Scorsese’s Sexless Period Drama ‘The Age of Innocence’ as a Visceral Depiction of Emotional Starvation and Internalized Violence

 

May 31, 2022

 

By Koraljka Suton

When asked back in 1993 what the most violent movie he had ever made was, esteemed director Martin Scorsese gave a thoroughly unexpected answer: “The Age of Innocence.” At first glance, such a statement might seem confusing, preposterous even. How could a period drama revolving around unconsumed love and its emotional consequences, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Edith Wharton, possibly be the most violent film made by the director of the brutality-ridden, testosterone-filled CasinoGoodfellas and the like? The answer is—quite easily. For appearances can be deceiving. This statement applies as much to New York City’s “Gilded Age” upper-class society, which represents the backbone of Scorsese’s faithful literary adaptation, which he co-wrote with TimeNewsweek and Rolling Stone film critic turned screenwriter Jay Cocks (who the director would later collaborate with on both his 2002 movie Gangs of New York and the 2016 drama Silence), as it does to the movie itself.

The society that Edith Wharton belonged to and then, in her 58th year, so poignantly and satirically reflected upon in her novel is opulent and poised on the surface, but hypocritical, restrictive and menacing underneath it. The flashy exteriors and proper rules of conduct existed for the sole purpose of establishing appearances, but for those who wished to live in alignment with their true desires, maintaining the all-too-carefully manufactured façade meant dying a slow but excruciating emotional death. Such a destiny had befallen Wharton’s main characters, lawyer and soon-to-be husband Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his fiancé’s cousin Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), a woman whose failed marriage to a philandering Polish count caused quite an uproar in the 1870s New York society that deemed the mere notion of divorce scandalous, leading to a kind of ostracization Olenska neither understood nor deserved.

The violence inflicted upon the protagonists whose love was not allowed to be was therefore never physical and external, but rather psychological and internal, fueled by gossip, prohibitions and limiting world views that implied grave societal consequences and subsequently made it impossible for the lovers to have their cake and eat it too. It is a movie about a couple that does not make it, a deeply haunting character study at the core of which is not a passionate love affair, but rather the frustration, agony and relentless yearning that come as a direct result of a passion never being fully utilized, of an unbearable hunger never being satiated. In Scorsese’s films like the 1976 psychological thriller Taxi Driver or the 1980 biographical sports drama Raging Bull we witness the chaos that comes to pass when the human id is unleashed upon the world and enabled to wreak havoc. But in The Age of Innocence, we see the consequences of the id being forcefully subdued in favor of the superego and its mission to keep the ego’s self-concept intact. Although these are two opposing ways of how the psyche copes with and manages human urges and desires, the result is, ultimately, the same: utter loneliness and alienation.


 

And Scorsese perfectly captured this loneliness that stems from the underlying malice of others, showcasing the upper-class’ decorum and abundant lifestyle with a feverish directorial eye that leaves little to the imagination. Sparing no detail, the filmmaker recreated the New York of the late 19th century authentically, mostly filming on real locations in NYC and Pennsylvania, as well as commissioning 200 copies of paintings made by period artists, thereby exhibiting his commitment to detail and realism. And the details are indeed lavish, from the silverware and decor to the furniture and clothing, with German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’ camera voyeuristically observing and taking in every facet and nuance of the elite’s extravagant lifestyle. The director and his co-screenwriter also made sure to consult books on the subject of etiquette which were published during the 1870s, so as to convey the zeitgeist of the “Gilded Age” as realistically as possible. All of this is then contrasted with the prevailing atmosphere and tone that convey that which lurks beneath the heavily adorned surface—a deep feeling of imprisonment, with the luscious attire and excessive ornaments serving as a means of restraining the main characters and the way they genuinely wish to act and feel. When wanting to highlight such key emotional moments, Scorsese circles the important areas of a scene in brightness or uses iris shots and flashes of color—in bringing to life a world where most emotions were repressed and acting with grace was the only imaginable way to behave, such techniques serve as a way of portraying all those feelings and sensations that are buried and undesirable, but burst out through the characters’ subconscious nonetheless, like a caged animal briefly escaping its cell.

