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Sure, you can call this a color beyond black-white-grey if it suits you. But it’s so close to that palette that it’s not really worth the fight, is it?

We see only a single moment when her body moves differently. She has temporarily decamped from D. C. to New York and has donned a man’s button-down and pants for a party of artists in a loft. She is dancing the salsa with another woman (Claire is leading, natch) and what we see in this brief glimpse is a very different woman, a woman whose hips no longer appear rigid. She dances expertly, moving her hips fluidly with the dance and touching her dance partner with warmth and the sexual allure of the salsa. Sure, we still see the panther in her body; this is not Claire Gone Wild. Rather, outside of her black-white-grey palette and the always-vigilant D. C. political world, she has allowed herself a different bearing, a different physical relationship to the world. For a moment, anyway.

Of course she leaves New York and returns to being the other, controlled version of Claire. The one whose manners smooth over Frank’s self-described “cracker” background, whose class seems inextricable from her hard body, and whose height gives her a distinct advantage over virtually all other women.

One of those shorter women is Zoë, the journalist Frank cultivates. In one key moment the two women meet — I would say “one to one” except that Zoë simply doesn’t have a chance during that encounter, and barely counts as one. The dialogue between them is unimportant and not terribly well written. What matters is Claire’s physical presence during this encounter, the way she moves into Zoë’s personal space in a way that seems all the more threatening for the springlike energy making every muscle taut. She “wins” this meeting merely by making another slight tweak to her body.

Panther, I tell ya.

HOUSE OF CARDSHouse of Cards occasionally pops in some dialogue howlers — clunky bits that seem almost like a first draft rather than a polished script — but on the whole the show offers a pretty riveting story. With David Fincher at the helm, you know it’s probably worth watching, right? And because Netflix dumped the entire 13-episode series online at once, you also have the chance to binge-watch for a lost weekend (or, if one possesses a Claire-like self-control, one can dole it out over the course of a couple of weeks).

My sole request to you is to look beyond the mere words of this talky series to consider the terrific acting done by Wright, a woman whose beauty has often relegated her to pretty parts from Buttercup in The Princess Bride (1988) to the appalling Message in a Bottle (1999). What she has done here to inhabit the bony body of Claire Underwood deserves an acting prize. She’s riveting.

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14 Responses to “The woman in grey in “House of Cards” (2013)”

  1. JustMeMike Says:

    Nicely done. I chose to write about what Frank says, and you chose to write about how Claire looks. But you know something, Frank wears mostly black and grey suits with white shirts. His colors also include an occasional blue shirt too. But as you say, the difference is hardly worth fighting about. Of course Frank’s ‘plumage’ is colorized by his ties – but not so one would notice.

    Wondering if you had any thoughts about the casting of Sakina Jaffrey for the role of Linda Vasquez. Jaffrey is Indian-American and the daughter of Madhur Jaffrey, a former actress, turned cooking author and restauranteur in Manhattan.

    Sakina also wears blacks, whites, and greys too.

    • Didion Says:

      Thanks, JMM — yeah, I’m a resolutely idiosyncratic reviewer, aren’t I? Pieces like this reveal my occasional interest in just zeroing in on a single part of a film or series. I figure that with a blog about women and film, sometimes that’s what I’m reduced to.

      Jaffrey is great. I wouldn’t have realized she wasn’t Latina (she even does a recognizable accent) but hasn’t been given a lot to work with re: the part. I’ve seen Madhur Jaffrey several times onscreen even in her late career. And isn’t the daughter gorgeous?!

      My blog is, of course, primarily about women — but isn’t Corey Stoll great as poor Pete Russo? He’s had a long and varied career but I think the only film I remember him in was as Hemingway in Midnight in Paris. When he was en-wigged. Really — he’s terrific and it’s what I hope will be a breakout role for him.

