The Exquisite Violence of The Age of Innocence – Vulture

Posted By on January 22, 2021

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There are no shootings or beatdowns. No one gets run over by a carriage or slapped with a glove. But theres emotional violence. And its unrelenting. Photo: Phillip Caruso/Columbia/Kobal/Shutterstock

Every week for the foreseeable future, Vulture will be selecting one film to watch as part of ourFriday Night Movie Club. This weeks selection comes from Vulture TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz, who will begin his screening ofThe Age of Innocenceon January 22 at 7 p.m. ET. Head to VulturesTwitterto catch his live commentary, and look ahead to next weeks moviehere.

Martin Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker have both calledThe Age of InnocenceScorseses most violent film.Nobody dies in Scorseses 1993 adaptation of Edith Whartons novel, unless you count a couple of offscreen passings. There are no shootings,knifings, or beatdowns. No one even gets run over with a carriage or slapped with a glove. But theres still violence. Emotional violence. And its unrelenting.

Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), a young lawyer with a passionate heart, is on track to marry May Welland (Winona Ryder). May is a lovely but unimaginative young woman: 1870s high-society wife material. Then Mays fabulous cousin, Madame Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), arrives in town, escaping a failed marriage to European count. Ellen recognizes a kindred spirit in Newland. He has a passionate heart. He loathes the faades and hypocrisies of his class. He believes in gender equality, even though he doesnt identify it as such, and hates that Ellen is treated as a fallen woman the instant she steps off the boat while older men with mistresses like financier Julius Beaufort (Stuart Wilson), Ellens sometime paramour are treated as facts of life, more gossiped about than shamed. Newland and Ellen fall in love and start seeing each other on the sly. They think nobody knows. Everyone knows.

The clock starts ticking. This thing cant last. Whartons (and Scorseses) characters are oppressed by the rules and protocol of their milieu, as well as by the mostly unspoken but insistent demands placed on them by relatives, spouses, and business partners whose lives are fused to the status quo.Dare disturb this universe and it will ruin you. And the ruination will take the form of what psychologists call soul murders: depriving a person usually, but not always, a child of their ability to form a distinct identity and experience joy. The soul murder victim becomes a prisoner of circumstance, unable to imagine or reach a state of existence beyond what theyve already attained.The Age of Innocenceis filled with soul murders that are as hard to watch as the beatings, tortures, and gangland slayings in Scorseses Mafia films. The sustained emotional violence of this movie is ultimately more invasive than quick shots of a crushed skull or maimed hand because we watch the punishment play out at great length in opulent banquet halls, grand ballrooms, drawing rooms, and bedchambers, during meals and dances and other gatherings, in scene after scene, the camera darting behind and around the hero as if laying out the scene of an impending crime.

When it sinks into Newlands mind that his extended family and the social world surrounding it is pushing him away from Ellen and toward May, he marries her. One subsequent day, he stares at Mayssmiling face and blanklywonders if she might die and set him free.Aware as anyone else of Newlands affair, she gets up from a chair in her ruffled dress, and Scorsese gives us four quick shots of her rising over Newland, like a cobra unfurling its hood to hypnotize and then strike. When May delivers the coup de grce, telling Newland shes pregnant, she sinks to a subordinate position resting her arms and face on his lap that feels like a sophisticated and deeply assured power move: a parody of wifely subservience by a woman who is, at that moment, in complete command of whats happening in that room. She saves the most devastating detail for last: She told Ellen before Newland, which led to Ellens decision to leave the country. .

Ellens farewell party scene is longer and in many ways worse, a final group flogging after a death sentence has already been delivered.Its the scene in a Scorsese gangster movie where the loudest and most destructive member of the wild-card faction of a crime family (Joe Pesci inCasinoandGoodfellas, Robert De Niro inMean Streets,most of the main cast ofThe Departed) finally pushes the top bosses too far and finds himself standing in an empty car port or being driven out to a cornfield. But inInnocence, the good-bye Pesci moment can last several minutes in screen time and hours or days in the lives of the characters. Its a nightmare where bad things just keep happening and theres nothing you can do tostop them.Ellens going-away party is outwardly a pleasant affair, all handshakes, kisses, and how-do-you-dos; but read between the lines of each exchange and youll see terms being spelled out.She isleaving. You are marrying someone else. You will not contrive a reason to visit her. Forget you met her. We will never discuss this again.As Henry Hill says of his fellow wiseguys inGoodfellas, Your murderers come with smiles.

Adapted by Scorsese and screenwriter Jay Cocks from Edith Whartons novel,The Age of Innocencewas a commercial but not critical success, earning less than its $34 million budget. Casual Scorsese fans largely ignored it because it seemed too much a departure from his last three films,The Last Temptation of Christ,Goodfellas, andCape Fear(all very bloody, by the way). In stills andTV commercials, it looked like the Merchant Ivory films that were popular in the 1980s and 90s: movies likeA Room With a View,Maurice,Howards End, andThe Remains of the Day(which opened two months afterInnocencein the fall of 1993).

ButInnocenceis singular for the way it blends old and then-new movie techniques quick cuts and dissolves, expressionistic moments that fade to yellow and red and white to express deep fluctuations in a characters sense of self. Like Hollywood-budgeted but French New Waveinspired variations on older classics,The HeiressandThe Leopard,The Age of Innocencedescribes Whartons world with the cool engagement of a historian giving a slide presentation. ABarry Lyndonstyle third-person narrator (Joanne Woodward) describes personal tragedies in dry, anthropological detail, focusing on what the larger society thought of whatever personal drama was happening among its members and their evaluation of whether it rose to the level of a collective threat. Her voice speaks for the powers that be, with several decades remove. (Whartons novel was published in 1920, about 50 years after the events it describes.)But Scorsese and Schoonmaker run counter to that, speaking for the powerless individuals, reminding us that they are human beings whose spirits are being broken.