Archer and Olenska’s potentially scandalous and ultimately sexless love affair is made up of those kinds of instants, with Scorsese and Ballhaus showing us just how crucial the space between words unspoken is. Their affection for one another is communicated through various channels, such as symbolic flower bouquets, letters all too carefully written, gentle kisses on barely exposed skin. Their mutual yearning is one built with smoldering intensity, making such covert expressions of affection not only significant but also highly sensual. Rarely has any cinematic sex scene been as erotic as their brief, fully-clothed nuzzling up to one another in a carriage, following Archer stealing a kiss on her wrist. This kind of build-up, therefore, affects both the characters who need to live with it and the viewers who get immersed to the point of exasperation.

Or as the director put it in a 1993 interview conducted by esteemed film critic Roger Ebert: “It was the spirit of it—the spirit of the exquisite romantic 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 (…) I read a number of Wharton’s other novels and they’re very good, but this was the one that I said, ‘Yeah, I understand this.’ I was led through the labyrinth of it by the exquisite pain of not being able to consummate the relationship.”


 

In Olenska, a woman marching to the beat of her own drum, Archer has finally met his intellectual and emotional match and is eventually willing to give up his meek and passionless fiancé May, as well as his status within society, in order to stand by her and be with her. But his emotional outburst is stopped by Olenska herself who knows what it means to be on the outside looking in, gossiped about, unwanted and unaccepted, with no place she can truly call home, surrounded by people whose trust she does not seem able to earn. What she loves most about Archer is the part of him she feels is missing from her—looking at the object of her affection is like looking through a magnifying glass at the one thing she believes not to be a part of her, and yet desperately wishing it could be: “Newland, you couldn’t be happy if it meant being cruel. If we act any other way, I’ll be making you act against what I love in you most. And I can’t go back to that way of thinking. Don’t you see! I can’t love you unless I give you up.” She herself no longer has any façade to uphold but persuades Archer to uphold his, for the sake of the love she wishes to hold on to, and the life she believes would be taken from him.

As the inner split between the lives they feel obligated to lead and the lives they wish to live intensifies, so does our perception of this painful fragmentation. Every character surrounding them quickly becomes recognizable as a mere part they were taught to play, with a personality and depth they themselves have never uncovered, nor ever will, for the stakes would be too high and the rewards far too scarce—what is more, they are not even aware of a true “self” yearning to be dug up in the first place. The curse that Archer and Olenska need to come to terms with is being the only ones whose blindfolds had been taken off and who now see the farce for what it is, but remaining unable to find the courage to break free from its confines. One could argue that there is always a choice—and there truly is—but ultimately, the characters deemed the pain they would feel in the face of ostracization far greater than the one they signed up for by giving each other up. That is the real violence inflicted upon them, the kind of violence that eventually becomes unbearable, for it does not result in a quick and finite death, but rather transforms into a slow, internalized one, more akin to life-long emotional starvation.

In the aforementioned interview with Roger Ebert, Scorsese explained it in the following manner: “What has always stuck in my head is the brutality under the manners. People hide what they mean under the surface of language. In the subculture I was around when I grew up in Little Italy, when somebody was killed, there was a finality to it. It was usually done by the hands of a friend. And in a funny way, it was almost like ritualistic slaughter, a sacrifice. But New York society in the 1870s didn’t have that. It was so cold-blooded. I don’t know which is preferable.”


 

This only emphasizes the degree to which the society they grew up in was unyielding, unrelenting, rigid and aggressive in its regressiveness, assigning to all of its members pre-destined roles and metaphorically taking all that is human and stuffing it inside permanently smiling and neatly dressed dolls with little to no willpower of their own. A perfect example of one such doll is most notably Archer’s fiancé May, a character who earned Winona Ryder an Academy Award nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category (other nominations included Best Adapted Screenplay (Cocks and Scorsese), Best Original Score (Elmer Bernstein) and Best Art Direction (Dante Ferretti, Robert J. Franco), with the movie rightfully taking home the award for Best Costume Design (Gabriella Pescucci).

