Of all the stultified suburban folks in The Ice Storm, Ang Lee’s diamond-sharp adaptation of Rick Moody’s novel about two Connecticut families in the early seventies, Sigourney Weaver’s Janey Carver might appear the least in need of attention. Most of the characters seem to be always on the verge of shattering into a million tiny shards—Ben and Elena Hood (Kevin Kline and Joan Allen) are a married couple slowly coming apart at the seams; their melancholy kids, Paul and Wendy (Tobey Maguire and Christina Ricci), are each fumbling through their own coming-of-age; and Janey’s husband, Jim (Jamey Sheridan), is a subdued sad sack whose business-trip absences go unnoticed by his sons, the space cadet Mikey (Elijah Wood) and the sexually terrified prepubescent Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd). As viewers, we often want to reach into the screen and give these fragile people the warm embraces they deny one another. Weaver, however, seems indomitable—at least at first glance.
When we meet her, she’s hosting a dinner party, wearing a boldly décolletage-revealing purple zip-up dress. She comes across as a little harsh, subtly chastising a guest for improper use of the word ironic, as well as brazen, not batting an eye as she tends to a wine stain on her friend and neighbor Ben’s crotch, right there at the dinner table for all, including Elena, to see. She’s a woman of few words, and because of this, the film hangs on her every one. In a telling moment during this early dinner-party sequence, she lights up a bit when she hears that a friend took his wife to see Deep Throat. As we will learn, this is a woman searching for thrills of her own. By the time the movie starts, this has already taken the form of an extramarital dalliance—with Ben. The sexual revolution has seeped its way into these suburbs, and Janey clearly wants a piece of the action.
Not that any of this is conveyed explicitly in the film. None of these characters ever articulate what they want—probably because they don’t really know what that is. But Janey, often wearing stylish outfits (thigh-high boots, fur coats, formfitting dresses) that shield her like armor, is the most difficult to read. In a 2007 interview, Weaver spoke of being fascinated by Janey and finding her to be “the most puzzling character” in the script. Many films would treat this steely, adulterous woman with suspicion; thanks to Lee’s magnanimous touch and Weaver’s delicate way of sketching her characters with the slightest of gestures, Janey is a poignant, sympathetic figure. “I felt my character was going through a fog . . . I wanted to figure out how she got through the day,” said Weaver, and in her every moment of The Ice Storm, you can see the actress doing this, trying to puncture the character’s icy exterior and extract her deepest locked-away feelings.
Janey’s haunted look and hard shell are matched by her home, a cold slab of modernist suburban architecture situated in a thick forest. It’s here that she invites Ben for afternoon delight—although these trysts hardly appear delightful. Postcoital conversations veer toward the combative: as the two lie in bed, Janey interrupts Ben’s golfing anecdote, the look in her eye both sly and distant, and tells him, “You’re boring me. I have a husband. I don’t particularly feel the need for another.”
As played by Weaver, Janey seems to envision herself as New Canaan, Connecticut’s resident femme fatale. From the way she moves and flirts, you can see her awareness of her own physicality and sexuality, yet when confronted by the burgeoning sexuality of her kids and their friends, she is at a loss. When she walks in on Sandy and Wendy playing a game of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” she grows hilariously flustered, delivering a nonsensical rant about pubescent children in other cultures being sent out into the wilderness “until they’ve learned a thing or two.” It’s about the only time in the film that Janey loses her cool, and Weaver’s tremulous little mid-speech gulp shows how uncomfortable she is communicating with the young and impressionable.
Having never eased into her role as wife or parent, Janey doesn’t seem to fit anywhere. She hides her face from Jim when he returns from a business trip and plops down next to her on their waterbed, the literal weight of his presence annoying her as the bed sloshes, nearly knocking her off; she deflects concerns about Mikey’s muddleheaded—and potentially alarming—behavior. One of the most telling scenes occurs when she’s washing dishes at the sink following a dinner party, and Elena attempts to assist her. Coming at the end of the clip below, it’s a master class in economical character sketching, hinting at the two women’s discomfort with each other but also hitting on something deeper, something more profoundly amiss in this domestic space.