The origin story of The Age of Innocence is a bit like its own romantic text. Aware his friend wanted to strike into different genres, critic-turned-screenwriter Jay Cocks sent Martin Scorsese a copy of Edith Wharton’s novel and said, when you make your period film, this is you. He wasn’t referring to the novel’s characters, nor to its ethnography of Gilded-Age New York, however much Scorsese’s prior and subsequent filmography (Mean Streets; New York, New York; Taxi Driver; Gangs of New York) affirms a steady fascination with his natal city. What struck Cocks as exceptional was the book’s emotional center, a subject Scorsese saw and saw himself in, and later describes to Roger Ebert as an exquisite form of pain: “The idea that the mere touching of a woman’s hand would suffice. The idea that seeing her across the room would keep him alive for another year.”
Months into unprecedented social isolation, there’s an impulse to say the explosivity of “mere touching” hits different. But what looks timely from one angle may resemble timelessness from another. The age named by Wharton’s title is consciously broad, ranging from the story’s 1870s setting and 1920 publication, to the years elapsed between Scorsese’s acquisition of the book, around 1980, and his eventual registration of its cinematic potential—which says nothing of “age of innocence” in the minor or individual sense, as an era of guilelessness through which characters and readers alike must pass. What’s unfailingly potent in each of these periods is the tension between desire—the sustaining vision—and decorum: what keeps a person from crossing the room.
A former/forever Catholic, Scorsese knows a little about codes in both senses of the word: the conventions that organize and govern our behavior, and the symbolic language with which ritual enlists the imagination. Nearly every promotional interview and repertory introduction I come across presumes Scorsese went off-brand with Age—what’s a [not so nice?] guy like you doing making a movie like this? Etc. The typical answer is something like, look deeper: there’s Goodfellas-esque mayhem here, too, only it’s a “refined violence,” social assassination by telegram in lieu of bullets to the foot. By this logic, Age offers a doilied version of the real, or realer, thing.
Meanwhile, I keep thinking about how it took Scorsese over 40 years and three marriages to arrive at this project. About all that accumulated ambition and profit and obsession and error, moving his characteristically meticulous hand as he adapted and annotated the screenplay, sketched setups in the margins, and choreographed lines of movement so the camera’s latitude might intensify the world’s unbearable inertness.
Fundamentally, Age is a paradox, a film about a man caught between two incompatible paths—signposted by the love of two wholly different women—that nonetheless defies the reduction of dichotomy at every level: narratively, by using Joanne Woodward’s cool explanatory voiceover to report the motivations and reactions characters themselves leave unsaid; stylistically, by conflating minimal emotive displays with maximal aesthetic gestures; and diegetically, in situations that scramble secrecy and exposure, where “somehow the truth is shared without being acknowledged.”
It’s apt, then, to begin where customary language fails. What we commend as “real” in life as in film, and perhaps in Scorsese’s films in particular, we might call gritty, dark, or uncompromising; Age proposes otherwise. What could be more violent than a life sculpted by compromise?
What could be more real?
Our story takes the shape of a love triangle. Eligible bachelor Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is already engaged to May Welland (Winona Ryder) when he’s reintroduced to her cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), and soon transformed by feelings as extraordinary as they are unconsummatable. Ellen, 30, emerges from an “expensive but incoherent” education abroad with a tyrannical husband back on the Continent and a lamentable grip on New York’s tacit protocols. Her re-entry to society is something like the exciting addition of a new Real Housewife to a seasoned cast: unclear to what extent her eccentricities result from sheer ignorance, or from a subtle but radical opposition to how things have always been done.
Either way, Newland is enchanted by Ellen’s bursts of tactlessness. A wrong dress for the occasion here, a candid admission of loneliness there. When her formal debut is rejected in a montage of murmured regrets, Newland appeals to old New York’s uppermost echelon to legitimize her presence with a dinner. The minute he visits her at home and is struck by the ambiance of her sitting room—by “the vague pervading perfume that was not what one put on handkerchiefs, but rather like the scent of some far-off bazaar, a smell made up of Turkish coffee and ambergris and dried roses”—Newland is positively transported, which is to say, seduced.
From here, Age romanticizes mobility and escape over the comforts and tedium of knownness. Fittingly, most of Newland and Ellen’s stolen moments happen in the country near Hudson, and in Newport and Boston, far from the surveillance of Fifth Avenue. When his dream of a different future finally dissolves, it’s in the form of canceled travel—as news of May’s pregnancy sends Ellen back to Europe and assures Newland’s indefinite detainment. As it happens, May’s critical announcement entails her saying very little, only that she’s “sure” without specifying what of—but her meaning to Newland is as plain as when they were newly engaged, conversing in silence with shining eyes across the Beauforts’ ballroom.
