In 1990, Martin Scorsese blew both critics and general audiences away with mob flick and tour-de-force of filmmaking, Goodfellas. In 1991, he followed that up with the less-praised but still-dark psychological thriller, Cape Fear. And then two years later in 1993 came The Age of Innocence – a romantic period film, adapting the 1920 novel of the same name by Edith Wharton. On one hand, this is a significant change of pace for a director whose claim to fame is gritty masculine dramas about working-class men. The vividly colourful flower arrangements, archaic furniture, and lavish costumes are a far cry from the dingy New York streets of Taxi Driver or the stark black-and-white photography of Raging Bull.
But this film is not so completely removed from Scorsese’s artistic fascinations that it feels like some impersonal oddity in his filmography. It is not just that he had dabbled in other genres outside his wheelhouse before, but his protagonist of Newland Archer is yet another character in Scorsese’s long line of male antiheroes with fatal flaws. On top of that, having frequently praised the swooning period romances of German auteur, Max Ophüls, The Age of Innocence may also be Scorsese’s most direct homage to the innovator of moving cameras and long takes.
As such, it is in his turn to the quiet, passionate yearning of two lovers bound by constrained cultural restrictions of 1870s upper-class New York that he surprisingly feels right at home, deftly tracking his camera through opulent 19th century mansions, following characters through colossal rooms, and then letting it detach to observe beautiful paintings hung upon vivid red walls, like it has a mind of its own. Meanwhile, a voiceover lifting lines straight from the novel plays over the top, at times introducing us to the characters who emerge within these unbroken takes, and then at other times listing off the period-specific items and people which his camera seems to obsess over.
“…a hired chef, two borrowed footmen, roses from Henderson’s, Roman punch, and menus on gilt-edged cards.”
There is something of Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad in these hypnotic descriptions and rolling camera movements, though the significance goes beyond simple aural rhythms or its grounding of this narrative in a materialistic, aristocratic culture. Much of what this voiceover fussily lists off are antiquated artefacts that contemporary audiences cannot attach specific meanings or purposes to, but instead fill in with a vague, even mystical sense of nostalgia. They belong to a “hieroglyphic world” where “the real thing was never said, or done, or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs,” and as such they present to us an invitation to interpret this era through a lens of subjective impressionism – a lens which our protagonist, Newland Archer, is all too happy to adopt himself.
Such a romanticisation of old-fashioned ideals might not be so readily apparent in the restless, frustrated attitudes of this New York City lawyer though. Despite Archer’s engagement to May Welland, the young, respectable daughter of a wealthy family, his encounter with her scandalous cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, quickly gives rise to an ardent, passionate affair between the two, as well as a frustration directed towards his society’s uptight Victorian ideals. There is an allure to the other side of the Atlantic where Olenska has spent much of her adulthood, and where bohemian lifestyles have eroded the rigid structures of high society. If only he were to live in a civilisation where performative gender roles and meaningless traditions were completely devalued, then maybe then he wouldn’t have to keep up this image of decorum, and he would be able to submit to his true romantic feelings.
And yet, in spite of these dreams, he paradoxically finds himself attached to the idealism of such archaic standards as well, particularly in how they preserve the innocence of his sweet, virtuous wife, which he cannot bring himself to destroy with honesty. Where Olenska dresses in red satin and black lace, and the settings of their passionate encounters seem to radiate vivacious scarlet palettes out to the wallpaper, curtains, and carpets, May is clothed in virginal white dresses. As much as Archer begrudges the neat conventions of 19th century New York, he thrives on the existence of this duality – and it makes a late reveal that May is not so naïve all the more devastating for him.
Liminal as they may be, memories are the only space where such fantasies can exist without contradiction or tension, and Scorsese heavily commits to maintaining the tone of an impressionistic look into the past, removed from its immediacy. The past-tense narration and the imagining of letters as being spoken in direct addresses to camera work to establish this sentimental, slightly artificial reminiscence, but it seeps even further down into Scorsese’ delicate long dissolves, dreamily flowing from one shot to the next like a fluid, effortless recollection. As Archer ages through the decades, a combination of camera pans and these dissolves drift through a single room in his manor, brushing over milestones in his life that have taken place since the departure of Olenska.
Back in days of his youth, the notion that he might at least maintain his May’s innocence gives some justification to his decision to remain by her side, and yet as 19th century social conventions fade and May’s life is cut tragically short, he still cannot bring himself to elope with Olenska, the woman he claims to love most. After all, who knows what troubled reality he may face if they actually were to settle down together? This fantasy of the past is far more preferable, and as such their relationship only exists in how he chooses to remember it. We recall a scene earlier in the film where Archer stares from a distance to her standing on a pier, facing a bright, golden ocean like an ethereal, unreachable figure. But within the comfort of his own memories, the past is malleable, and it is in revisiting this moment in his own mind that she finally turns to meet his gaze. The age of innocence as Archer perceived it might not have ever existed, but when filtered through a lens of self-absorbed nostalgia, it can manifest in whatever form he wishes.
The Age of Innocence is available to rent or buy on YouTube and Google Play.