|Posted on March 26, 2010 at 2:05 AM|
The opening scene begins with a pale-faced, young girl picking a yellow flower from a bunch, and clutching it to her breast. The bright, festive colours of the flower stands in contrast against the dark, sombre tones of the theatre. The pale-faced woman is singing in an opera, as her lover stands over her. As our perspective switches from the stage to the audience, we see yellow flowers juxtaposed against the white flower pinned to our protagonist’s (Newland Archer) vest. This transition symbolises his own internal desires; his own passion (the flower), overwhelmed by conformity, and the rigidity of upper-class society.
Meanwhile, his peers have less interest in the play, than in surveying the audience with an eye-piece. We are subjected to a series of quick-cuts of the viewers below; the jewellery that adorns them. This preoccupation with material possession alludes to the shallowness of these socialites; as their interest in a beautiful, passionate opera is waned against the thought of gossip and surveillance. They notice that the Polish Countess Ellen Olenska has been invited too, and immediately begin to speculate.
The camera in this scene progresses from a medium shot of the play, zooming outwards from eye level (emphasising its centrality); to a high angle long shot of the audience, tracking upwards to a low, slightly canted angle of the Countess’ balcony (firmly establishing the social hierarchy). The camera zooms further out from the stage as the woman’s lover begins to sing and we see the grim, twilight setting behind them. The context of the play is one of bleakness and despair, while the audience demonstrates enormous luxury and wealth.
This contrast represents the main theme of the scene, and to an extent, the wider film. These New York, upper-class socialites consider the trials and tribulations of two star-crossed lovers, divided by cultural strata, the height of art; the same way we as an audience are watching their inner circle’s machinations. Two classes; two different world’s, from two separate times are fascinated by one another; our diversions and commonalities. The scene is also about how members of society spy on each other, as demonstrated by the protagonist’s peers; as they spy on the audience, as the audience spies on the characters in the play, and as we spy on everyone in the film. The entire sequence is rather Meta in this fashion.
The editing in the scene ranges from quick and precise shots, as the socialites scan the audience, finally honing in on Olenska, to a more meandering and sumptuous to look at the elements of the play. Archer, slightly fed up with his fellow’s demeanour, and perhaps inspired by the opera’s ideas of forbidden love, leaves his box to go and greet the foreign and eccentric Countess. As mentioned above, the different levels of social status—players, general audience, socialites, and royalty—are represented, both by the levels of the theatre, and the angles of the camera. The camera also zooms in close-up on the face of our male protagonist and the woman in the play, stressing a connection and common desire.
The themes of surveillance and escalating voyeurism are also symbolised through cinematography. The camera follows Archer from the theatre to the outskirts of the actions frame, where the noise and scandal of the opera are but a muffled cry to the ushers waiting outside. Going back to the film’s motif of class divergence, this could also be a comment on the marginalisation of the American working class. The transition also represents a shift in our main character’s attitude. He greets the Countess, but when she holds out her hand to be kissed, he merely bows his head and returns his attention to the play. This small, but important, gesture is commenting on the fact that, even though Americans have come to emulate the European class structure, they still consider themselves on an even footing with royalty (i.e. that all men were created equally).