May’s entire motivation is derived from her desire to play her part perfectly, even if it means knowing more than she leads on and feeling complacent with doing everything she can to hold on to a husband she acknowledges was never hers to begin with. “There’s no point in liberating someone who doesn’t realize she is not free.” This observation is taken from Wharton’s novel itself and transferred onto the screen in the form of expositional narration, delivered by Academy Award-winning actress Joanne Woodward.

Because the characters were not allowed to state what they truly think and how they truly feel (“They all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world. The real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.”), Wharton did it for them in her novel, giving voice to a narrator who tells the truth as it is. Scorsese, therefore, decided to take whole parts of her writing and infuse his adaptation with them. He explained why he liked this idea in an interview with critic Kent Jones: “First of all it’s written by a woman, it seemed kind of odd to have a man’s voice do it (…) I happen to like narration (…) It’s really the feel of it and it’s really tone and atmosphere and in case of Edith Wharton I like the language, like the use of words. There are some books that you read where you really feel nourished by reading a page or a sentence and I wanted to have that along with the visual (…) It’s something different. But why couldn’t we have a taste of it? Why couldn’t we have a taste of what it sounds like when you read aloud? I don’t know, it just seems to me that the words are beautiful.”


 

But apart from successfully employing Wharton’s narration for the sake of exposition and atmosphere, Scorsese went the extra mile in terms of wanting to stay true to the time period The Age of Innocence takes place in and had the actors practice their lines by listening to tapes of people from the period, so that they could mimic the way dialogue was expressed back then. As it turns out, his thespians did a fantastic job, most notably Daniel Day-Lewis, the acting chameleon par excellence, who yet again displayed his talents and the extent of his immersion. Day-Lewis managed to combine masculine poise with intense emotionality, one we as the audience feel profoundly and continuously, despite there being little to no outward expression of it. The only reason he did not earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor was because he was already nominated in the same category for his portrayal of Gerry Conlon in Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father that very year. And as Olenska matches Archer, so does Michelle Pfeiffer match her acting partner, giving us a nuanced and passionate portrayal of a simultaneously strong and fragile woman who stands by her decisions even when it breaks her heart to do so. And ours as well.

Their unparalleled chemistry is the real scene-stealer in Scorsese’s masterpiece, taking us on a journey we knew from the get-go could never result in a happy ending, no matter how badly we wanted it to. The last few minutes of The Age of Innocence give us a glimmer of hope, but that glimmer is extinguished soon enough and we are left with the same feeling of longing that Archer resigned himself to. Deciding to rather not see Olenska again after decades of being apart, it is implied that he would rather keep her in his memory as a beautiful phantasm that got away, for he had grown accustomed to the yearning that had been trapped in his subconscious like a starved prisoner. Seeing her as she is, years upon years later, would be too much for his psyche to withstand, because it would bring about the shattering of two illusions: the love that was predetermined by his memory and perception of Olenska as she once was, and the charade he made himself live for the majority of his life. Both would threaten to fall apart like a house of cards—could he truly stand to face his mirror image and come to terms with the reality of how he had spent his life, one which was not his at all, but rather a concoction made up of societal norms and rules he never truly cared for? Could Archer’s emotional world survive his owning up to the loss of innocence, innocence taken from him the moment he felt obligated to live another person’s life instead of pursuing his own? Unfortunately, we will never know. And neither will he.

Koraljka Suton is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art. Read more »


 

A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Jay Cocks & Martin Scorsese’s screenplay for The Age of Innocence [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The pictorial moviebook with a lengthy introduction with details on the behind-the-scenes production, photos, and a special section in which the authors discuss the 22 films that influenced them, is available from Amazon. The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

Loader Loading...
EAD Logo Taking too long?

Reload Reload document
| Open Open in new tab

 

On the 25th anniversary of the film’s release, Academy Award–nominated screenwriter Jay Cocks revisits his celebrated adaptation of Edith Wharton’s classic novel, as well as his collaborations with director Martin Scorsese on such films as The Last Temptation of Christ, Gangs of New York, and Silence.