  2. Becky Says:

    I think the choice of clothing palette is probably pretty close to the truth for the very powerful in DC. However, even if it isn’t, it does convey that “ruling class” feeling. Remember the Banger Sisters? First thing Susan Sarandon does is dump those neutral clothes.
    I think this series is extraordinarily good. It will bear a second watch. Robin Wright is masterful in conveying her ambivalence and her aloofness. She makes me want to know what she is thinking! I think your review of her behavior is spot on. I also love the asides that Kevin Spacey does. He is fabulous in this kind of role. I think Netflix hit a home run with this one, and I hope there are more to come that are this well done.

    • Didion Says:

      Too right, Becky. I’m hoping Netflix keeps it up with original content — this one is just terrific.

      Those asides of Spacey’s … I’ve started pausing and writing them down. “I love that woman. I love her the way sharks love blood.”

  3. FD Says:

    Zeroing in on just one aspect works well given the length of your blog postings. Claire is very much in charge of the Underwoods. But, I’m still not sure what their power gets them. Claire reminds me of the RED QUEEN, Francis reminds me of the MAD HATTER and Zoey is ALICE. Unfortunately, we’re all stuck in the Rabbit Hole wondering how to get out…

  4. Hattie Says:

    I wish I had enough eyeballs to watch all the dramas that are available these days. This one sounds so good, but when will I find the time for it?

    • Didion Says:

      Don’t I know how you feel. My Netflix queue must have about 700 films on it. It’s getting hard for me to tackle the series, because they’re so time-consuming. But Hattie, doesn’t the combination of David Fincher & Kevin Spacey & Robin Wright & DC political intrigue tempt you?

  5. FD Says:

    Now that I’ve watched the first two episodes. I have a couple of questions about House of Cards.

    1) How did you feel about Francis’ first address to the audience and his interaction with the dog at the start of Episode 1?

    2) I assume you’re going to consider spending many hours watching HOC. How much real time would you spend with the Underwoods?

    • Didion Says:

      I was mixed on that speech, but then I didn’t much like the to-the-camera talk in the original BBC version either at first and later really started to love it. Likewise with this one. And that scene with the dog was so perfectly ambiguous, as is everything Francis does … cruel? kind? ruthless? moral?

      And on your second question, FD, I spend a lot of movie time with abhorrent individuals whom I’d hate in real life. Spending this time with them does make me curious about a colleague who fancies himself Very Important, and who has lately deemed it acceptable to include me in social plans. Could I be the next Pete Russo?

      • Didion Says:

        In other words, I don’t have to like the Underwoods to learn a great deal from them!

        (Also, have you noticed his initials are F.U.? So clever. It’s the same as in the original BBC version — that character was named Francis Urquhart.)

  6. FD Says:

    Thanks. I appreciate your thoughtful replies.

    I did not find the scene about the dog ambiguous. It’s the same way Francis treats people. Plus, it seemed very awkward to me — just rebellious against the widespread dictum that the writer should always make the main character sympathetic in the opening scene(s)? A la Tarantino! My feeling is that Spacey, having just played Richard III requested more of these off-putting asides than the writer(s) originally planned.

    As to spending time with rogues. I worry about how easily I’m duped by a stylish antihero. I don’t believe I’m learning much of value watching this show. Seems more like watching a tragic auto wreck. Perhaps I’m hoping Francis will get his come uppins down the road. Or that I’ll learn not to be too trusting of these smiling villains in real life.

    Just the same, I keep thinking I could be doing something better with my time.


  7. […] delicious. Can I also say that Claire’s clothes (and moral ambivalence) are just as gorgeous and watchable as in Season 1? I can hardly wait for […]

  8. prantikghosh Says:

    Reblogged this on prantikghosh and commented:
    The reasons as to why i can’t help but aspire to be Claire Underwood. #phenomenal #inawe #unparalleled #elegance


  9. […] Cold and calculating, Claire Underwood schemes with her husband, Frank, to achieve their joint political ambitions and has an extramarital affair with an artist. Politics and infidelity also drive the narrator of Josephine Hart’s Damage, the story of a British cabinet member who has an affair with his son’s fiancée. Claire could learn a thing or two from Hart’s brilliant novel about obsession. (Image via Feminema) […]


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