“Sometimes You Just Can’t Win”

Don’t you just hate it when the lovers don’t end up together? Damn realism, I think most people get a knot in the stomach when the credits roll and you realise that the lovers will remain apart. The thing is, it works in films. So many classics have been memorable precisely because the lovers end up apart, it hurts, but it still rings true.The Age of Innocence and Flesh and Bone are two films that I think do the deed better than most. Interestingly enough they were released just two months apart in the Autumn of 1993. I go back and forth on which film is superior, but they are two films that had a very profound impact on me – for very similar reasons.
Beautiful Heartbreak (2)Flowers erupt sensually into bloom in the opening credits of The Age of Innocence, exploding with an intensity and passion that wasn’t tolerated in the era it depicts. That time and place is New York’s high society in the 1870s as Edith Wharton so beautifully described it in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
Ellen (Michelle Pfeiffer)
The Age of Innocence concerns the struggle between individualism and society and the complications of falling in love with the wrong person when you’ve committed to someone else. A young lawyer named Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is happily engaged to a seemingly plain woman named May (Winona Ryder). Archer practically bursts with joy at his impending nuptials — until he meets her exotic cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer).Ravishing in RedThe social scene keeps Ellen at arm’s length when she flees Europe and her philandering husband to return to New York. Society frowns upon her actions, not so much for making a bad marriage to an outsider but for admitting her mistake publicly and leaving the situation. In the 1870s, her social circle viewed it as better to be married and miserable than divorced and at peace. Ellen in the SunshineThe Age of Innocence is a beautiful period piece, but above all else, it is an actors’ film. Winona Ryder excels playing a young woman who isn’t as bland as she appears and Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis are as emotionally compelling as any movie pairing I can remember. They’re a feast for the eyes, and by the time the lenses of Michael Ballhaus linger on The Age of Innocence’s final scene, your hunger for exquisite film making will have been more than satisfied.
Flesh and Bone FeaturedA hundred years and the width of the cinematic spectrum away from the New York of The Age Of Innocence; the wide vistas of West Texas are the backdrop to Flesh and Bone, a tale of two lovers-by-chance haunted by a past darker than they know.Boo BooIn an opening scene reminiscent of In Cold Blood, a young boy is used as a decoy to get his father into an isolated farmhouse. The father is a thief, and a murderer, shockingly revealed when he shoots dead the entire family, with the exception of a baby girl. 25 years later, it’s destined that the young boy and girl will meet again. It’s a small world out there under the vast West Texas sky.West Texas Countryside Rolls byMartin Scorsese got striking visuals from Michael Ballhaus on The Age of Innocence, but Flesh and Bone‘s cinematographer Philippe Rousellot may be even more a virtuoso. The Texas landscape is arid and scorched, but his visuals are as luminous as shards of ice. Flesh and Bone‘s views are reminiscent of the film’s of Terrence Malick, from the grocery stores and bus stations, right down to the empty beer bottles in a wash basin at dawn.Arlis and KaySomething Flesh and Bone shares with The Age of Innocence is a sweeping romance that’s doomed to fail, and watching the desires and yearnings of these frustrated lovers will leave you aching for the future that they’ll never share. Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan draw their characters so well, moments between the two are just gorgeous to watch. Even without the benefit of romantic lighting and luminous costumes they bring out the essence of beauty. No one here is playing at anything. It’s a world these actors seem to possess in their DNA. The chemistry between them is effortless, and a perfect corollary to the wonderfully intense desire shared by Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Ellen and Newland

The scenes between Edith Wharton’s exiled lovers are remarkable for the gamut of emotions they go through. Their furtive glances and embraces behind closed doors are electric, but they also demonstrate that sometimes less can be more. Little things like the removal of a glove and a kiss on the neck are all so erotic, and all so poignant. The passion between Newland and Ellen touches a nerve, and their few intimate moments together will leave you holding your breath. Heartbreakingly tragic.

Ellens Eyes on Boo BooThe Age of Innocence or Flesh and Bone? What are your thoughts? 
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27 Comments

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27 responses to ““Sometimes You Just Can’t Win”

  1. Paul, great review! I love hearing about gems that warrant a viewing but somehow got left behind unnoticed. I wonder if this the film where Meg and Dennis fell in love and began their marriage? It’s not important. It looks like a film with a tone enhanced by the Texas landscape. The whole cast is talented; I would like to see this. Thanks 🙂

    • Thanks Cindy. Meg and Dennis were newly weds when they filmed Flesh and Bone. I’m sure Dennis was cast first and convinced Meg, who was fresh from Sleepless in Seattle, to join him in this low-budget venture. You’re right that the West Texas landscape does enhance the tone of this film, much like No Country for Old Men. I’ve even heard these films referred to as “film soleil.”
      Flesh and Bone also features a fabulous Thomas Newman score and a cameo from a young Gwyneth Paltrow, whose performance suggests dramatic potential she’s never fully realized.

  2. RB

    I would like to see Flesh and Bone as well. At the time, it looked almost too intense, at a time when I couldn’t handle movies that were overly intense. Your description of it makes me think differently all these years later.

  3. Flesh and Bone broke my heart. I cried rivers for hours after the end credits. Not only is it most beautifully crafted, it also unfailingly portrays the tragedy of an impossible love. It jostles with When Harry Met Sally as my favourite Meg Ryan film and would definitely feature on my list of all-time favourites if I were tortured badly enough to commit it to paper.

    • I´m also was cried onto ending credits specially when Dennis Quaid´s character (Arlis) left Meg Ryan (Kay Davies) onto highway landscape motel (stardust).and sometimes my mind was screaming inside me: “Please Meg Ryan not walk away I want you any more!” does not end up the movie! the credits scrolled … and tears gave way endlessly into my face, the presence of Meg Ryan was so cherishing that I would like Steve Kloves stretches at least once every five minutes if only to enjoy a little more every second of Meg Ryan went worthy moments … it was a pleasure to see her acting in this movie every second because besides being sweet, and ravishingly beautiful,right now she was arguably sensuous.

