Aching desire and repression and guilt collide in Scorsese’s version of Edith Wharton’s 'The Age of Innocence'

by Amy Taubin

At the close of Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence, Newland Archer, a recently widowed 57-year-old with three adult children and a pillar of late-nineteenth-century New York society, sits on a bench in a residential street in Paris beneath the windows of Countess Ellen Olenslca, the woman who was the great love of his life and who had become in the 26 years since he had last seen her “the composite vision of all he had missed”. The countess has invited Archer and his son to tea. Archer gets as far as the front door and then hesitates, musing about the past and about possible futures, and about the occupant of the top-floor apartment, “a dark lady, pale and dark, who would look up quickly, half rise, and hold out a long thin hand with three rings on it”, if only he could bring himself to enter.

“‘It’s more real to me here than if I went up,’ he heard himself say; and the fear lest that last shadow of reality lose its edge kept him rooted to his seat as the moments succeeded each other.” With this, Wharton elevates Archer to the highest rank of romantic hero – one whose desire turns on an act of the imagination rather than an engagement with the world.

Martin Scorsese’s remarkably faithful adaptation of Wharton’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of manners, marriage and missed opportunities includes, through dialogue and voiceover narration, as much of the original text as possible in a 136-minute film, but conspicuously omits Archer’s last exclamation and the three paragraphs of description that follow. At the last possible moment, Scorsese gambles on image alone (coloured by Elmer Bernstein’s lushly old-fashioned score) to convey that Archer is lost in the movie inside his head, and that that movie is precisely the one we’ve been watching.

I have no way of judging whether the gamble pays off. Having read Wharton’s novel some half dozen times, I found myself supplying her text at crucial moments; and I suspect that Scorsese couldn’t keep from doing the same while editing. Among the qualities we expect from great film-makers is a show of independence, that their works seem sufficient in themselves even as they offer a rich lode of material for interpretation. It’s a bit disconcerting, therefore, when the director of Raging Bull, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver – Ur-texts for contemporary American film-makers – makes his debt to his source material so evident, refusing to define boundaries between original and adaptation.

Scorsese proffers neither an aggressive interpretation that would have made Wharton’s novel his own even as it established his distance from it (as with Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon or Lolita); nor is he acting as a post-modern scavenger, denying the inviolability of everyone else’s texts while using them to shore up an impenetrable fortress of his own; nor is he involved in literary grazing like such classical Hollywood directors as William Wyler or such art-house darlings as Merchant-Ivory. Rather, Scorsese’s relation to Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is totally fetishistic. “What I wanted to do as much as possible was to recreate for a viewing audience the experience I had reading the book,” he commented when I interviewed him a few weeks after the film’s US release, adding that although he’d read many novels from or about the nineteenth century, he’d never felt about any of them the way he felt about The Age of Innocence. “For me, it has to do with Archer’s relationship to Ellen and his not being able to fulfil it as he thinks he would like to. That’s what’s so moving – the things you miss in life with people, or the things you think you miss,” he explained on another occasion.

Scorsese’s desire was somehow “to present” Wharton’s novel, as in recent years he has presented restored prints of films from his personal canon: The Age of Innocence as a Martin Scorsese presentation rather than a Martin Scorsese picture. The fetishism implicit in this approach mirrors the fetishism of the society depicted in the novel, where desire is felt as a threat that must be deflected on to objects and contained by ritual. (And it’s precisely Wharton’s understanding of the mix of dread and desire in sexuality that makes her work so resonant in the age of Aids.)

Two years ago, when Scorsese announced The Age of Innocence as his next project, the media gasped in snobbish amazement at the prospect of the goodfella invading Wharton’s drawing rooms. But class difference notwithstanding, there are striking parallels between them. Raging romantics, they can also call a spade a spade and look into the grave it digs.