 

Martin Scorsese discusses the conception and production history of The Age of Innocence with writer and filmmaker Kent Jones. The Oscar-winning director also mentions some of the period films that had an enormous impact on him over the years as he studied human behavior and ultimately led to his decision to adapt Edith Wharton’s popular novel. The conversation was filmed in New York in 2017.

 

Martin Scorsese on filmmaking, his career, and his film The Age of Innocence.

 

Martin Scorsese introduces his classic 1993 film The Age of Innocence at the 51st New York Film Festival.

 

Innocence & Experience: The Making Of The Age of Innocence was broadcast on HBO around the time of the release of The Age Of Innocence in 1993. It features interviews with Daniel Day-Lewis, Martin Scorsese, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder, as well as members of the film’s creative team and Scorsese associates.

 

THELMA SCHOONMAKER EDITING STYLE

Three-time Oscar winner Thelma Schoonmaker has been working with Martin Scorsese for more than half a century now. From Who’s That Knocking On My Door to The Irishman, they enjoyed a fruitful and harmonious collaboration. In this fantastic 19-minute interview at the Viennale film festival in 1993, right after finishing The Age of Innocence, Schoonmaker discusses not only the basics of editing, but also dives into her working relationship with Scorsese. It’s particularly interesting to listen to her explain what she and Scorsese tried to do on The Age of Innocence regarding technique and style of editing.

 

“Film editing is an underrated art form, and oftentimes under-appreciated. Editing is the backbone of filmmaking—it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to the craft, including developing one’s own unique editing style, and breaking the rules. Let’s examine one of Hollywood’s most accomplished and notable film editors, Thelma Schoonmaker, and discover what led her to become one of the most prominent names in the business. In this post, we’ll get a brief Thelma Schoonmaker biography, look at her unique editing style, and of course her decades-long collaboration with filmmaker and pioneer of cinematic techniques, Martin Scorsese.”
StudioBinder

 

MICHAEL BALLHAUS, ASC

In this interesting little retrospective of the work of Michael Ballhaus, ASC, the great German cinematographer who worked with Scorsese on After Hours, The Color of Money, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York and The Departed, Fandor takes us through some of Ballhaus’ most fascinating work.

 

At the 2016 Berlinale, Michael Ballhaus was awarded an Honorary Golden Bear. At that point he was interviewed by goethe.de and generously shed some light on both his craft and the experience of working with several great filmmakers, including Scorsese.

Was there a point in your career when you realized that your work was being appreciated by a broader audience?
I think it all started back in the 1980s when I made a few films in America with Martin Scorsese and other notable directors. When a German gets to work on a film in the States, it really means something. And back then there were not so many Germans who were able to embark on a career like that in the American movie business.

You decided you wanted to become a cameraman after you had been on the set of Max Ophüls’ film Lola Montez (1955), one of the most extravagant films of the 1950s. You immediately did a course in photography and worked for several years as a television cameraman. At the end of the 1960s you made your first cinema film and you even did a bit of lecturing at the Deutsche Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen (German Academy of Film and Television) in Berlin. You yourself, however, have never studied filmmaking.
No, my film school was the cinema. From a certain point in time onwards I went to the cinema all the time. There was many a film I watched over and over again—Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, for example, I saw eight times, I’m sure. There were so many great things in it that I simply had to try and find out how the cameraman, Raoul Coutard, had done it. Another one of my role models was Sven Nykvist, Ingmar Bergman’s cameraman. He had the gift of photographing people’s eyes in the most beautiful way. For me eyes have always been something very important—the windows of the soul.


 

You have worked in the United States since the beginning of the 1980s. To what extent were you perceived in America as a German cameraman?
The directors were in fact of the opinion that my way of looking at things was different from that of my American colleagues. They meant it in a positive way. And I had the courage to work very fast and on a very low budget. My first film for Scorsese, After Hours, had a budget of only four million dollars and had to be shot in 40 nights. Scorsese had not worked under such conditions since his early days as a filmmaker. I said to him, “Marty, all we have to do is shoot 15 scenes a night. I can do that, I did it with Fassbinder!”

