Michelle Pfeiffer as countess Ellen Olenska.
In this film, the Aesthetic Movement is beautifully represented through the interior spaces of one of the leading characters, countess Ellen Olenska, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Perhaps you remember a previous post in which I discussed the Aesthetic Movement décor of Castle Hill Inn in Newport, Rhode Island.
Of all Edith Wharton’s characters, the countess was by far my favorite, and in the film version, Martin Scorsese’s set designs for her apartments were nothing less than brilliant. Since moving into my house in 1985, I had never done anything special other than painting and cleaning the carpets. After seeing the film in 1993, I decided that it was time to personalize my home, and it must be done in the “Countess Ellen Olenska” style. Only back then, I described this look as the “Arts and Crafts” style. So instead of trolling clothing stores for fashionable attire, weekly visits to the local antique malls became my new addiction, and purchasing anything that remotely looked like something the countess would own became an obsession. You can see the sad results in the phase 3 slideshow of the construction section.
After seven years, it became obvious that my attempts at imitating the Aesthetic Style were not standing up well to the test of time. My arts and crafts style was just another “fad of the moment” — a fad that was suppose to fool everybody, including me, into believing that my interior spaces actually worked. By 2001, I had decided it was time to make a grown-up decision, bite the bullet, and hire an architect to start the process of restoring, refining, and reconfiguring my little home — a process that has taken ten-plus years to accomplish. And it all started with this film, The Age of Innocence.
Click on the link below to see more of the countess’s interior world.
(above) While visiting the countess for the first time and while waiting for her arrival, Newland Archer, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, explores the room he’s been shown into. What he encounters disturbs and intrigues him. He’s beginning to realize that his very organized and traditional world is something the countess has moved beyond, and we begin to realize that he’s nothing more than an aesthete.
(from the novel) “What he saw, meanwhile, with the help of the lamp, was the faded shadowy charm of a room unlike any room he had known. He knew that the Countess Olenska had brought some of her possessions with her—bits of wreckage, she called them—and these, he supposed, were represented by some small slender tables of dark wood, a delicate little Greek bronze on the chimney-piece, and a stretch of red damask nailed on the discoloured wallpaper behind a couple of Italian-looking pictures in old frames.”
(from the novel) “The atmosphere of the room was so different from any he had ever breathed that self-consciousness vanished in the sense of adventure. He had been before in drawing-rooms hung with red damask, with pictures “of the Italian school”; what struck him was the way in which Medora Manson’s shabby hired house, with its blighted background of pampas grass and Rogers statuettes, had, by a turn of the hand, and the skillful use of a few properties, been transformed into something intimate, “foreign,” subtly suggestive of old romantic scenes and sentiments.”
(from the novel) “He tried to analyse the trick, to find a clue to it in the way the chairs and tables were grouped, in the fact that only two Jacqueminot roses (of which nobody ever bought less than a dozen) had been placed in the slender vase at his elbow, and in the vague pervading perfume that was not what one put on handkerchiefs, but rather like the scent of some far-off bazaar, a smell made up of Turkish coffee and ambergris and dried roses.”
(from the novel) “How do you like my funny house?” she asked. “To me it’s like heaven.”
(from the novel) “I like the little house,” she admitted; “but I suppose what I like is the blessedness of its being here, in my own country and my own town; and then, of being alone in it.”
(from the novel) “She detached a small gold cigarette-case from one of her bracelets, held it out to him, and took a cigarette herself. On the chimney were long spills for lighting them.”
(from the novel) “…but he was being too deeply drawn into the atmosphere of the room, which was her atmosphere, and to give advice of that sort would have been like telling someone who was bargaining for attar-of-roses in Samarkand that one should always be provided with arctics for a New York winter. New York seemed much farther off than Samarkand, and if they were indeed to help each other she was rendering what might prove the first of their mutual services by making him look at his native city objectively. Viewed thus, as through the wrong end of a telescope, it looked disconcertingly small and distant; but then from Samarkand it would.”
(above) This still is of Ellen’s vestibule.
(above) In the film on Newland’s second visit to the countess, he’s shown into a second drawing room—a room that hasn’t been pulled together. But in the book, Edith Wharton had indicated that the room was the same deep red one that had been described during his first visit.
(from the novel) “…and the books scattered about her drawing-room (a part of the house in which books were usually supposed to be “out of place”), though chiefly works of fiction, had whetted Archer’s interest with such new names as those of Paul Bourget, Huysmans, and the Goncourt brothers. Ruminating on these things as he approached her door, he was once more conscious of the curious way in which she reversed his values, and of the need of thinking himself into conditions incredibly different from any that he knew if he were to be of use in her present difficulty.”
(from the novel) “He bent and laid his lips on her hands, which were cold and lifeless. She drew them away, and he turned to the door, found his coat and hat under the faint gas-light of the hall, and plunged out into the winter night bursting with the belated eloquence of the inarticulate.”
(above) For Newland’s third visit to Madame Olenska, Martin Scorsese has chosen to introduce a third drawing room in her ‘small’ home. Even though, Edith Wharton didn’t mention three formal rooms, this third one in the film is by far my favorite.
(above) And it’s this third drawing room that authentically illustrates the Aesthetic Movement.
(above) The novel and film take place in the 1870s, yet the painting above the mantel, “The Caresses” or “The Sphinx”, was painted by Fernand Khnopff in 1896. Woops!
(above) Aesthetic elements can be seen in the gilt highlights, the far Eastern influence, and the prominent use of nature — especially flowers, foliage, and birds, as seen in the gorgeous hand-painted screen.
(above) Her interesting collection of curiosities isn’t something that Newland is accustomed to seeing in his very staid and proper milieu.
(above) This is a room that I could spend hours in exploring all its objects.
(above) I included this photo because of the details in what she is wearing — from the lace collar, to the satin ribbon, to the upswept hair, and finally, to the tortoise shell hair ornament.
(above) This dress was by far the most beautiful costume in the film. The Chinese hand embroidered silk is very much in keeping with the Aesthetic sentiments of that time and is a brilliant choice for this scene.
(above) I included this still not because of the over-the-top romantic gesture — which by the way is faithful to the novel — but because of the gorgeous satin slipper. Sadly, we are never allowed to see the entire shoe.