In their best-known work, Scorsese and Wharton examine the cultures in which they came of age from the perspectives of insiders who were always outsiders. Ambivalence is central to their style. Aware, even as children, that they were unsuited to the gender ideals prescribed them, they each found an identity in art. Scorsese grew up in New York’s Little Italy, an ethnically enclosed working-class neighbourhood. Exempted because of his asthma from the male rites that his films eroticise and critique, he spent his time going to the movies with his father and drawing comics – prototypes for the storyboards he still uses to prepare for production.

Wharton was born in 1862 into a no less rigid culture – that of the upper-class descendants of New York’s original Dutch and German settlers. Her adolescent nicknames included both “Pussy” and “John”. Confined by a social order that viewed literary achievement with suspicion if not contempt, she nevertheless devoured her father’s library and began to write when she was 12. When her first engagement was broken off, the Newport, Rhode Island Daily News speculated that the cause was “an alleged preponderance of intellectuality on the part of the intended bride. Wharton didn’t take herself seriously as a writer until she was in her late 30s and didn’t consider herself a professional until The House of Mirth (1905) became a best-seller. Like Scorsese, Wharton, by adhering to the codes of realism, straddles the divide between art and mass culture.

New York, New York

A year after the success of The House of Mirth, Wharton began a move from the US to France which became permanent shortly before the beginning of the First World War. The Age of Innocence, which apart from its leap into the twentieth century in the last chapter is set in the New York of her childhood, was written from a position of self-imposed exile (or escape to freedom) – and from what Wharton saw as the unbridgeable distance produced by the war. Always a period piece, it satirises the society that marked its author for life, but also reveals her primal attachment to New York and its history, an attachment Scorsese shares.

If Scorsese is known for his brutal dissection of the codes of masculinity, Wharton, whom Henry James dubbed “The Angel of Devastation”, applied her scalpel to the construction of femininity that makes women complicit in their own subjugation. Her primary target was marriage; her identification of that institution as central to women’s oppression makes her work fascinating to contemporary feminists. (Scorsese is similarly interested in how social institutions mould feeling into expression. He has an anthropologist’s eye for the rituals of daily life and a Freudian’s grasp of the dynamics of guilt, rage and repression.)

But Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, however rich its descriptions of tribal forms and rituals, is not simply a social satire. While acknowledging that satire was “her weapon”, Wharton wrote of wanting “The Age to be taken not as a costume piece but a simple and grave story of two people trying to live up to something that was still felt in the blood at that time.”

Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence also runs the danger of being taken as a costume drama, although he, like Wharton, is enthralled by the love story. Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), an eligible bachelor with intellectual leanings, meets the love of his life, the enigmatic, slightly scandalous Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) just hours after proposing to her more conventional cousin May Welland (Winona Ryder). Although Wharton wrote The Age of Innocence in the third person, her focus was Archer – his is the only subjectivity to which we are given access. What we know of Ellen and May is almost entirely mediated by his not altogether reliable perception of them.

It may be that Wharton found the investment of the women characters in this love triangle a bit too hot to handle. Psychoanalysis counsels that all romantic triangles originate in unresolved Oedipal fantasies. (Wharton called the jargon of Freudianism “sewerage”, but she left unfinished at her death Beatrice Palmietto, a novel that would have been about father/daughter incest.) So it is perhaps no accident that Newland and May bear a certain resemblance to Wharton’s own father and mother, and that there’s much of Edith herself in Ellen, the exotic interloper, the Europeanised bohemian, the only successfully independent female character Wharton created. It’s the unspoken fantasy of the daughter’s rescue of the father from the controlling mother that gives the novel its double edge and that accounts for the amazing empathy Wharton has with Archer.

Scorsese, however, takes Wharton at her word. The film belongs to Archer, who despite differences of class and historical circumstance shares with the director’s other heroes the repression and guilt that makes it impossible for him to act on his desires – and makes him desire only the impossible. Trapped between duty, his need to do what he’s been bred to do, and rebellion, his longing to break free from other worlds to which Ellen holds the key (that’s why she’s more than a sexual object), he vacillates, dashing from one woman to the other, until the tribe, rallying around the seemingly guileless May, decides for him.

