The Ritual of Dining in The Age of Innocence

Is there a dinner scene more sumptuous than any in The Age of Innocence?  The attention to detail in Martin Scorcese’s faithful film adaptation sort of takes your breath away.  The flowers, the table settings, the delicately assembled meals, the elegant guests, constitutes your dream of what a Wharton novel should be.

Dinner is, of course, highly ritualized. Beneath the complex etiquette of their formal dinners Wharton saw people gnawed by rivalries and intrigue. Dining afforded Wharton opportunities for satirizing the social elite and the nouveaux riches–the former intent upon preserving their exclusivity, the latter upon penetrating aristocracy’s Fifth Avenue dining rooms, its restaurants, receptions, and balls.  Moreover, in the context of domesticity, the dining scenes also reaffirm the family as a “tribe” wherein mutual protection is reinforced by the act of eating together.

Just look at the scene of the van der Luydens’ dinner for Countess Olenska: a social coup de grace intended as an act of mercy–to reassure the respectability of the Welland family by accepting the wayward Ellen Olenska deep into the bosom of New York, Old Money society.  The plates that come forth in succession, the braised cucumbers, the glistening seafood and game, the ripe vivid fruits, the refulgent bright flowers tumbling over as centerpieces, are dazzling icons of wealth and abundance.

Here, food is the conduit to conversation and power, and a totem of affluence.  The Age of Innocence is one of those rare period films that really is a tableau vivant, full of fleeting, and beautiful images that catch the eye and linger your memory.

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