The Age of Innocence, (USA 1993, Martin Scorsese)
“Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence might have been subtitled The Man Who Could Not Love Women. The poet of impotence has translated Edith Wharton’s acerbic scrutiny of the suffocating codes and customs of late nineteenth-century New York into melodrama, centred on a tragic hero incapable of breaking through the social ties that bind. On the face of it, the film is a faithful adaptation of Wharton’s book, even allowing the writer herself a voice in Joanne Woodward’s narration. The minutiae of the novel’s descriptions of decor and fashion have been lovingly re-created, as the matching of image and voiceover testifies. This is a meeting not only of minds, but also of compulsions: the obsessional film-maker has found a fellow fetishist in Wharton, whose fascination with fine detail takes social realism to excess. And, of course, they are both artists who study their society with outsiders’ eyes.
Such distance as Scorsese does take on Archer is realised, characteristically, partly as a problem of vision. His film is literally an art movie in which characters are judged according to their taste and the audience is tested on how many paintings and objets d’art it can identify. The camera follows Archer’s gaze as he travels from room to room examining acquisition after acquisition. But the connoisseur’s eye that sets him apart from most of his peers is also his downfall. Archer’s approach to life and love is that of an aesthete – he would rather look than act. To him, May’s niceness is a curtain hiding her basic emptiness, but it is his own inability to see beyond surfaces that separates him from the woman he professes to love. His first sight of Ellen after his marriage is from afar as he watches her on the seashore gazing out over the ocean. He promises himself that if she turns round, he will go to meet her, but she does not move and the moment is lost. The scene of Ellen on the shore is reminiscent of an Impressionist painting, with sparkling sunlight and soft colours creating a highly romanticised vista in which the static figure of a woman acts as a kind of guarantee of order and harmony.
Scorsese seems unexpectedly at home with period drama, taking more than one cue from that other saga of social change and doomed love, The Magnificent Ambersons. As in Welles’ film, the tension between tradition and modernity is signalled by the use of irises and masking, which looks back to silent cinema while at the same time acting as harbinger of the new medium about to take the late nineteenth century by storm. The Magnificent Ambersons is melancholic, treating its characters swept up in the tide of history with sympathy and projecting a sense of loss at what is sacrificed in the name of progress. At first glance, Scorsese’s movie is less nostalgic, ending on a hopeful note which recognises that Archer’s children will achieve the happiness he denied himself. For Scorsese, as for Wharton, Archer’s final decision to walk away from love is the last nail in the coffin of the past in which he is entombed. Yet it is clear that the film-maker, more than the novelist, identifies with Archer’s desire to live in his memories rather than face reality. Scorsese’s Age of Innocence is suffused with fear of loss, most notably in its striving for period authenticity (always a lost cause) and in its obsession with faithfully reproducing the novel.”
(Cook, Pam (1994): The Age of Innocence. In: Ginette Vincendeau (ed.): Film – Literature – Heritage. London: BFI, pp. 161–164, on pp. 162–163.)
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (GBR 1989, Peter Greenaway)
“Gaultier’s designs for Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover are wildly eclectic. Helen Mirren’s caged cobweb dress and the waitresses’ corsets bear the trademarks of past Gaultier collections, whilst elsewhere his reference points are a heady blend of 1960s ‘space age’ fashions, Cavalier uniforms, seventeenth-century Cardinals’ robes and modern business suits. Although the items for the leads (except Alan Howard’s clothes as ‘the lover’) are specially designed one-offs, many of the other costumes are from Gaultier’s regular ready-to-wear collection, the extras reputedly having been ‘let loose amongst his rails and told to deck themselves out in whatever they would wear to a swanky restaurant’ (Maiberger 1989: 159). Gaultier, belying Wollen’s suggestion that ‘artistic’ costume designers seem to find their inspiration from outside rather than inside mainstream cinema, includes several touches of traditional Hollywood glamour in his The Cook, the Thief costumes, particularly the long gloves, whipped hair and yards of chiffon used for Helen Mirren as Georgina. The self-conscious affiliation with an existent film tradition is further signalled by Mirren’s cape with its collar of dark, upright feathers that frame her face, a direct reference to the much copied feather cloak designed by Chanel for Delphine Seyrig in Last Year At Marienbad.8 Gaultier’s costumes for The Cook, the Thief are tightly aligned with the film’s highly formalistic narrative structure. Greenaway’s film (like many of his others) is structured around the idea of a procession: the clear separation of the interconnecting rooms (the restaurant, the kitchens, the rest room) along a horizontal axis, the evenly paced tracking shots following the action, the positioning of the characters (at table and elsewhere) in straight lines, and the division of the narrative into seven consecutive days. The insistence of this pattern is repeated on the level of costume, most notably in the co-ordination of costumes with the dominant colours of the lighting and mise-en-scène, so that clothes change colour (whilst maintaining the same design) as the characters move from room to room. Greenaway identifies the essence of the decor and the costumes as being vulgarity, commenting, ‘The people in the film are part of a swaggering society and wear clothes to identify themselves and set themselves apart’ (Bergan 1989: 29). The costumes here are characterised by their looked-at-ness; changes are motivated purely by the requirements of the overall design rather than the narrative, and thus they fulfil a star-like role, processing through the film as arbitrary signs which precede rather than follow character.
8 One such copy of Chanel’s cape is Helen Storey’s ‘Death in velvet’ dress for her 1994 collection.”
(Bruzzi, Stella (2012): Cinema and Haute Couture. Sabrina to Pretty Woman, Trop Belle Pour Toi!, Prêt-à-Porter. In: Undressing Cinema. Clothing and Identity in the Movies. Routledge, on pp. 9–10.)