Death In Venice

Death In Venice

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

What is true beauty? Is it what an artist might create or is it what we encounter with our senses? Composer Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) travels to Venice to escape stress and seek artistic inspiration, the space to create. What he finds is an adolescent boy whose physical perfection so captivates him that he embarks on an obsessive pursuit destined to destroy him.

Itself a feast for the senses, Visconti's darkly enchanting film presents us not only with the beauty of the desired youth, Tadzio (Björn Andrésen), but also with a vision of the city of Venice unmatched in its wondrousness before or since. It's a city just as beautiful in death as in life, in a state of decay as it is struck by cholera. Once bright fountains foam ominously; broken people huddle in alleyways; doors are barred with crosses and the blue water of the canals grows shadowy with menace, yet this can only add to its allure, the threat of destruction compounding its romance.

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Then there's the music. Standing in for Aschenbach's creation and providing a voice for a film with almost no dialogue is Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony. Unlike most film scores, added after the fact, this is the heart of the tale, everything else choreographed around it like a dance. Its powerful themes of yearning and loss set the tone. Visconti based Aschenbach himself (though not his story) on the troubled composer, adding an extra layer of metaphor and deeper cinematic meaning, where the character in Mann's original novella was a writer. Where a voiceover or other attempts at literary exposition would have been clumsy, the music is fluid and direct. It seems to accompany the doomed man's every thought.

Dirk Bogarde considered his performance as Aschenbach to represent the pinnacle of his career. He was always known for choosing challenging roles and this wasn't the first time he'd taken on the taboo of homosexuality, but Aschenbach was not the otherwise conventional, overtly sympathetic hero of Victim - his paederasty was (and remains) a far more difficult subject. It is to his great credit that he not only retains sympathy for Aschenbach but enables the viewer to identify with him and even to feel uplifted as he is uplifted by his vision of Tadzio's purity. His obsession is complex; as much aesthetic as sexual it also seems to represent a longing for the youthfulness that has left him and for the creative potential that entailed; and, perhaps, its self-destructive nature is also part of its appeal. Increasingly ridiculous as he grows more desperate, especially in the scenes where he attempts to recapture his youthful looks, he becomes a Lear-like figure, his madness part of his tragedy, almost admirable in his willingness to let it, finally, consume him.

As Tadzio, Andrésen is sensibly distant, as unknowable as beauty itself. At the simplest level he is a figure who, at the opposite end of the journey of life, lives in a different world parallel to Aschenbach's own, never fully connecting with it. At another, he is death embodied, vigorous in the dying city, almost incidentally seducing a man who has fought against life for as long as he can bear. He will replace Aschenbach, blooming into adulthood as the composer dies, his own strange quality eclipsing the music. All the dying man can hope for is to be close to him, to dream of possessing or becoming him as the symphony draws to a close.

Innately melodramatic, unremittingly langurous, Death In Venice is as complete a film as can be, existing in its own space and on its own terms. Not everybody succeeds in connecting with it; it seems almost to disregard the audience. Once you have discovered it, however, you will never be the same.

Reviewed on: 22 Mar 2012
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An ageing composer becomes obsessed with a beautiful teenage boy as cholera ravages the City of Bridges.
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Director: Luchino Visconti

Writer: Luchino Visconti, based on the book by Thomas Mann.

Starring: Dirk Bogarde, Björn Andrésen, Silvana Mangano, Romolo Valli, Nora Ricci

Year: 1971

Runtime: 130 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: Italy, France

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