This is the theme to which Scorsese’s film is most devoted: the cryptology of upper class New York, where “an atmosphere of faint implications and pale delicacies” comprises “a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.” By adapting Wharton’s hieroglyphic world from the single communicative “track” of a written text, Scorsese recruits cinematic plasticity to dramatize this distinction between “the real thing” and the sign—but also, crucially, to break it down.
Style thus commanded is more than a symptom or a surrogate. Like a baroque prelude, Elaine and Saul Bass’ title sequence assembles graphic elements that epitomize and arrange the total film: superimposition and dissolve, color and texture, flowers. The appearance of Day-Lewis’ credit prompts a “sheet” of calligraphy to layer over the frame’s initial darkness. Readable only if you pause the film, the delicate lettering is for effect—not to be legible, but to signify legibility, how a visual “background” may also be read (and generate meaning: according to Elaine Bass, the text is taken from 19th century etiquette manuals).
The wallpaper of script shifts from violet to orchid, shrinking slightly as Pfeiffer and Ryder’s credits appear and disappear and a new image arrives in transparency: a deeply pink rose unfurling in “slow motion” (time-lapse photography technically speeds the blossoming process but the movement appears slow, somehow). Over all this—script-rose-black-pink—The Age Of Innocence fades in, framed by curvaceous, intersecting lines. A cipher for beautiful enclosure.
The ambient text is replaced by patterns of lace superimposed against further single flowers. There’s a surreal contrast between fragile netting and vivid petals, the resulting images sensual yet remote. Tension builds as the tempo of dissolves increases to “an intense compressed montage,” then darkness like a gasp for air answered by…more flowers. We fade back in on an array of yellow daisies, the orienting intertitle, and a ruddy hand dropping into frame to select a bloom.
Given their prominence in the mise-en-scène, there’s a sensible inclination to associate Age’s many flowers with suppressed passions. But to stop there, with flowers’ evident importance, neglects their equally suggestive promiscuity. The many flowers of Age are often trademarks, as when the camera introduces Newland and May via close-ups on the perfect white gardenia pinned to his lapel and the pale spray of lilies-of-the-valley in her lap. They’re also portents and tokens of affection, as when Newland is moved to send Ellen yellow roses before he admits even to himself the feelings they imply. But what functions expressively as an accessory or gift is elsewhere tellingly subject to discipline: cultivated in the glassy conservatories where Newland and May have several critical conversations, or damasked into the drapes and upholstery, where signs of life are reduced to ornamental motifs. In this sense, Dante Ferretti’s painstaking production design offers not only a view into historical floriography, but also a warning, not to underestimate this world’s talent for aestheticizing control.
After Newland takes his seat at the opera in the opening scene, a series of mobile dissolves surveys details of the upper class costume: a starry comb, silk-covered buttons, a swaying emerald earring, heavy bracelets cuffed over satin gloves. The reverse shot shows Larry Lefferts (Richard E. Grant) peering icily through binoculars at the orchestra section. The message is early and explicit: surveillance is a form of leisure, wherein the audience is the proper spectacle. Hence our first seeing Ellen arrive at her box through the gazes of tertiary men, not because they’re seated in the row ahead of Newland, but because he’s bred to perceive her through the narrowed eyes of his peers.
The film flips the women’s coloring as assigned by the novel, so Ryder plays “fair” fiancée May and blonde Pfeiffer warms Wharton’s portrait of “a tall bony girl with conspicuous eyes.” Certain purists have resented this reversal, but I buy it both ways; watching May blushingly ask what is maybe the film’s most insidious question—Why should we change what is already settled?—you’d hardly recognize her as diary-scribbling Veronica Sawyer or hollow-eyed Lydia Deetz (though Heathers and Age would actually make an unlikely/fascinating Free-Winona double feature, as two approaches to voiceover narration and clique-culture critique).
As for Pfeiffer’s Countess, every time she turns to camera, her face breaks open like a book cracked in half—all her sparkle and exhaustion there for us to read, or, in Newland’s case, to memorize. When he takes the seat behind her in the opera box, the red walls glow redder. Later, in an absolutely startling instance of cinematic anachronism, the camera will iris in on Ellen and Newland several seconds before she speaks, darkening the edges of our vision and dropping the sound, so all we hear under their voices is the air charged with proximity. It’s no coincidence we’re at the theater again, under the protective pretense of attention focused elsewhere. Of this play’s ending—a melodramatic lovers’ parting, by which he’s visibly affected—Newland confesses, “I usually leave the theater after that scene, to take the picture away with me.” Ellen emits only an acknowledging mmm, but a close-up of her opera glasses catches her gloved thumb deliberating over the pearlescent bridge.
