Luchino Visconti's adaptation of Thomas Mann's celebrated 1911 novella Death in Venice is visually beautiful and emotionally and thematically hollow. While the film should be simmering with emotional conflict and artistic torment and philosophical despair, it is instead a mostly tedious paean to Romantic ideals set against drab gray skies. In lieu of emotional engagement, Visconti and cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis (who had recently won an Oscar for his work on Franco Zefferilli's 1968 Romeo & Juliet) instead supply us with no end of languorous pans of well-appointed rooms full of handsomely clothed aristocrats and other wealthy denizens of the early 20th-century European upper crust. The film's production design has rightly been celebrated, as it impeccably evokes a cloistered world of wealth and privilege (one that the director knew firsthand, having been born into a wealthy Italian family), but Visconti fails to dramatize anything of substance in that world, leaving us with little more than a pretty shell to admire.
Dirk Bogarde, who also starred in Visconti's previous film, the notorious rise-of-the-Third-Reich psychodrama The Damned (1969), plays Gustav von Aschenbach, a famed composer who is retreating to Venice for personal and health-related reasons. While in Venice, he becomes obsessed with a teenage boy named Tadzio (Bjrn Andrsen), who is staying at the same hotel with his family. Tadzio is an androgynous beauty with flowing blonde hair, long limbs, and perfect cheekbones who alternates between boyish naivete and an disturbing self-possession that he uses to tempt Gustav whenever he is in his presence. Far from an abstract vision of idealized beauty, Tadzio is a knowing tease who stokes Gustav's desire, although he always remains at a coy distance. While Gustav's longing in Mann's novel was deeply complicated, Visconti reduces it to simple lust for a self-aware tormenter, which undercuts the film's higher aspirations to engage in a genuine exploration of the nature of art and beauty (in a television interview Visconti argued that the film is a love story about a "higher love," one that is neither sexual nor erotic, but the film definitely suggests otherwise). Visconti and his co-screenwriter Nicola Badalucco (with whom he had previously collaborated on The Damned) handle this somewhat clumsily by adding flashback scenes in which Gustav debates with a fellow composer (Mark Burns) about beauty, which for Gustav is the product of intellectual and artistic creation, while his friend insists that it is an inherent part of nature.
Such debates are purely academic and really have little bearing on our experience of the film, as these flashbacks play mainly as respites from the growing tedium of the Venice scenes, in which Gustav gazes on Tadzio from afar while a cholera epidemic slowly engulfs the city. According to Visconti, one of the primary themes of the film is Gustav's realization that beauty does indeed exist apart from artistic creation, which intellectually explains his obsession with Tadzio, but doesn't make the film any more emotionally engaging. We get bits and pieces of Gustav's life, including the fact that he has a younger wife (Marisa Berenson) and a deceased child, but it makes little difference since he exists largely as a stand-in symbol of the tortured artist; par excellence; he's a type, not a character. Visconti doesn't give Bogarde much to do but pine and fuss, instead handing most of the heavy lifting over to Gustav Mahler's Third and Fifth Symphonies, which blanket much of the soundtrack. (Mann apparently based Aschenbach on Mahler, but turned him into a writer in the novella; Visconti changed him back to a composer and had Bogarde made up to look like Mahler.) There are moments of intense visual pleasure in Death in Venice, but they are scattered in an ocean of increasing monotony that even the film's arguably unseemly subject matter is powerless to disrupt.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (2)
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