You made seven films with Scorsese, among them the gangster movies Goodfellas (1990), Gangs of New York (2002) and The Departed (2006). Is there any film you are particularly fond of?
Yes, there is one—The Age of Innocence from 1993. It is actually my favorite film, too.

A melodrama based on a novel by Edith Wharton—the story of a great love that comes to grief on the rocks of convention…
I really like this kind of emotional story. We had a very good screenplay and wonderful possibilities with fantastic actors like Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder and Daniel Day-Lewis. The locations and sets were a dream. We would never have been able to shoot something like that at that time in Germany.

The film is extremely lavish and staged in a very precise way.
Yes, like Fassbinder, Scorsese is also a very visual director. His ideas on how to shoot a scene are worked out very precisely. And for me it was an absolute joy to realize those ideas. Nevertheless, there is always a huge difference in the way an image is described and the way it is turned into reality.

 

Martin Scorsese talks about the attention to detail needed to tell the story of The Age of Innocence, especially his drive to correctly replicate the way people talked in Edith Wharton’s era.

 

Michelle Pfeiffer was “emotionally stunned and destroyed” after seeing The Age of Innocence for the first time. In this talk with Bobbie Wygant, the actress explains how her character was forced to pay a high price for being unconventional—one of the greatest crimes you could commit in a strict and emotionally suppressed Victorian society.

 

CREATIVE VISIONS: (DE)CONSTRUCTING “THE BEAUTIFUL” IN SCORSESE’S ‘THE AGE OF INNOCENCE’

Sense of Cinema’s Karli Lukas wrote a beautiful article on Scorsese’s adaptation of Wharton’s novel, explaining why the filmmaker did a glorious job even after comparing his work to the author’s original vision and technique.

“In other words, I regard Scorsese’s adaptation as masterful not just because he reveals his nostalgic side by recreating a seemingly perfect simulacra of 1870s New York, or an unusually romantic side by obsessively revisioning an unattainable woman, but because, like Wharton, he can simultaneously tear holes in the fabric of the wonderful story as soon as he weaves it. And this is why I find it odd that the sequences most reviewers waxed lyrical about are the most obvious, such as: the connotations of innocence and sexual awakening in the opening credit sequence in which a series of flowers swirl, unfurl and pass their prime—like ballet dancers—in perfect time to a wonderfully foreboding score by Elmer Bernstein; or the repeated painterly ‘lighthouse sequence’ where Newland’s mind’s-eye foolishly (and one has to say rather pathetically—in an old-fashioned way) measures the Countess’ yearning for him by the passing of a yacht.” —Creative Visions: (De)constructing “the Beautiful” in Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence”


 

MARTIN SCORSESE ON ELMER BERNSTEIN

“It’s one thing to write music that reinforces a film, underscores it—the traditional sense of stressing, underlining—or gives it added dramatic muscle. It’s entirely another to write music that graces a film. That’s what Elmer Bernstein does, and that, for me, is his greatest gift.”

“An interviewer once asked me to discuss my collaboration with Elmer Bernstein, and precisely why I chose to work with him. My first thought was: How could I not work with Elmer, when I had the chance? Simply put, he’s the best there is—the very best. First of all, consider his experience—he’s been in the business for almost 50 years now, and he knows both the trade and the art of composing for film better than anyone. Second of all, think of his range. It’s incredible to remember that the same man composed the scores for The Man With the Golden Arm, The Ten Commandments, The Magnificent Seven and, more recently, My Left Foot, The Grifters and my own films. Each score is unique and uniquely beautiful, each composed in a completely different style. Which leads to the most important point, and that is Elmer’s consummate artistry. He pays very close attention to the narrative of the film he’s scoring, to the characters, to the time period and the texture of the places where the film is set. He looks and listens, and he builds his music into the movie so carefully that it seems to have always been there, right from the beginning. Elmer is part of the pantheon of great film composers. He’s without equal, and I’m honored to be working with him.”

 

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence. Photographed by Phillip V. Caruso © 1993 Columbia Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 

If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or donate directly below:

Spread the love