Much like Stanley Kubrick’s visionary ambition to make 18th century paintings come to life, with the stunning visuals of his drama, Barry Lyndon; Martin Scorsese uses two distinct kinds of period canvases to draw you into his setting of forbidden desires, shared by Archer and Ellen, in Jay Cocks’ adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. While Scorsese’s stylistic approach also takes much from European paintings, it doesn’t stop there. The Italian-American director incorporates theater, performance art, into the backdrop of his period setting as well. The tragic relationship between Ellen and Archer is not only beholden to the gossip and social taboos of the time; Scorsese makes the conflict connected to the period by suggesting the root of it may lay in high class art, dreams performed and painted that were never to be reality, only presumed to be by the privileged, all of whom were too busy bickering politely over classsicist nonsense to see.
Our forbidden romance finds Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) betrothed to a young lady named May Welland (Winona Ryder), in New York, near the end of the 19th century. However, Archer is drawn to Welland’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). Archer finds himself in two predicaments here; he is already expected to marry another, and the Countess has recently been shamed and shunned by society, after a previous marriage dissolved. For both of these reasons, he himself fears ostracization from the upper class, were he to act upon his feelings. It is not an accident that the film opens in a theater – specifically in the midst of a tragic opera – on a blonde soprano picking a golden flower, she slowly pulls the petals off of it. We cut to a white flower pinned to a black jacket above the heart, the camera pans up to reveal Archer, enthralled by the performance. He finds himself a seat in a box, surrounded by men all dressed the same as him. Scorsese than cuts rapidly between a series of glamorous close-ups, highlighting perfectly unstained white gloves, earrings, bracelets with glimmering stars, all the trinkets most important to those in high society. This sequence ends on a man holding a small pair of binocular’s seated in front of Archer. He watches both the performers and the audience, performers of a different kind, through them.
Scorsese makes a point through his swift camerawork to emphasize this man’s gaze, its pace frenetic as the man seems to be searching for something. Finally, his lenses find the Countess Ellen Olenska, seated with two other women, including May Welland, in another balcony across and above them. He lowers his binoculars, eyes wide, passing the pair to a man seated next to him. The two begin to gossip about the Countess. They are surprised a figure so controversial is allowed to be seated where she is. “She’s had such an odd life,” the older man says. Their superficial conversation irks Archer and he excuses himself from the balcony. He makes his way up to the private box the women are seated in. He has an in, he is to be married to May Welland, after all. He greets her and her mother upon entering the box, but it is clear his real motivation is to see the Countess. She mentions that one time he tried to kiss her behind the door when they were younger. If it were not clear to the audience simply from his behavior – his body language – it is now; we are informed these two have a forbidden history. “I remember we played together” Ellen says, “How this brings it all back to me,” she waves her fan out to the audience, the focus racks, and the camera pans down, revealing their audience. We cut back down to the box we entered the film in. The man holding the binoculars looks up at Archer, clearly irate. Are these people there to watch the actual performers, or simply to perform a role themselves? The opening opera setting sends a clear message; these are people who value ideas embedded in their society, but only because they are told they must adhere to them. They go to the opera only because it is high class art. They are limited by what their class is expected to desire.
Another key theater scene later in the film, immediately following a dramatic exchange, further emphasizes the taboo nature of Ellen and Archer’s relationship. After being dismissed by the Countess, upon paying her a late night visit one evening, Archer exits the room through a pair of curtains. This visual motif is prevalent throughout the film, and does not seem accidental. We cut to another theatrical performance, “Never speak a word of love to me again,” says the woman in the play. “Never. On my honor,” says the man. The actor proceeds to walk out the door, stage left, mirroring the last scene. The actress begins sobbing. Cut to a close-up of Archer, his left eye twitching. He looks down, resigning himself to his emotions; relating all too much to the setting on the stage before him. The curtain drops. He and the audience burst into applause. Archer is seen from above by those seated with the Countess. He is motioned at to join them. When he enters the private booth, the man with the binoculars from the opening scene is already speaking; “It’s fascinating. Every season, the same play, the same scene, the same effect on the audience. Remarkable isn’t it, Newland?” The man clearly holds contempt in his eyes for Archer but speaks to him politely, performing. The Countess sits quietly, seeming to be lost in her thoughts. Archer seats himself next to her. Scorsese singles the pair out using his trademark iris technique, they are swallowed by the darkness engulfing the frame. We see them now as those below looking up with their binoculars might. Archer still has that same white flower above his heart.
“Do you think her lover will send her a box of yellow roses tomorrow morning?” Ellen asks Archer. Scorsese’s picture began with the soprano picking a yellow rose out of a garden of many. “I was thinking about that too,” Archer says, his voice almost shaking, his heart seeming in disbelief. “It touches me as well,” Ellen says. We then cut to a close-up of the binoculars she is holding. Perhaps, the Countess is too busy actually taking in the world, to judge others through the same lenses as her peers who have ostracized her, this “audience”. The whole scene intimately plays out with the iris framing still masking the edges of the camera. As the conversation grows even more personal, the lighting shifts, we’re in a theater performance ourselves now, the actors sharing the stage with the audience. The background bystanders fade into blackness, a bright light hits the back of Countess Olenska’s head, just like a performer up on that stage. This has a two pronged effect; one it emphasizes just how isolated and similar these two feel, sitting among a sea of far too many who look and think the same way; and two, it reminds us, and potentially suggests, that anyone could be watching them up on that balcony through a piece of glass. When one lives a public life in view of high society, is it possible to have a private one… or; is one simply performing all the time, even as an audience member? Scorsese’s period romance paints a setting full of tribal performers who’ve forgotten how to live outside of high society, – removed from things like theater and opera. They are all acting constantly, fearing malignation from an ever active audience.
At the end of the film, standing in a gallery of paintings, Archer realizes that perhaps he has been looking at Ellen all wrong, like a high class idea, not as love actually is. “Whenever he thought of Ellen Olenska, it had been abstractly, serenely, like an imaginary loved one in a book or picture. She had become the complete vision of all that he had missed.” Like Newland Archer, far too many living in this era likely missed far too much – they were all possibly too busy performing for the wrong audience.
The Age of Innocence was recently re-released/restored by The Criterion Collection.