The movie is a cornerstone of a filmography that establishes Scorsese as not just one of the worlds most consistently ambitious directors, but one of the most important working political filmmakers in the U.S. There is not a society on earth that cant relate to how Scorsese lays it all out because he speaks in an ancient vocabulary that has more in common with the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, and strategic texts likeThe PrinceandThe Art of Warthan with any dust-jacket hardcover about Donald Trump or Boris Johnson or Vladimir Putin.

It might seem strange at first to call Scorsese political because he seems to have little interest in commenting on current, or even somewhat recent, affairs in specific terms. Of course there are metaphors and allusions to historical episodes or personages buried within his work particularly the Vietnam War, addressed obliquely in his first short film The Big Shave and inTaxi Driver;and the mass slaughter of World War II and the Holocaust, which materializes in repressed nightmare form throughoutShutter Island; and the Watergate-era realization that America (and every other civilization) is corrupt from top to bottom, a certitude expressed via recurring images in all sorts of Scorsese films, depicting police, regulators, and other public officials taking bribes as casually as gum or a smoke. Scorsese is political in a more basic sense than film historians usually mean: Hes showing you his vision of how the world works, and has always worked, in terms of power relationships and insists that they are true and have always been true and are kept in place through money, connections, and the threat of emotional or physical violence, and were kidding ourselves if we think were not constantly experiencing this on multiple levels no matter who we are or what period of history were living in.

The organizing unit in all Scorsese films is the tribe. When an individual or small group of individuals put themselves at odds with the tribes wish to maintain the status quo, thats the beginning of the end for them. They have to be eliminated,violently if necessary. The tribe cannot entertain the idea that anything is good for it other than persisting and expanding and hopefully becoming more entrenched and comfortable this year than they were before. Anyperceived threat to stabilitywill be tolerated only to give the guardians of stability enough time to evaluate the threat and figure out whether its harmless or potentially destructive to the tribes larger interests.

The Romans tolerate Jesus in Last Temptation up to a point. The Chinese tolerate the Dalai Lama in Kundun up to a point. The Kansas City Mafia tolerates the feud between Nicky and Ace in Casino up to a point. Same thing with the respective tribes of The Departed (the police and the gangsters), the three all-powerful tribes displayed inThe Aviator(the Hollywood studios, the aviation industry, and their legal and regulatory attack dogs in Washington), and the Japanese Shinto Buddhists and the Portuguese Jesuits in Silence. Once that point whatever it is and wherever it is has been reached, itsbuona notte, sayonara, fuhgeddaboudit. The cauterization of the threat will be described to survivors in bland language that makes the acts more obscene. Its what it is. The Irishman.Hes gone, and there was nothing we could do about it. Goodfellas.When May tells Newland that she told Ellen of her pregnancy before she told Newland, she phrases this devastating piece of information as an afterthought, and the result is one of the most shocking, bury-the-lede verbal kill shots in 90s cinema: She sent me a note this afternoon I suppose because we talked things over yesterday.

In 2019, Scorsese angered Marvel fans by stating that the MCU franchise did not fit his definition of cinema. Those fans responded by saying that Scorsese had a lot of nerve considering he only made gangster films. In terms of plot synopsis, that line of counterattack was laughable: During a 50-plus-year career, Scorsese has worked in almost every commercial genre, including the musical (New York,New York), the urban psychodrama (Taxi Driver), the thriller (Cape Fear), the satire (After Hours), the sports biopic (Raging Bull), the domestic drama (Alice Doesnt Live Here Anymore), and the religious epic (The Last Temptation of Christ,Kundun,Silence).

But its not wrong to say that, like any auteur worth studying, Scorseses films have certain themes and preoccupations that carry over from one project to the next, and that for this director, the tribe is at the center of it all. Its the thread that unifiesalmost everything hes put his name on, to one degree or another, and its so central to his identity as an artist that you could swap a lot of his film titles without creating confusion. The Age of Innocencecould easily have been calledGangs of New York. A tribe is a gang and a gang is a tribe, whether theyre wearing animal pelts, sharkskin suits, police uniforms, or lace crinoline. The mechanisms of enforcement rely on surveillance, conducted in thrillers and crime films with boom mics and telephoto lenses and hidden video cameras, and in films likeThe Age of Innocencewith opera glasses and furtive mental notations of what was said or who was seen with whom.Newland, thefilms narrator informs us, saw all the harmless-looking people at a party as a band of quiet conspirators silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears.

One of the most memorable shots in The Age of Innocence begins with a closeup of Newland seated at the end of a long, narrow banquet table at the farewell party for Ellen. The camera slowly dollies back, revealing that every elegant choice made with regard to the planning, choreography, and delivery of the feast emphasizes that his and Ellens fates were decided by others and they are powerless to change things, so they might as well smile and have a bite to eat. The whole tribe had rallied around his wife, the narrator says. He was a prisoner in an armed camp, she adds. His sentence had already been passed, and now he awaits the inevitable.

The Age of Innocenceis available to watch on PlutoTV and rent on Prime Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, and Google Play.

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The Exquisite Violence of The Age of Innocence - Vulture

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