Monday, November 25, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.15: Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 96/A

Martin Scorsese’s career is filled with departures and experiments, but few more radical than The Age of Innocence. After following up his gangster masterpiece Goodfellas with the wildly successful remake of Cape Fear, the film couldn’t have seemed more atypical: classical in style, and without any of the blood and violence of his more famous films, it’s easy to see why many balked. But the film is very much of a piece with Goodfellas and Raging Bull in its portrayal of a restrictive society, a self-hating protagonist, and of deep guilt and heightened emotions. Scorsese made plenty of great movies, but this is one of his greatest.

Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a successful young lawyer in 1870s New York, engaged to socialite May Welland (Winona Ryder). May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), returns from abroad planning to divorce her philandering husband. Her family and the rest of New York looks upon it as scandal, but Newland is sympathetic to her plight, and he grows closer to Ellen, whose passion outshines May’s blind obeisance to convention. The two fall in love, but they face a predicament: fulfill their passion and become social outcasts, or pine for each other in secret.

Any fear that The Age of Innocence will follow in the tradition of staid period pieces disappears with the opening credits. Saul Bass’s suggestive sequence of blossoming flowers couples with Elmer Bernstein’s gorgeous, melancholy score. Before the story even starts, it’s a film suffused with conflict, beautiful images and music coupled with a sense of loss and longing.

The film that follows doesn’t disappoint: this is some of Scorsese’s most passionate filmmaking. Michael Ballhaus’s cinematography is just as lively and mobile as ever, its tracking shot through an old-fashioned ballroom serving as a tribute to Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (complete with Joanne Woodward’s narration serving a similar purpose to Welles’s). And the film’s opening scene is glorious, with the heightened, stylized romance and pain of opera juxtaposed with a society that won’t allow for anything that expressive. And then there’s the moment where Newland first meets Ellen: where we see shadows over the faces of May and the rest of the group, when the camera pans to Ellen, the light slightly brightens, as if she’s brought light to his heart.

Scorsese luxuriates in the opulence of the décor and costumes, showing how seductive it can be for all of its emotional destruction. He also uses color as a commentary on character and action: when Ellen moves toward Newland in a key scene, she’s dressed in bright red, as opposed to the more traditional whites that May wears. When Ellen is tormented by her unhappy marriage, the frame flashes a bright red; when she’s charmed by Newland selling yellow roses, it flashes bright, passionate yellow (both of these are tributes to Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus).

This is all more florid than most modern period pieces, and that’s because Scorsese is more influenced by the melodramas of the past: the works of William Wyler, Michael Powell, Douglas Sirk and Max Ophüls. For all of their prettiness, these were films of deep emotional turmoil and repression. Scorsese couples this with heavy use of shadows a la The Godfather whenever he goes to backroom dealings between Newland and those who discourage his passion. These people aren’t gangsters, but they’re framed like gangsters, and with reason. Scorsese referred to it as his most violent film, not for blood and guts, but for emotional violence. It serves as a perfect corollary to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (another major influence): it may not be as viscerally upsetting as past works, but we’re dealing with the destruction of the soul. They might as well be Michael Corleone.

The milieu of The Age of Innocence is just as filled with thugs and controlling monsters anyway, with Miriam Margolyes as a virtual Don to the classic New York world. But perhaps the most surprising one is May, played in a quietly virtuosic performance by Ryder. At first glance, May is girlish and naïve, completely unable to think for herself or go against convention. But Ryder’s every slight change in expression communicates volumes as she quietly manipulates Newland, whether she’s asking him to stay in or convincing him to stay in the country when she secretly knows he plans to leave with Ellen. She’s not an unempathetic character – she stands to lose everything and be a party to scandal if Newland leaves her, and she does ultimately take pity on him – but she’s also far cannier than she appears. It’s a shame Ryder’s career has taken a downturn in the past decade when The Age of Innocence shows what she’s really capable of.

Equally strong are Pfeiffer (in one of her last great performances) and Day-Lewis (in perhaps his quietest). As Ellen, Pfeiffer is every bit the passionate, unfettered soul that Newland views her to be, but she’s more than just an object of longing. Her desire for independence and happiness is admirable in an era of great constriction, and it’s all the more affecting when she can’t break free of it, the heaviness of the world gradually weighing her down. Day-Lewis is best known for his wildly expressive, floridly charismatic turns in recent years, but he’s nearly as good at playing a man who can’t express himself. What’s striking about his work here is how he suggests the roiling emotions beneath a calm exterior, showing a man who’s so bottled up with pain and yearning that he’s about to burst.

The scenes between the two are remarkable for the gamut of emotions they go through: first charm, as Ellen is everything the rest of the world is not, and symbolizes the freedom that Newland secretly wishes for. Then, when the two finally do make their feelings for each other clear, deep conflict: their furtive kisses and embraces behind closed doors sexier and more romantic than most sex scenes. The slightest contact with each other means the world, and I’m still chilled to the bone by the scene where Newland lays his head upon Ellen’s lap as she puts her hands upon him, both so close yet unable to consummate their love. Just as gorgeous is the unbuttoning of Ellen’s glove in a later scene, with a kiss of the wrist being just about the only thing the two can manage. And then there’s the later scenes of the two trying to hide their gazes at each other, barely holding back their desire and banked frustration.

Scorsese understands those feelings better than most, having grown up in a community where showing any signs of weakness or breaking apart from fiercely held tradition meant being ostracized. Newland is of apiece not only with Henry Hill or Charlie Cappa, who must follow the dictates of their societies to move up, but of Jake La Motta, filled with self-loathing. He has empathy for Ellen’s situation even before he falls for her, believing society’s punishment of her for her husband’s transgressions to be unfair. A scene where Newland and May tour a zoo, filled with exotic animals in cages, is a sly bit of commentary on Newland’s own situation: he’s been domesticized, and while it’s comfortable, it’s not true. And Newland only allows his anger and passion to boil over a few times. He’s otherwise a man totally controlled by the cruelty of his world. Even when there’s hope, the world (and the framing) closes in on him.

When it finally is revealed that May knew of Newland’s feelings, that she “asked” him to give up the one thing he wanted most, Newland remarks that she “didn’t ask”, but she didn’t need to. He was too willing to fall in line and to give up, and that regret gives the final scene, one of the finest in Scorsese’s oeuvre, its emotional power. Newland’s son has arranged a meeting with Ellen, a chance to reunite with his love now that May has passed, but he knows it’s too late to recapture the past, and that Ellen will understand: “Just say I’m old-fashioned.” He might be open to ideas of freedom and independence, but he can’t follow them himself.

Scorsese cuts that final scene perfectly: the silent pain on Newland’s face, the flash of light from the window giving us a brief flash back to Newland’s day at the pier with Ellen, a fantasy of what might have been had either of them been brave enough before the screen flashes yellow. Newland seems to flinch at the very thought of it, and the windows close, leaving him out forever. The cut to a wide shot as he accepts this devastates me. I want to tell Newland to turn around, to not walk into the distance, but he’s already on his way. And as Scorsese lingers on the scene shortly after he disappears on the left side of the frame, as the world moves on as if he had never been there and Bernstein’s score swells, you can practically hear the sound of hearts being torn out. 

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