Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

A (Film) Lover's Discourse: On The Age of Innocence

February 5 2020

When I’m early to a movie at Metrograph, I go to the Aeon Bookstore around the corner and scan the shelves. I like to turn to the title page of a book to see if it was once gifted to someone: a mother, a best friend, a lover. Before I went to see Dead Man, I saw in the philosophy section a copy of Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. I turned to the title page and I spotted a hand-written dedication, one of the most famous lines of the Discourse: “I encounter millions of bodies in my life; of these millions, I may desire some hundreds; of these hundreds, I love only one.” The handwriting got impatient near the end, and after the words “With love from…”, I could not read the first and last name of the beloved for whom the book I held in my hands was meant. On that basis, I bought it. I am a disgustingly slow reader, but I devoured the Barthes book in three days.

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If there is anything the lover despises, it is banality. She hates to see delirium tamed. Thus, as I read that dedication in the used book, a swell of pity and disgust rose up in me; divorced from all context, that beautiful line of Roland’s—that termite lover, that enemy of the mediocre—became a mere slogan, a bumper sticker, a trailer for a basic Love Story. And yet, ugly as it sounds, that is what love is: an occasional slide into the maw of cliché, a struggle to translate vibes into language that honors the unworldliness of a thrilling euphoria “balanced so precariously that its harmony could be shattered by a whisper.” One bum note, one attack of those irresponsible words “te amo”—and the thrill is gone.

In the same way, when I look at a film, I’m always attracted by the by-scene, the throwaway unit that comes to stand in for the shimmering cohesion of the whole. In Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel The Age of Innocence, I am moved by the film’s most memorable scene, the encounter at the pier where the Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) looks out on a dying sunset as a sailboat is about to pass behind a lighthouse. Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis)—the man she loves, engaged to the prosperous but seemingly dull May Welland (Winona Ryder)—tells himself that if Ellen turns around before the sailboat passes the lighthouse, he will forgo his standing in violently petty 1870s New York society—all to be with her. Elmer Bernstein’s strings rise in anticipatory ecstasy. But she does not turn. He does not go to her. The answer, coded through gesture, is an emphatic “No.” Morality and old money survive, society is vindicated, foolish lovers are ground into dust.

But I am obviously moved. Yes, I love the scene, but it seems too big a target, too seen. Too many fellow romantics flock to it as they once flocked to the wardrobe worn by Goethe’s Young Werther when he was lovesick around Charlotte: blue jacket, yellow trousers, yellow vest. I, the film lover, want space of my own, a scene no one lusts after nor pays any particular attention to, but a scene which is the magical skeleton key to it all. I turn my attention to the step-cousin of this missed lighthouse connection: a magical moment at the opera straight out of a Powell and Pressburger fantasy, when the lights dim and the chatter of the opera-house dissolves to concentrate, in a cocooning silence, on Newland and Ellen’s mutual admiration of a scene that, to us, plays as bad melodrama. Here, I get a sense of the crazed psychic affinities between Barthes, Scorsese, and the film lover: unapologetic romantics who prefer the operatic to a four-hour opera itself (Scorsese), who prefer the novelistic over the novel (Barthes), who prefer the cinematic over the film (our lover).

After the projection stops, something lingers—not the beats of plot, still less the logic. Ultimately, what attracts the film lover to the cinema are the fluctuating moods of the cinematic: tapestries wherein the story, upon revisit, will take a back seat to senses: the sense of a murderously kooky U.S.A. (Nashville; Shock Corridor!), the sense of splendor in Depressed times (Trouble in Paradise; Scarecrow), the sense of the straight-no-chaser erotic (the Dietrich pictures with Von Sternberg; In the Realm of the Senses), the sense of aging (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Two for the Road, The Age of Innocence).

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It is Sunday morning in Washington Square Park, my headphones are in, and Elmer Bernstein’s “Madame Olenska,” from his score, comes onto my Spotify shuffle. Instantly, I am back in the film. Those agonizing final moments replay in my head. I begin wandering the park trails with the same gait as Newland Archer, who ends the film by walking back into a New York he doesn’t recognize, defeated by a counterfeit love, masking his pain with pride and vanity. By strongly misreading Burt Lancaster’s unforgettable walk into the dark alleys of history in Visconti’s final shot of The Leopard, Scorsese crafted the most devastating shot of his entire oeuvre. In that fantastical walk of many generations folded within each other—Day-Lewis by way of Scorsese by way of Lancaster by way of Visconti by way of Tomasi di Lampedusa—I age myself about 50 years, imagining the future as if I should grow up to be a Newland Archer fool.

I remember the night I saw my first film in New York City. It was The Age of Innocence, playing in a 4K digital restoration. I remember talking into the night with a close friend, an aspiring director. Together, we traced endless burrowing paths in and out and back into the film….I started the last sentence with the fullest intention of sketching out the directions of those paths, but the verbal twists and the mental turns we made aren’t coming to me. I can no longer remember any of it. All I can remember is that Winona Ryder’s smile troubled me.