What’s new here for Scorsese is that the gap between desire and action cannot be bridged by physical violence. Not by the carnage of Travis Bickle nor by the head-banging of Jake LaMotta. The repressed does not return in this film; it merely produces the anxiety of ambivalence.

Under their hats

In the scenes between Newland and Ellen and between Newland and May, Scorsese charts that ambivalence – the barely perceptible oscillations of desire – frame by frame. Here, rather than in the obsessively researched, baroque displays of decoration and architecture, costumes and artefacts, food and flowers, is where the film-making brilliance is located. Scorsese has always communicated a taste for anxiety, but never so much as in The Age of Innocence – the suffocating anxiety of waiting for the sign on which one believes one’s life depends, wanting it to come and at the same time fearing it. Scorsese plays with the rhythms of anxiety and sexual guilt the way Hitchcock did in Vertigo -an unlikely film to reference were it not for the Saul Bass title sequence. In the titles to The Age of Innocence, the central image is not an eye, but the petals of a flower unfurling over and over in slow motion superimposed on a page from the original text. The image is sickly sweet -sensuality is posed as a threat, a disruption. One could be sucked into that sweetness, one could die of it. Better to keep it at a distance. A movie-going affair. A fetishistic object.

Full-blown romantic passion is a new subject for Scorsese and he has constructed some ravishing visual tropes to express it: dissolving an image into vaporous red or yellow as if perception was suffused, completely coloured by emotion; rising in on the lovers and then dropping out the sound so it seems that for each of them nothing exists but the other. For the most part, however, he allows the performances, particularly Day-Lewis’, to carry the film.

In the rigidly coded society of The Age of Innocence, people rarely spealc their minds or act on their feelings. So skilled is Archer in keeping up fools even himself. He doesn’t realise until half way through the film that his initial feelings for Ellen of pity (because she’s the victim of a bad marriage) and envy (for her freedom to come and go as she pleases) have coalesced into amour fou. Day-Lewis’ performance is at its most extraordinary when he manages to let us know things about Newland that Newland doesn’t know himself. Early in the relationship with Ellen, Newland goes to a flower shop to fulfil his daily ritual of sending lilies of the valley to May and finds his hand wandering towards some yellow roses and then writing a card addressed to Countess Olenska to accompany them. The gestures are of a man sleep-walking through a decision that will change his life. And what is moving for us is precisely the intensity of the denial.

If Pfeiffer and Ryder fare less well, it’s partly because their roles are less fully written. The film provides them with no more subjectivity than the novel – and unless you’re willing to probe for subtexts, that’s almost none at all. May has one moment at the climax when we understand not only what she wants, but what she has done to get it – and Ryder plays it like a demon. Ellen, however, remains a projection of Archer’s imagination, an impossible part for an actress because there’s no way to flesh out a fantasy without destroying it (although Pfeiffer will probably be nominated by the Academy).

As “grave” as anything Wharton could have envisioned, but hardly “simple”, The Age of Innocence is made for multiple viewings – the first time for the shock of betrayal in the last 20 minutes, the next few to unpack the narrative structure that gets us to that point, one more to ponder the ontological problems of adapting novels to film, and another just to look at the image. At some point in the second half of the film – meaning after the wedding that’s more like a funeral – Scorsese cuts from an abortive encounter between Archer and Ellen to a slow-motion shot of a crowd of men in identical bowler hats walking towards the camera, while on the soundtrack we hear a mournful ditty about lost love. Newland is about to be engulfed by these men whose hats are a sign of the conformity he fears – the conformity of men who’ve learned to keep it all under their hats. The most haunting and revelatory image in the film, it’s nowhere to be found in the novel.

The Age of Innocence opens on 28 January 1994

Sight & Sound, December, 1993


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read More

Aliens (1986)

Aliens (1986) | Review by Pauline Kael

Aliens is a very big “Boo!” movie. Long and visually repetitious, this sci-fi action-horror film is scaled to be an epic, and it’s certainly getting epic reviews.