In Memoriam 1942 – 2013 “Roger Ebert loved movies.”

RogerEbert.com

Thumb_yevugpgxeuwoic0uu8txgdqcmc2

This Is Where I Leave You

The family gathering comedy is one of the more difficult genres to pull off. Good for Levy for trying something different. But next time he…

Thumb_zero_theorem_ver4

The Zero Theorem

Terry Gilliam's first science fiction film since "12 Monkeys" is an inventively designed but oddly inert satire on technology, God and the future of humankind.

Other Reviews
Review Archives
Thumb_xbepftvyieurxopaxyzgtgtkwgw

Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

Thumb_jrluxpegcv11ostmz1fqha1bkxq

Monsieur Hire

Patrice Leconte's "Monsieur Hire" is a tragedy about loneliness and erotomania, told about two solitary people who have nothing else in common. It involves a…

Other Reviews
Great Movie Archives
Other Articles
Blog Archives
Other Articles
Channel Archives

Reviews

Death in Venice

  |  

I think the thing that disappoints me most about Luchino Visconti's "Death in Venice" is its lack of ambiguity. Visconti has chosen to abandon the subtleties of the Thomas Mann novel and present us with a straightforward story of homosexual love, and although that's his privilege, I think he has missed the greatness of Mann's work somewhere along the way. In the novel, Count Aschenbach goes to Venice at a certain season in his life, driven by a compulsion he does not fully understand and confronted by strange presences who somehow seem to be mocking or tempting him. Once settled in his grand hotel on the Lido, he becomes aware of a beautiful boy who is also visiting there with his family from Poland. His feelings toward this boy are terribly complicated, and to interpret them as a simple homosexual attraction is vulgar and simplistic. The boy represents, above all, an ideal of perfect physical beauty apart from sexuality; the irony is that this beauty stirs emotions in a man who (in the novel) has insisted on occupying the world of the intellect. The boy's youth and naturalness become a reproach to the older man's vanity and creative sterility.

Visconti undermines this contrast between beauty and the intellect by changing the Aschenbach character from a writer to a composer. He made the change, reportedly, because he decided that Mann had "really" based his character on Gustav Mahler, but so what? There are flashbacks where Aschenbach argues that beauty resides in the intellect, and a friend declares that beauty is a quality naturally possessed by beautiful things. Aschenbach's position could be held by a philosopher and scholar, but not (I imagine) by the composer of the romantic Mahler symphonies that are constantly present on the sound track.

Visconti also misses, or avoids, the subtlety of the novel's development of the relationship between the two characters. In the Mann version, the man can never really know what the boy thinks of him; they do not speak, and if the boy favors him sometimes with a look or a smile, he favors many others as well, because that is his nature. It is entirely possible, the way Mann tells the story, that the boy is totally unaware of any homosexual implication -- and the man, indeed, may also be in love with an ideal rather than a person. No such possibility exists in the heavy-handed Visconti retelling. The boy's function in the film, which he performs at least two dozen times, is to self-consciously pose in front of the man, turn slowly, smile sweetly, and turn languorously away. This is almost literally the only physical characteristic the boy has in the movie; and Visconti lays on the turns, looks, and smiles with such a heavy hand that the boy could almost be accused of hustling.

By choosing to limit his story to this level, Visconti loses the philosophical content of the Thomas Mann work, and no amount of heavy-handed flashbacks can restore it. We see Aschenbach in discussions with colleagues, with his wife and child, and then at the child's funeral; we see him seemingly impotent in a bordello, and, unforgivably, Visconti even throws in a concert at which Aschenbach is booed, then comforted by his wife. Scenes in which the genius is assured that (someday!) his genius will be recognized went out, I thought, with "The Eddy Duchin Story."

Visconti fails, then, to develop characters and relationships that matter. The failure is fatal to the movie's success; but the physical beauty of the film itself is overwhelming. The world of the Lido of sixty years ago has been re-created in painstaking detail. The fashions, the entertainments, the table settings reveal Visconti's compulsion for accuracy. The photography is almost the first I have seen that is fully worthy of the beauty of Venice; the pink-and-gray city rises from waters of a glasslike smoothness, so that the water and the quality of light itself seem to suggest the presence of the plague-bearing sirocco wind. The wind brings both plague and beauty, which is its function in the Mann novel, and Visconti's mastery of visual style almost succeeds in creating the very ideas and feelings that his heavy-handed narrative entirely misses.

Popular Blog Posts

Now, "Voyager": in praise of the Trekkiest "Trek" of all

As we mourn Abrams’ macho Star Trek obliteration, it’s a good time to revisit that most Star Trek-ian of accomplishme...

The Unloved, Part Ten: "The Village"

Part ten in Scout Tafoya's The Unloved series tackles "The Village."

Who do you read? Good Roger, or Bad Roger?

This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...

Scorsese Receives Golden Thumb at TIFF Ebert Tribute

A photo gallery offering snapshots from The Ebert Dinner at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.

Reveal Comments
comments powered by Disqus