  4. I love these two films, especially The Age of Innocence. It’s an absolutely gorgeous film. Not only is it one of my favorite Scorsese films, it’s also one of my favorite Pfeiffer performances.

  5. Nice Paul! I remember your review for Flesh and Bone and I liked your assessment of it–the barren landscape a true mirror to the characters. A fine review of The Age of Innocence. It’s one of the most beautiful films ever made. A great Wharton adaptation.

  6. Paul, you have such a great way of putting things into perspective. Both films are great and very well cast. I have watched The Age of Innocence more times, but remember Flesh and Bone very well. I remember it had a pretty surprising ending. Very clever comparison indeed between the two films. Great review!

    • I’m sure some people wouldn’t consider Dennis and Meg worthy of mention in same breath as the chameleonic Day-Lewis and Pfeiffer, but I’m not one of them. After experiencing The Age of Innocence‘s classic tale of doomed love, I instinctively reached for my Flesh and Bone DVD and I’m glad I did. Not only is it beautifully crafted, it also unfailingly portrays the tragedy of an impossible love. Flesh and Bone is beautiful and multi layered, and I could watch it again and again!

      • RB

        I am intrigued. It won’t be long now before I will see Flesh and Bone for the first time, when the Amazon order arrives. You had mentioned how it was barely noticed in 1993… interestingly, that seemed to be a banner year for movie creativity and many fine movies didn’t get as much attention as maybe they would have in a down year.

        • Flesh and Bone should have been regarded as a contender for the best American film of 1993. Perhaps it was a film out of its time: it’s primarily set in the 90’s but in many respects it’s a 70’s film in spirit. I worry that modern (mainstream) audiences just couldn’t compute a film where not everything is tied up with a pink ribbon by the end.

      • Flesh and Bone is very good only less familiar than The Age of Innocence, so many people just passed it by without paying too much attention to it. I know how you feel, though. I have my personal stash of movies I can watch over and over again… I cherish my little stash dearly 🙂

  7. This was the most extremely spotless and spectacular performance of all Meg Ryan movies in the 90s! Sure she was recognized for her marvellous 94′ Oscar calibre performance in “When a Man loves A Woman” but technically Meg went to “the extreme of her capabilities” in “F&B because her performance is so strong that nobody remembers the stereotyped, tiresome performance, fussiness nonsense. Here Meg Ryan picks up heavy, exudes sensuality presents a brave character, acting bluntly, imposing, mischievous. excellent balance and emotional stability…
    And not to mention her flawless look, Meg Ryan with long hair and wild mid-curly hairdo circa 1975 or 76.
    How amazing it was to see a Meg Ryan which overstepped big-chain smoker thresholds and character ratio performance.

    All for this without tear-off aught her sweetheart image and fondness.

    FLESH AND BONE IS THE MEG RYAN MOVIE WHO GIVES TASTEFUL TO SEE HER!

  8. I enjoyed reading your film reviews, although I’ve only seen one of those films: “The Age if Innocence.” I didn’t fully appreciate that film until I saw it twice. No doubt I would have enjoyed the film more if I had read the book first. The film bought to mind “Ethan Frome” with Wharton’s clever twist at the end.

  9. RB

    I must agree that Flesh and Bone is a really excellently made film. Having said that, for personal reasons that don’t make any sense whatsoever, I couldn’t watch all of it.
    Since everyone knows what happens to the family in the beginning, I had to skip past this very noir element to the present where Dennis Quaid as Arliss, lives a low key existence, content to drive around the plains of Texas, restocking vending machines and selling various novelty items. Quaid plays against the type you would normally think of for him, in Flesh and Bone he is passive, guarded and restrained. Kloves does an excellent job demonstrating how the events of his early childhood damaged the adult you see in the cowboy hat, living out of his pickup truck. He is oddly content with his most limited existence and does not even seem to want the normal things that people want, such as a home and possessions. He has unemotional hookups with women in various small towns but seems to feel more connected to the chickens that travel with him than to any human.
    Enter Meg Ryan. She is really brilliant as adult Kay dealing with her own baggage having grown up without her family. She’s both sparkling and fractured, gritty yet with nicely played and understated vulnerability, and more importantly, a grounded personality with at least some definition of right and wrong, unlike the grifter character played by Gwyneth Paltrow. The interactions between Meg and her then husband are believable, aided by excellent writing no doubt but there is undeniable magic on the screen maybe because of the real life relationship. Finally, as you mentioned, the West Texas backdrop is filmed with an expert touch. If you’ve never been to Texas you can almost feel what it’s like to be there.
    Definitely this is a criminally underrated film. I wonder if a few things had been done differently, if it would have received differently.

    • Beautiful!
      Flesh and Bone haunts me, so I’m grateful to read your thoughts. Any chance you could write a feature length review?

      • RB

        I can see why it haunts you. Flesh and Bone is a special brand of exquisite. The reason I can’t write a full review is that it’s too affecting. Remember that scene where they are driving along in the pickup, before they get to Kay’s house, and she starts to reveal details about her life to Arliss, bit by bit, and he just looks over and says, “That’s OK” and “That’s OK too”? I may never see another film segment so excellent ever again.
        I hope Meg and Dennis both can cherish this work they did together.

  10. That’s OK, your comments here are reward enough.

  11. RB

    Still replaying that scene in the pickup truck, in my head. I just wanted to say that, everyone should have the experience of driving along a Texas road in a pickup with a handsome cowboy.

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