So, I just watched Martin Scorsese's 1993 adaptation of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence and WOW! I really loved it. Though I haven't read the novel, it's now at the top of my 'To Read' list.
The story is one of 1870s New York high society. Instead of fox hunts and quail shoots, the best families in the city police each other for sport. The game is played via dinners, balls and the intricate networks of business and family that connect the gilded class. Every alliance is parsed for its ability to elevate or enhance one's status. In the New World, marrying into actual European aristocracy, and acquiring a title, is the equivalent of a killer jump shot in the sport of high society. Total game changer.
But when such an alliance fails, the repercussions are devastating. And that's what The Age of Innocence explores, the price of publicly failing to uphold the values of one's class. The Countess Olenska/Cousin Ellen returns from Europe, leaving behind her marriage to the Count, and scandalizing everyone with her desire for a divorce. It's not that her people are shocked that her marriage was a sham or that she wants independence, but that she would do something so gauche as to admit to it.
I don't want to say too much more about the movie, you should really put it in your Netflix queue immediately. The story is brought to life by Scorsese, with an emphasis on light and setting and an exquisite empathy for these people and the genteel fragility of their world.
I must admit, I was hesitant about the Age of Innocence. I'm not that interested in #WASPProbz. But it was that good. And it made me think a little deeper about another movie I want to talk about. On the surface The Maze, a little known 50s B horror flick, and The Age of Innocence wouldn't appear to have much in common. But in its own way, The Maze is also about the encounter between American New Money and decaying European aristocracy and what those two worlds want (and expect to gain) from each other.
The Maze opens with Aunt Edith and her young charge Kitty on vacation in Cannes, with Kitty's fiance, Gerald. Their vacation is interrupted by the news that Gerald's Scottish uncle is ill. Gerald is soon off to attend to the dear, sick Baronet at his home in the Scottish Highlands, Craven Castle. This is the first time that Kitty learns she will be marrying the heir to an aristocratic title.
Aunt Edith and Kitty remain at the hotel in Cannes, waiting for word from Scotland on the ailing Baronet. A week passes and no word from Gerald. Edith and Kitty learn of the Baronet's passing in the newspaper. Still no news from dear Gerald. Kitty makes excuses for Gerald's silence. Oh, he's probably busy with funeral arrangements, you know how hard it can be to find a kosher caterer in the Scottish highlands, etc.
Yeah, sure. And that guy who said he'd call and never did? I'm sure he got really busy at work and then his phone got lost with all his phone numbers and then Somali pirates hijacked the Circle Line ferry hosting his office's Christmas party.
Shit happens, right?
Oh honey; this is only the first of many points in this strange little film where you want to slip Miss Kitty a copy of He's Just Not That Into You.
It turns out all their cables to Gerald in Scotland have been received, and none of them were answered. Eesh.
Sample convo between sensible Aunt Edith and eyes on the prize Kitty:
Aunt Edith: Gerald's silence is his answer, how long does it take to scribble an answer? No, my dear, I'm afraid it's obvious now, Gerald does not intend to see you again.
Kitty: If that were true he would've said so! He would've written some sort of explanation.
Aunt Edith: Forget him, Kitty.
Kitty: I can't, I won't.
Aunt Edith: [visibly trying not to smack her niece] It's all very well to be brave and hopeful, but how long are you going to wait?
Kitty: As long as it takes, I love Gerald and I know him. Something's happened, some sort of trouble. whatever it is he'll work it out and then we'll hear from him.
Jump ahead six weeks. Six fucking weeks.
Anyhoo, Gerald has gotten his shit together long enough to have his manservant find a quill and a scrap of parchment so he can write a suitably enraging and vague letter to Kitty. If you're hoping for closure you're obviously watching the wrong movie.
In the letter Gerald writes that he releases Kitty from their engagement but that he will always be faithful to her "unless something happens that he hasn't the right to hope for.. for it would be a death."
Tha fuck? What does that even mean?
As Kitty lives in 1950s B Movie Land, she hasn't had the benefit of watching all six seasons of Sex and the City. Instead of taking Gerald's bullshit letter and burning it at midnight along with some well defaced pictures of him, she doubles down.
Kitty: I'm not going to let a crumbling old castle ruin Gerald's life and mine too... I don't care if it's full of skeletons and ghosts. I'm going there.
Well, I guess if she didn't go there we wouldn't have a movie.
So...because someone decided this movie would happen, Aunt Edith and Kitty arrive at a foggy castle where no one expects or wants them. "We're friends of Gerald McTeam," Kitty chirps.
Though the butler tells them that Sir Gerald is indisposed, Kitty barges in anyway and runs to meet Gerald. "You shouldn't have come here" he says.To which she replies, of course: "You're wrong, we should've come earlier." Girl's got balls, you gotta admit. She's got a bit of Countess Olenska in her and you have to admire that. She don't give a damn about propriety or expectations or the demands of the men around her.
If you were wondering when we'd get to the maze part of The Maze, well, we're there. Gerald tells Kitty and Edith that the tower and the maze are OFF LIMITS, castle rules.
Guess where Kitty immediately goes?
If you said The Maze you'd be right.
Anyhoo, Gerald tries to get Edith and Kitty to leave about 10 more times. Instead of leaving, Kitty writes to a bunch of their friends to come by and pretend like they were just "motoring through Scotland." The old motoring through Scotland gambit. Just like that time you happened to show up at your ex-boyfriend's birthday party. Smooth. Very smooth, Kitty. This chick is a trainwreck, but at this point you really can't turn off the movie. You really start to think that if anyone can will a man to love her again, maybe she can. Maybe there's hope for all of us dumbasses in love with some shmuck with a castle?
Kitty is warned off a bunch more times, including once by Groundskeeper Willie's grandfather. He tells her to leave and she says "Sir Gerald and I are engaged to be married!" "I'll pray for you" he replies.
Moving on.... Kitty makes a whole bunch more excuses for Gerald, including that he's sick and not responsible for his actions. Sigh.
(Can you tell I related a little too much to this movie?)
Even though it wasn't true that that guy lost his phone and then had his office Christmas party hijacked by Somali pirates, it turns out that Craven Castle's maze IS hiding a dark, decaying, aristocratic secret. I don't want to give away too much... not when you can watch The Maze on Netflix Instant right now.
But I did love this take on the encounter between girlish American optimism and the gothic rot of European aristocracy. It goes to show you that no matter how boring/gross/hideous you find yourself, someone out there finds you exotic, and desirable, even, ESPECIALLY, when you let your freak flag fly....