The time of innocence is a work apart in the filmography of Martin Scorsese. He finds himself in the middle of his gangster films: Casino (1995), Freedmen (1990). It also stands out for its formal splendor in keeping with the spectrum of its influences. The time of innocence is available on Cine+ until May 30, 2022.
The time of innocence places its action in the New York of the 1880s. Newland Archer (Daniel Day Lewis), a young heir to the very upper class, is promised to May Welland (Winona Ryder). The latter is in the image of their union: reasoned, naive, good in all respects. When Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) returns from Europe after a misalliance, Newland is immediately attracted to the woman she has become. But it is not so easy to turn away from one’s destiny, especially when it is arranged at the table of the most important families in New York. The young man will pay the price for his indecision. May feels the cracks in her marriage. And by the power of the conservatism of his environment, managed to nip in the bud any dangerous liaison. Ellen takes refuge in Paris to get away from the great thrill that she and Newland experienced.
The time of innocence is a novel published in 1920, written by Edith Wharton, for which she received the Pulitzer Prize. She is the first female recipient of this award. The author brings together the memories of her childhood to abundantly feed her story. Indeed, the American is destined first, to her great regret, to be a socialite, to organize festivities. After the First World War spent with charities, Edith Wharton pays homage to the American demi-monde which in a way shaped her.
The precision of his descriptions is echoed in the accuracy of Scorsese’s staging. For example, we will retain the ball scene. Supported by a voice-over by Daniel Day Lewis, the American filmmaker describes in turn each artifice, each protocol necessary for the smooth running of a reception. The entry of Newland Archer into the ballroom is an opportunity for Martin Scorsese to deploy a sequence shot with ample and flexible camera movements. This is reminiscent of Ray Lyotta’s appearances in Freedmen or Robert De Niro in MeanStreets (1973).
Martin Scorsese’s staging seems to be subjugated to his subject. The time of innocence being such a monument, such an artistic richness, that it infuses its adaptation. The great strength of the film lies in the harmony of the inspirations of the two corresponding works. Indeed, the American director takes up the classicism and splendor of Luchino Visconti and Max Ophüls. The entrance ball already mentioned is a direct reference to the Cheetah (1963). Edith Wharton is also greatly inspired by European culture. Both in its aesthetic relationship and in the art of living.
However, she remained American and never sought to interfere in European literary circles as a French, English, or Italian writer. On this point, Martin Scorsese is also very close to the author. He works actively to restore so-called heritage foreign films, but he never claims, or in any case intends to change production model, audience or vision of the world as a filmmaker.
Henry James, Ambassador
The choice to adapt the time of innocence is no accident. Beyond the priceless literary qualities of the book, the work aligns itself in continuity with a certain literary tradition. First, by the overwhelming influence of Henry James on Edith Wharton. Indeed, the two authors were very close, maintained an ongoing epistolary relationship, and both respected each other. Newland Archer bears the same surname as Isabel, the heroine of James’s masterpiece: Portrait of a Woman (1881). Without being able to really establish itself as a literary current, this tradition reconnects literature with theatre.
More particularly the French theater of Pixérécourt. In short, melodrama as a theatrical genre carried at the time by actors like Frédéric Lemaître, Marie Dorval, Mélingue, etc. This theatrical substrate, breeding ground for literary scenography, can by its inherent hybridization adapt perfectly to other mediums. Naturally, the cinema can appropriate this tradition thanks to its late appearance.
The time of innocence by Martin Scorsese is not the first adaptation of the novel. There would be a version with Irene Dune released in 1934. In addition, Hollywood adapts the work of Henry James on many occasions. One of the most famous examples remains the heiress (1949) by William Wyler, adapted from the novel washington square (1880). Also, more recently, James Ivory adapted the gold cup (1904) and Jane Campion took over portrait of a woman..
The melodrama offered a complete set of theatrical signs, words and gestures, corresponding to an intense meaning. It was thus a convention in the interpretation of life, conceived as populated by expressive forms. Its theatricality constitutes the substrate of art […] jamesien: by sending us back to “life” through his theatrical medium […].
