Sometimes I love getting sick. When else can you loaf around in bed, do nothing, and get sympathy for it?
The other day, feeling horrible, I was faced with all the possibilities on Netflix. Would I watch an action thriller? A romantic comedy? I immediately was drawn to horror and started to watch BURIED with Ryan Reynolds. About five minutes in, when I realized he was never going to leave the coffin, I bailed.
I was about to put down the PS3 controller when I accidentally toggle sticked to “Movies Based on Books.” Hmm… how about a whole day of Edith Wharton? Anyone obsessed with Masterpiece Theater knows there is a certain narcotic value to watching these period pieces where lives are destroyed over finger sandwiches. And so I settled in for THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, which I’ve seen approximately nine times.
Daniel Day Lewis, check. Michelle Pfeiffer, check. Fabulous fancy food, check. Impossible love, check. In this film, Michelle plays the Countess Olenska, a beautiful, but sullied woman, married to a cruel man in Europe, and due to the conventions of her time, unable to get a divorce. Daniel DL plays Newland Archer, a good guy, about to marry the young, beautiful, but vapid Mae (Winona Ryder.) As Newland tries to protect Olenska from scandal (she’s the cousin of his future wife) they begin to fall in love, and no matter how hard he tries to hurry up his marriage to Mae, nothing can stop their love. Nothing, except Society. Painful shots of them staring at each other at dinner parties, him unbuttoning her glove during a stolen moment in a carriage, them trying not to kiss. Newland begs her to come to his place, Olenska says yes, then returns his key when Mae tells her she’s pregnant.
As I watched all this “apartness” I realized what great dramatic tension can come from the power of distance in a story.
Of not letting people be together. Of keeping them separate for the sake of maintaining exquisite rising conflict in the narrative.
At the end, I was sobbing furiously (as I had been the previous nine times.) I wanted to shout at Newland, “Go up those stairs, Dammit! I don’t care if you’re old fashioned. You’re only 57 years old!!” But no, he walks away. The much more dramatic choice, I’m aware. It maintains the power of distance.
Exhausted, I grabbed some Kleenex and toggled to another Edith Wharton fave, ETHAN FROME. Liam Neeson stars as Ethan, a poor farmer who dreams of being an engineer, but makes the mistake of marrying the nasty Xena (the fabulously gaunt Joan Allen.) When pretty young Mattie (Patricia Arquette) comes to take care of Xena who’s ailing, guess what happens? Of course she and Ethan can’t be together. He’s married. So he stares at her. She stares at him. Xena tries to pretend nothing’s going on.
When Xena leaves to go see a doctor, all hell breaks loose. The family cat shatters a treasured dish, Liam touches the embroidery Mattie is working on, then later, they kiss.
When Xena comes back early and tells Mattie she has to leave, Mattie and Liam decide to kill themselves on a snow sled (why can’t we have climaxes like this in today’s movies?) Anyway, they race down the hill, head for a tree and BAM.
We cut to the future. Now Liam is hunchbacked and club footed, taking care of his wife. And just when you thought, “Wow, Mattie was sure lucky to die,” we find out she’s NOT dead. She’s living with the two of them and now Xena’s taking care of her.
So much worse than being buried in a coffin like Ryan Reynolds.
As I turned off the set, blew my nose, and drank another Emergen-C, I wondered, “Wow, is this even possible now? To have a romance film set in contemporary American society where two people have some moral compunction about cheating or betrayal?” I started spitballing scenarios. Maybe if it’s set in Amish country? Or a Fundamentalist Christian household…. Oh wait, forget about that one.
Aside from Romantic Comedies, where the things keeping people separate are deceptions, or irrelevant significant others, what modern stakes could possibly keep people apart to the degree they’re kept apart in Wharton’s novels?
Maybe if the two people had sex they would die?
Or their children would die?
Or they would become ugly?
Is it even possible to create distance between characters now when our culture is all about immediate gratification?
I can’t stop thinking about that amazing scene in THE AGE OF INNOCENCE where Daniel Day Lewis peels off Michelle P’s glove. And that’s all that happens.
If they had full on sex, it wouldn’t be half as satisfying.
It’s because they’re close. But a million miles away.