When the MPAA gave Taxi Driver an X-rating, Scorsese’s eventual solution was to literally tone down his scabrous climax: de-saturating the massacre sequence so the blood, still copious, ran less red. It worked. Cinematographer Michael Chapman hated it; Scorsese wished he’d processed the whole film to that effect. As it is, the shift in grain and palette coincides with—and formalizes—Travis Bickle’s escalating disassociation. The result, Amy Taubin writes, “seems to exist outside of time.”
The ecstatic fades to color in Age seem to work similarly, veering from the implicit stylistic code we associate with continuity to convey something subjective—in this case, a leap of feeling. We literally see red after Ellen’s initial snub by New York’s tribe of elites; when she turns from arranging Newland’s roses, her small smile prompts a goldenrod yellow to saturate the frame.
These flourishes remind me of the interruptive fades that punctuate Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Trois Couleurs: Bleu (also 1993), where widow Julie’s undigested grief rises like a cramp to make your eyes close. Like Bleu, Age circles emotional suppression, calling on the associative grammars of editing and cinematography to convey what dialogue leaves encrypted or withheld. We get a film about discretion that can’t contain its own conspicuousness—whether it’s in eruptions of color (which occlude the photographic image but also replace it; like imagined alternate futures, the resulting frames are somehow empty and full), or in the indecent pop! of the fire by which Newland haltingly discourages Ellen from divorce, or in overhead shots that detachedly observe platters of lacquered duck and lavender petits fours, or in the hallucinatory longing that tints Newland’s vision as he catches sight of Ellen at the end of the dock—reduced by distance to little more than a brushstroke, yet for him, as much a lighthouse as the tower beyond.
Amid all this formal opulence, we enjoy a kind of diegetic minimalism—befitting, I guess, our expectations for the Victorian milieu, according to which not much “happens,” or what does is voluptuously magnified. Charlie Rose put it like this: “Can you imagine…the notion of, just a touch of a hand can bring as much satisfaction [as] in another environment, the most explosive lovemaking?” As a matter of fact, Scorsese can. “That was the key,” he answers. “Automatically I see where to place the camera when I feel that emotion.”
The scenic equivalent of bodice destruction comes when Newland volunteers to scoop Ellen from the train station at Jersey City. She’s been summoned up from Washington to attend her aunt’s convalescence, and it’s a two-hour trip back to the house uptown—two hours of privacy within which Newland intends to fantasize a more permissive world than the one slipping past their carriage windows. In the novel, Ellen plants a kiss on Newland, but shrinks back from a flood of lamplight. He tries to reassure her. “A stolen kiss isn’t what I want.”
In the film, Ellen reaches companionably for Newland’s hand. We dissolve from their clasp to his face lowered in concentration—slowly, so the superimpositions hover, forewarning Ellen’s eventual relegation to “the most plaintive and poignant of a line of ghosts.” The camera melts to lap level, where Newland exposes his right hand, turns up Ellen’s palm, and nimbly unbuttons her glove. The next few shots enact a reciprocity in their repetition of the sequence, as again we dissolve on the watchful face (this time hers) and descend to a close-up of hands. Newland spreads the fabric, exposing Ellen’s wrist before raising it to his mouth.
The gesture is demure and profane and indelible. Easily hotter than most standard-issue kissing, including the moments that immediately follow—by which point, already, the key has changed, as clearly as if an accusing light had intruded on their sanctum.
Some months back, I caught myself in a looping thought predicated by thresholds of uncertainty. Facing the fallout of a breakup or move, or even something as auspicious as a graduation, I’d fixate on not knowing: I just don’t know what’s going to happen.
If this were true, if the future were literally so contingent, I’d have to at least admit the possibility that things could—I could—be okay. Even “good.” Instead, I saw myself in a habit of saying I didn’t know what would happen while feeling absolutely fucking sure of what would happen, which was doom. Assured, deserved, and already in motion. I’d feel sick with that confidence, but in order to speak it I’d go back to the language of doubt, because that’s what people know to be afraid of.
In these putatively uncertain times, it strikes me how ambivalent The Age of Innocence is toward certainty. How Newland Archer dreaded a surplus of knownness, oppressively familiar and indifferent to change: “The taste of the usual was like cinders in his mouth, and there were moments when he felt as if he were being buried alive under his future.” He was, in a sense—and we see with the emergence of more years and a bigger family, of death and electricity and a telephone to carry news from his son, how such endurance is both a trial and a privilege.
Poised outside Ellen’s Paris apartment, having sent son Ted up ahead, Newland looks to the wafting yellow awning. A breeze moves the branches, the window. When he shuts his eyes, he sees the glittering Atlantic give way to Ellen waiting at the pier. In the end, Age embraces the unknown, selecting its expansiveness over the fixity of any one outcome. Newland has aged but he hasn’t changed. He’s still leaving the theater to preserve the final picture, a remembered projection more real to him than anything up those stairs.