The man who missed his life

Michael Wood

Nothing in Martin Scorsese’s film is quite as good as its first 15 minutes, but those 15 minutes are astonishing. You feel the movies are being invented; or at the very least that Scorsese has rediscovered a medium that has been lost since The Magnificent Ambersons. The camera pries and pulls back, sweeps and turns, picks up faces and gestures and furniture, putting itself (and us) in impossible situations. We are introduced to people and settings, we are in a theatre, we are in a ballroom. We linger over paintings, mostly depicting nasty sacrifices. We see, with a sort of embarrassment, the caked make-up of an opera-singer and the line where her coarse wig meets her forehead; then we see her audience, less painted but equally theatrical and anxious to impress. What looks like a fast panning shot across this audience turns out to be a set of stills in rapid sequence, like a deck of cards being shuffled. The ballroom is empty at first, its vast chandelier and ornate chairs covered in dustsheets. Then everything is uncovered in a quick dissolve, the music mounts, and dancers appear before us like ghosts solidifying as we look. A girl steps towards the camera, smiling, ready to greet us as if we were in the room, when a sudden reverse angle takes her away and shows us what she sees: her dapper approaching fiancé. The scene at the opera ends with the camera placed right at the front of the stage, looking at the packed opera house, its tiers of faces and eyes: the audience is the spectacle now, or we are its spectacle, caught in this monstrous, many-headed social gaze. Throughout these scenes a mocking voice-over – the voice is Joanne Woodward’s – reads some of Edith Wharton’s funniest lines (‘Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it’), which complicate and perturb the meaning of these already complicated and perturbing images. Nothing, it seems, is to escape the irony of this voice, as nothing is to escape the quirky vigilance of this camera.

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