On the surface it feels like an odd choice for a Scorsese film
Most of his films are modern, rated R (a hard R usually), they’re about the quote “lower class” or underbelly of society, and they’re violent. The Age of Innocence is different- it is a period piece, from a justifiably canonized work of literary fiction, it’s rated PG, about the aristocracy, and there isn’t a shed of physical violence in the film. However, Scorsese is, first and foremost a stylistic auteur (instead of being a content-driven auteur (like say Stanley Kramer or Oliver Stone who’s works could be put in book form and have a voice—Stone is also a stylistic one as a montagist but I’m getting sidetracked here) and in recent years leading up to 1993’s The Age of Innocence had remade a 1962 thriller (Cape Fear), and told an alternative story of Christ (The Last Temptation of Christ), and given us a sequel to a great 1961 film (The Color of Money). So, I guess an Edith Wharton adaption isn’t that far off in other ways. He’s also done a period-piece musical (New York, New York) so yeah. This is, like most of his work, set in New York and there is a stylistic similarity to the rest of his oeuvre. There’s an unmistakable parallel between this film and Goodfellas and I think they made for a great companion piece to study. This film also has brilliant visual color motif that explicates Scorsese’s 20+ year (at this point in 1993) meditation on sin and guilt. It’s here in red and green with Eden and Hell and Winona Ryder and Michelle Pfeiffer.
From opening floral and lace-inspired credits by Elaine and Saul Bass you know you’re in for a visual and aural treat—a feast for the senses—stunning titles accompanied by the luminous Elmer Bernstein score
If you had no idea about film style at all– and just watched for the writing and acting– it’s still a very good film. I think the writing (again adapted aptly from Wharton) and performances (DDL and Pfeiffer in particular are excellent) put it up there with the best works of a Merchant Ivory film (and they made some really great films so that is not an insult). In fact, both Joanne Woodward (does the voice over here and is one of the stars and titular characters in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge) and Daniel Day Lewis (A Room With a View) had recently worked with Merchant Ivory. Scorsese is a master though- and he takes it to another level—or several other levels- transcendent film style.
The opera glasses sequence is a knockout. Scorsese infuses the experience of looking through the glasses with a rapid-montage to simulate the POV. It’s similar to his ingenuity in the “Rubber Biscuit” drunk scene in Mean Streets. He’s just a genius- he says- “how am I going to show this cinematically?” and then invents and executes.
The stage performance sequence remind me of Powell with The Red Shoes (one of Scorsese’s key texts of influence) and the fluid tracking shots (specifically in this world—period, costume-heavy) remind me of Ophuls
The introduction of the Beaufort ballroom is another immaculate cinematic sequence. It is an awe-inspiring 2 ½ minute shot that has to recall the Copacabana shot in Goodfellas and the introduction of the Mafia world at the Bamboo Lounge. Scorsese here is bouncing the camera off the canvases, floral arrangements all over the place. We meet key characters and a different world (insulated, tribal, often cruel)—just like Goodfellas.
Perhaps the greatest single achievement here artistically is the use of color- specifically green for Winona Ryder and red for Pfeiffer. This is an elongated visual cousin to part of perhaps the greatest shot in cinema history- the Copacabana shot- going from the green Eden into the red Hell. It is Scorsese’s torn/conflicted protagonist (not different from Charlie in Mean Streets– there’s obligation and desire) and there’s sin (Pfeiffer in red almost always) and innocence (Ryder almost always shot with trees and plants in the background). Remarkable- beautiful formal/visual achievement.
Iris-in’s in two spots
Heavy dissolves throughout in the editing- very soft. What incredible work here by Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker—they truly make the editing here an artform— every edit is specific and interconnected. We fade to red on Pfeiffer— fades to yellow after the roses. The editing by Scorsese has always been inspired by Varda with his triple-edit (used here when Day-Lewis sees a rival’s coat’s initials visiting Pfeiffer) from Cleo From 5 to 7 or the fade to yellow here from Le Bonheur
Overhead shots to share the wealth, opulence and curated Doll-house (pre-Wes Anderson) world- dining fare shots, fine porcelain
Reds in Pfeiffer’s apartment- wallpaper and always a fire. Cuts to Winona in the green garden.
A few critics call this Scorsese’s Barry Lyndon– I’m not entirely sure on that- have to give it more thought- but I do know that this may be his greatest achievement in mise-en-scene. It’s downright painterly- but he Scorsese doesn’t skimp on the camera movement. There are many examples where he can clearly set a frame and let us enjoy it as you would art on the wall at a museum. Dante Ferretti does the production design. He would work with Scorsese often after this (this is their first film together) and before this worked with Fellini and Pasolini. The camera luxuriates in the wealth and care put forth in this world.
As a narrative choice Scorsese has the actors read letters aloud – it’s not the 4th wall breaking end of Goodfellas but still- strong consistency
There are a 1000 small cinematically rich moments in the film—almost too much for one entry-page. A great 360-shot at the dining table like De Palma.
In one impressive scene the screen goes to red behind DDL’s head—it’s at 115 minutes. Another use of the color motif. He’s almost made ill by the sacrifice, the hypocrisy and the cruelty of this inner circle.
Scorsese’s trademark never-resting camera. Ebert- “Scorsese is known for his restless camera; he rarely allows a static shot. But here you will have the impression of grace and stateliness in his visual style, and only on a second viewing will you realize the subtlety with which his camera does, indeed, incessantly move, insinuating
I’ve had it as a Must-See film for years but I think I’m ready to push it to the Masterpiece level