BROOKS (Peter), “Conclusion”, The Melodramatic Imagination. Balzac, Henry James,
melodrama and the mode of excess, p. 245
The artistic fascination for the old continent halos it with exoticism in the eyes of Americans. This fascination makes it possible to bring the genre closer to period drama with romance movies like Out of Africa (1985), The Road to India (1984), etc In the time of innocence, Europe is also fantasized. Indeed, Ellen Olenska seems imprinted with this influence and particularly this difference which attracts Newland Archer. Nevertheless, during the honeymoon with May Welland, never has Paris seemed duller. However, Scorsese does not hide his pleasures or his charms, simply, the fantasy has given way to reality.
As for him, the period drama suffers from a reputation for at best classic and flat films, at worst for bland TV movies. First of all, the period drama is necessarily a romance in costume. If it is true that it poses as a paragon of academicism, it is unfair to consider it as a subgenre. In fact, it’s the perfect styling exercise. Firstly, for the director, it often provides a gateway to major production, while devoting himself to the controlled experimentation of a codified staging. For the actor and the actress, the dramatic ambition often requires a game more calm than usual. For example, Daniel Day Lewis draws on his performance to the time of innocence especially in Room with a view (1985). Its feline character, certainly less cramped than in Ivory’s film, is found only in this type of footage. In Gangs of New York (2002) or There Will Be Blood (2007), its capacity for exuberance is in the foreground. The completeness of the actor is characterized more by his mastery than by his histrionics. Finally, the American actor stands out for the finesse of the understanding of his character, translated on screen by the accuracy of his acting.
Finally, the period drama wins the company of recurring performers, a sign of a certain requirement vis-à-vis the type of acting. Michelle Pfeiffer, for example, played in dangerous relationships (1988) by Stephen Frears. Winona Ryder finds the role of an ingenue she had already rubbed shoulders with in Coppola’s Dracula. Unlike the 1992 film, Ryder no longer plays the main character. His evolution is less, and consequently, his dramatic palette is less prominent in Scorsese. Conversely, Michelle Pfeiffer enjoys contrary movement. Madame de Tourvel is much more one-dimensional than Ellen Olenska. However, the latter avoids the pitfall of scandal and the story that of the grotesque. In an overview, we can observe that the great actresses have often rubbed shoulders with the genre.
Elmer Bernstein signs the music for time of innocence. He had previously collaborated with Scorsese on Nerves on edge (1991), using Bernard Herrmann’s score from the original 1962 film. His presence in the composition marks the real stroke of genius in the production of the film. Bernstein was one of the last great giants of film music, he had known the end of the golden age of Hollywood which coincided with the completion of classic American melodrama. Moreover, he had composed for Vincente Minelli the sublime score of Like a torrent (1958), the lyricism of Gwen’s theme remains in the memory of moviegoers.
For The time of innocence, the old composer has surpassed himself. Inspired by the orchestration and harmony of Brahms, the main theme is simply extraordinary. Unlike other musicians, he does not harp on his theme over and over again when he has one. Bernstein manages to develop, to build bridges, to introduce a second theme, so much so that the first is magnified.
The credits are also splendid. Made by the essentials Saul and Elaine Bass. On the music of Faust by Gounod, flowers slowly open the light. Diabolically plastic, this credits joins the most beautiful creations of the Bass couple, on the same level as Cold sweat (1958). Moreover, François Ozon took up the idea in 8 women. The flower motif is found in the bouquets offered by Newland.
To conclude, The time of innocence remains the misunderstood monument of Scorsese. A film that manages to transcend its genre by the culmination of the latter. The choice of the appropriate book is based on a deep understanding of the history of American cinema and its links with other fields of art. Finally, the direction of leading performers completes the genius of the work.
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(Re)See – “The Time of Innocence”: The Golden Cup – Maze.fr