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The film lover gets deeper into her obsession. She starts to rewatch. She fits her sensibility into the crevices of a story that has precious little to do with her daily life. With The Age of Innocence, the film lover lets herself be overwhelmed by the busy, flitting movement of the camera, which steamrolls over too many details to keep track of on a first viewing. Names, faces, foodstuffs all blur as the camera moves into the nape of Ellen’s bare neck with unusual swagger—unusual, given the restraint one expects from the period or “costume” picture. Even the most famous unconventional costume dramas by fluid long-take virtuosos (The Magnificent Ambersons, Letter from an Unknown Woman, The Heiress, and Barry Lyndon) are affected by a tasteful, sideways gliding movement. They do not wobble in and out of the scene with the punch-drunk, manic-depressive nervousness of The Age of Innocence.

Scorsese and his screenwriter Jay Cocks leave entire chunks of Edith Wharton’s narration intact. Thus, our attention is sharpened twice over: this is a world of splendid details we must soak up faster than the boxer’s-gangster’s-aviator’s camera can move. Out of the thicket of information, one or two key lines will stick with the film lover (the bit about “precarity,” “balance,” and the “shattering by way of a whisper”), while the rest must be attended to on a later viewing—after she has gone out into the world, listened to other lovers, and gained a better grasp of the intersections of love, art, idealism, and risk. “She remained in his memory simply as the most plaintive and poignant of a line of ghosts”—a line that I didn’t even notice the first time, a line that means too much to me today.

Barthes, again: “I listen completely, in a state of total consciousness: I cannot keep from hearing everything…Reverberation makes reception into an intelligible din, and the lover into a monstrous receiver, reduced to an enormous auditive organ—as if listening itself were to become a state of utterance: in me, it is the ear which speaks.” Here, then, Barthes perfectly clarifies the tragic flaw of Newland Archer: he can do nothing but listen, and what he listens to is, as the narrator (Joanne Woodward) puts it, “a set of arbitrary signs” in “a hieroglyphic world”—in other words, the prattle and smoke of a society that deprives him of the one concrete thing he’s got (love with the Countess) and whose illusionism confirms that he is a coward who will never leave his station and rebel against the whims of his vultures of peers.

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What are the signs of this violent age? The first shot of The Age of Innocence: a flurry of real roses morphs into a paper prop on a stage, plucked by a soprano singing Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust. This gesture will color my impression of the rest of the unhappy venture: we gaze at beautiful, splendidly dressed people (a bouquet of silk and lace) and we judge their worth (romantic, moral, historical) by the color of their gowns and how well they can conceal their true natures. Scorsese hones in on Newland’s own white rose on his lapel—this is an “actual” rose, but can we ever be sure?

I feel like I am in the box next to Newland and Ellen when they discuss the scene they’ve witnessed on stage: “Do you think her lover will send her a box of yellow roses tomorrow morning?” “I was surprised: I was thinking about that, too…” The film lover thinks: How did she read my thoughts? Should I send her a box of yellow roses? I look in her direction—she turns and a coy grin escapes her mouth—does she want me to return the gaze? The manic questions and the romantic gestures pile up: The next day, Newland “searched the city in vain for yellow roses,” then asks to see the Countess immediately. She is not in. The next time he sees yellow roses at the florist, he passes them by. He sees his own behavior as idiotic, an expenditure of energy that only does damage to himself. The thrill is gone.

The world here is full of under-the-table traumas too vile to bear—thus confirming my suspicion that Scorsese’s most upsetting and lasting pictures are not the ones filled with gunplay and obvious macho bluster (Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed) but the psychological dramas which build and build like sick fugues for loves that never existed in the first place: New York, New York, Silence, The Irishman, The Age of Innocence.

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I imagine Scorsese finishing Wharton’s book. For him, it must be extended into the cinematic realm, where text and image are always off-setting each other in a violent struggle for control. Joanne Woodward inflects her delivery of the Wharton narration with winks, mute chuckles, barely contained lasciviousness. The illusion: this faceless authority is able to know the core of each person it robotically fixes in place with words of marble, as if she were not praising people but appraising rubies sold at Tiffany’s. This is how the Master Jeweler introduces Winona Ryder’s May Welland at the ball: “Archer’s fiancée was innocent of all these intrigues and of much else. May Welland represented for Archer all that was best in their world, all that he honored, and she anchored him to it.” But this is what we see when Scorsese’s camera pushes into her face: an actor, who is never not aware that her fiancé’s eyes (the gaze of the camera) are looking to see what she does next. We usually depend on Woodward to give us the goods on each pearly-white specimen, but not when it comes to May Welland. The titular innocence is clearly not hers; better than anyone else in her time, May plays by the rules of the game, laid out before she could learn to say her name.

Scorsese’s and Wharton’s perfect dialectical struggle may also be why Daniel Day-Lewis impresses me infinitely more here than in the flat white-elephant roles that brings him truckloads of acclaim. My preference is proven by the end of The Age of Innocence, when I cry in ugly insufferability at the hopelessness of the situation (text) as Daniel Day-Lewis maintains a taut, restrained poker face (image). Only a single wet pearl forms underneath his eyelid in the midst of a terrifying anguish that would crush the best of us, an anguish in which a successful old man is drowned, finally, by mirages of a love who turns back after years to say, “Yes.”