friday night movie club

The Exquisite Violence of The Age of Innocence

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

Every week for the foreseeable future, Vulture will be selecting one film to watch as part of our Friday Night Movie Club. This week’s selection comes from Vulture TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz, who will begin his screening of The Age of Innocence on January 22 at 7 p.m. ET. Head to Vulture’s Twitter to catch his live commentary, and look ahead to next week’s movie here.

Martin Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker have both called The Age of Innocence Scorsese’s most violent film. Nobody dies in Scorsese’s 1993 adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 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 there’s still violence. Emotional violence. And it’s 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 May’s 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 façades and hypocrisies of his class. He believes in gender equality, even though he doesn’t 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), Ellen’s 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 can’t last. Wharton’s (and Scorsese’s) 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 they’ve already attained. The Age of Innocence is filled with soul murders that are as hard to watch as the beatings, tortures, and gangland slayings in Scorsese’s 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 Newland’s 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 May’s smiling face and blankly wonders if she might die and “set him free.” Aware as anyone else of Newland’s 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 grâce, telling Newland she’s 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 what’s happening in that room. She saves the most devastating detail for last: She told Ellen before Newland, which led to Ellen’s “decision” to leave the country. .

Ellen’s farewell party scene is longer and in many ways worse, a final group flogging after a death sentence has already been delivered. It’s 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 in Casino and Goodfellas, Robert De Niro in Mean Streets, most of the main cast of The 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 in Innocence, the good-bye Pesci moment can last several minutes in screen time and hours or days in the lives of the characters. It’s a nightmare where bad things just keep happening and there’s nothing you can do to stop them. Ellen’s 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 you’ll see terms being spelled out. She is leaving. 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 in Goodfellas, “Your murderers come with smiles.”

Adapted by Scorsese and screenwriter Jay Cocks from Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence was 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, and Cape Fear (all very bloody, by the way). In stills and TV commercials, it looked like the Merchant Ivory films that were popular in the 1980s and ’90s: movies like A Room With a View, MauriceHoward’s End, and The Remains of the Day (which opened two months after Innocence in the fall of 1993).

But Innocence is 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 character’s sense of self. Like Hollywood-budgeted but French New Wave–inspired variations on older classics, The Heiress and The LeopardThe Age of Innocence describes Wharton’s world with the cool engagement of a historian giving a slide presentation. A Barry Lyndon–style 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. (Wharton’s 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 world’s 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 can’t 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 like The Prince and The Art of War than 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 in Taxi Driver; and the mass slaughter of World War II and the Holocaust, which materializes in repressed nightmare form throughout Shutter 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: He’s 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 we’re kidding ourselves if we think we’re not constantly experiencing this on multiple levels no matter who we are or what period of history we’re 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 tribe’s wish to maintain the status quo, that’s 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. Any perceived threat to stability will be tolerated only to give the guardians of stability enough time to evaluate the threat and figure out whether it’s harmless or potentially destructive to the tribe’s 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 in The 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, it’s buona notte, sayonara, fuhgeddaboudit. The cauterization of the threat will be described to survivors in bland language that makes the acts more obscene. “It’s what it is.” —The Irishman. “He’s 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 YorkNew York), the urban psychodrama (Taxi Driver), the thriller (Cape Fear), the satire (After Hours), the sports biopic (Raging Bull), the domestic drama (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), and the religious epic (The Last Temptation of ChristKundunSilence).

But it’s not wrong to say that, like any auteur worth studying, Scorsese’s 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. It’s the thread that unifies almost everything he’s put his name on, to one degree or another, and it’s so central to his identity as an artist that you could swap a lot of his film titles without creating confusion. The Age of Innocence could easily have been called Gangs of New York. A tribe is a gang and a gang is a tribe, whether they’re 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 like The Age of Innocence with opera glasses and furtive mental notations of what was said or who was seen with whom. Newland, the film’s 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 Ellen’s 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 Innocence is 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