Perhaps the defining strength of Luchino Visconti as a filmmaker is his ability to distill extraordinarily complicated issues into perfectly simple moments. In Senso (1954) he gives us military occupation in the act of changing boxes at the opera house. Rocco and His Brothers (1960) reflects a family’s dynamic in one conversation in a hallway. In The Leopard (1963) we are given the dissolving class structure in a ballroom dance. In Death in Venice Visconti is able to provide us with the agony and despair of a life lived in hiding all in a furtive glance. The problem with Death in Venice is that Visconti gives us that furtive glance 60, maybe 70 times over 130 minutes. We get glanced out.
Death in Venice, based on a novel by Thomas Mann, tells the turn-of-the-century story of a composer, Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), who leaves Munich for Venice and supposed relaxation after a bout with anxiety. He visits a spa and encounters a vacationing Polish family and becomes transfixed by the beautiful golden-haired Tadzio (Björn Andrésen). Aschenbach follows the young boy everywhere but never allows himself to approach him or even speak directly to him, always observing him from afar. A cholera epidemic befalls the city, and even though he has the opportunity and certainly the motive to escape the city, so complete is Aschenbach’s obsession with Tadzio that he stays to watch, contracting and eventually succumbing to the disease.
Aschenbach is led to his demise by the ever-present strains of Gustav Mahler’s most Wagnerian music, particularly the Fifth and Third Symphonies. The music provides a layer of unease as bathers and vacationers frolic about; the music never allows us to join in their revelry; it always quickens the pace a little, suggesting a mild madness. It also underlines a point that Visconti went out of his way to make. In Mann’s text, Aschenbach is a novelist. Here he creates music and more than that creates Mahler’s music, solidifying the link between the fictional Aschenbach and the real Mahler. Visconti also introduces flashbacks that include furious debates between Aschenbach and a colleague (Mark Burns) on the nature of beauty, whether it is generated by the physical or the intellect, with Aschenbach fiercely defending the mind. Yet Aschenbach may convince himself that he’s avoiding direct contact with Tadzio because a relationship would be inappropriate and unacceptable, but it is also slightly convenient for the vain and often self-tortured composer to maintain the young boy as an object of aesthetics only and not risk discovering that Tadzio’s intellect or personality be undesirable.
Sequences echo each other endlessly as Aschenbach follows Tadzio like a shadow. In someone else’s hands the movie would be tedious, even soporific, but Visconti is able to keep our interest with his use of Mahler’s music and the brilliant design of the location photography. The spa is a gorgeous sanctuary and looks like where Monsieur Hulot took his holiday, except it’s bathed in eternal sunset. Given the option, it’s understandable why Aschenbach would choose to remain here. Contrast that with the dark decay of the city itself, crawling with disease. Visconti reprises the menace he was able to give the streets in Senso, and his cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis is able to give us heaven and hell in the same city. Against this afflicted backdrop, Tadzio, with his healthy golden hair and clear porcelain skin, becomes not just the representation of what Aschenbach will never have, but also a salve, the balm that protects the composer from the rotten decay of the rest of the world.
Bogarde starred in one of the earliest mainstream movies to take a serious look at homosexuality in Basil Deardon’s Victim (1961), in which Bogarde played a closeted gay man in constant danger of being found out in a Britain where being gay meant professional leperism and jail time. Here he doesn’t seem to be too concerned in being found out. He keeps his distance from Tadzio, but by the end even the boy can pick up on the older man’s interest in him. Still Bogarde generates some of the same power as Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day (1993), another story of a man who lacks the courage to be happy. It’s pathetic to watch Aschenbach attempt to make himself more appealing, dying his hair and putting on garish make-up to make his skin resemble Tadzio’s. In the dramatic final moments when Aschenbach capitulates to the cholera, the dye runs down his faux white face, robbing him of both his life and his dignity.
Andrésen isn’t asked to do much because he exists only as the light at the end of the pier for Aschenbach. The handling of the character has been largely maligned (Roger Ebert was so nonplussed with what he thought to be Andrésen’s preening and posing for Aschenbach’s benefit, he accuses him of hustling), and I concede that he’s completely a one-dimensional figure, but in the story of myopic obsession, what else can he be?
Death in Venice is stretched a little thin for a premise that is set up in the first half hour and spends the next two hours winding, or sometimes grinding, down. It’s not particularly deep either, but it looks too good and is made by too fine a filmmaker to be uninteresting. The most common critical complaint of Death in Venice is that it misses the subtleties of Mann’s novella. (Vincent Camby, in The New York Times, called Visconti the most operatic of film directors and Mann the least operatic of prose writers—the irony being that Benjamin Britten’s opera of Death in Venice, which was being composed while Visconti’s film was in production, is much more faithful to the novella.) Further gripes are that it takes a story that is about many things and reduces it to being about one thing, unrequited love. Having not read the Mann book, I cannot comment on that except to say that that is what Visconti does. Furthermore, I can only review the movie I saw, which is sad and moving and devastatingly beautiful. Whether or not the book is a richer experience is completely inconsequential to me. Visconti, whose best work is typically adaptations from novels, is taking a risk every time he tackles a literary subject. Here it pays off enough, and Death in Venice, which is exhausting in the right way, was pretty rich itself.