Friday, November 11, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Death in Venice (1971)

Death in Venice (1971) **
Directed by: Luchino Visconti.
Written by: Luchino Visconti & Nicola Badalucco based on the novel by Thomas Mann.
Starring: Dirk Bogarde (Gustav von Aschenbach), Mark Burns (Alfred), Romolo Valli (Hotel manager), Marisa Berenson (Frau von Aschenbach), Björn Andrésen (Tadzio), Silvana Mangano (Tadzio's mother).

On my honeymoon, we spent a few days in Venice, and I absolutely fell in love with the city. It is so unlike every other city I’ve been to, such a unique and beautiful city, that you can’t help but love it. Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice makes the city look its best. This is an absolutely gorgeous film from beginning to end. But to me, it is a hollow film. The main thrust of the story offers little other than the beauty of Venice for a viewer to hold onto, and the flashbacks and ludicrous and overwrought. I love Visconti – films like Ossessione, Rocco and His Brothers and The Leopard rank among my favorites of all time, but despite its lofty reputation, I found Death in Venice to be a dull experience.

The film stars the great Dirk Bogarde as Gustav von Aschenbach, a thinly veiled Gustav Mahler, whose music plays throughout the film. The film was based on the novel by Thomas Mann, whose central figure was a writer, but Visconti decided to change it, for reasons I’m not sure of. No matter, the profession of the main character is the least of the films problems. Gustav has been working hard, but has suffered a medical setback, and is told he needs a long period of total relaxation. He leaves Berlin and travels to Venice by himself, where he is to stay in the best room, at the fanciest hotel. It isn’t long before Gustav becomes obsessed with a beautiful teenage boy named Tadzio (Bjorn Andresen), who is in the hotel visiting with his family from Poland. Gustav doesn’t talk to Tadzio, but admires him from afar. For his part, Tadzio always seems to be posing – for Gustav and the camera. He never simply goes about his business – ever time, the camera comes near him, he stops and stares into longing – which is usually followed by a shot of Bogarde in some kind of blissful state that Tadzio, that beautiful boy, has deemed him worthy to be looked at. This makes up the heart of the Venice section of the film – well these types of scenes, alongside Gustav’s paranoia, which turns out to be justified, about sickness running through Venice. The scenes in Venice are all wonderful to look at – Visconti has captured the city at its most breathtakingly beautiful – so after about an hour of the film, I contented myself with looking at a city I love that has been photographed with the type of love and care it deserves.

A bigger problem with the film however are the flashbacks to Gustav working in Berlin. Essentially, these scenes boil down to Gustav debating with Alfred (Mark Burns), the meaning of art and beauty. These flashbacks become more melodramatic, and eventually devolve into Alfred screaming and laughing at Gustav for his apparent phoniness. These scenes don’t work at all – particularly the last of these scenes, where Gustav’s latest creation is booed by the audience, which gives Alfred a perverse glee.

The real problem I had with Death in Venice is that it doesn’t really seem to know what it is saying about Gustav’s attraction of Tadzio. Clearly, there is some homosexual lust on Gustav’s part, but it is more than that. Gustav is obsessed with beauty, and there is no other word to describe Tadzio than beautiful. When I first saw him, in the type of sailor outfit I didn’t know they made for boys over the age of 1, I thought he was a prepubescent girl. I know that Visconti is filming Tadzio not as a real character – which would be a distraction – but as an object of beauty, like Michelangelo’s statute of David for example. This very easily could have worked, but I think Visconti tries way too hard to press this idea upon us. Watching Andresen pose for the camera reminded me of the ridiculous faces Ben Stiller makes in Zoolander. Everyone in the film is trying too hard – with the exception of Bogarde. Bogarde was an incredible actor, capable of delivering more with subtle body language than most actors did with entire speeches, but here he is perhaps too subtle – too still. Visconti undercuts the subtly of Bogarde’s performance, by making the movie too thuddingly obvious.

There are things to admire about the film of course – the lush cinematography, the lovingly crafted costumes and art direction, Mahler’s beautiful, romantic music on the soundtrack. But all of that is background noise. It’s the heart of the movie that is missing. I think of all the films I have watched so far in this series, Death in Venice is my biggest disappointment.

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