Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971) — Beautification of an Ugly Death
Death in Venice (1971) directed by Luchino Visconti is a film that is highly subjective and impressionistic, and there is often a glaring oppositionality in several of its themes. In the pursuit of beauty, the protagonist Aschenbach searches desperately for it in the “spirit” against the “flesh”, finds a distance between himself and his desired object and is engulfed within the themes of solitude, repression and voyeurism. Discourse around the film is so heavily concentrated in its visual and musical significance that there is often somewhat of a dismissal of the pivotal scene of the conversation between Aschenbach and Albert, deeming the dialogue vain and superficial. However, aligning with the analysis of certain aspects of narrative, cinematography and mise-en-scène, one might explore several of the cinematic nuances this film offers.
A few key points for an analysis of the film:
- The film is an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novel of the same title. Aschenbach’s narrative could in fact even be paralleled with Mann’s stay in Venice and his numerous experiences there.
- However, the focus must be to view this film more as a discussion of beauty and desire and a commentary on art moving towards a more abstract means of expression.
- The adaptation of the text from literary to audiovisual form was actualized through Pasqualino De Santis’ camera work in relation to Visconti’s perspective of the cultural deterioration of Europe.
- Understanding the relationship between Aschenbach and Albert with that of Mahler and Arnold Schönberg is also pertinent especially considering Visconti’s denial of this idea and his consideration of Albert only as Aschenbach’s alter ego.
- There are certain sequences that are responsible for the musical domination of the film, where diegetic music tends to be a transitional force from one diegetic level to the next. This is exemplified in the scene where Tadzio plays Beethoven’s Für Elise, providing a segue into Aschenbach’s flashback of the prostitute playing the same piece in a different instance.
- Long takes and subjective shots were essential in establishing a connection between Aschenbach and Tadzio during the scene of the loud street musicians.
The pursuit of beauty, perfection, and pleasure
One of the most substantial points that Bacon makes is that although Aschenbach is in the indefinite pursuit of beauty, he finds himself caught up with an imbalance of sorts. He is struggling against a grave dilemma — whether beauty can be found in the “spirit” in the form of art, or in the “flesh”, symbolized by either Tadzio and arguably by the prostitute, or in the semblance of youthfulness. However, beauty is eventually unattainable to him in any of these forms, and what ultimately left to him is the death of both forms. This description underlines the key theme of “impossible desire” — he is neither able to reach human pleasures, in the bodily form of Tadzio or a satisfaction with the prostitute, nor is he able to achieve aesthetic perfection through his art, recounting his flashback of an unfulfilled crowd booing at his musical presentation. For example, in the first half of the film he is involved in a complex discussion of perfection in art with Albert. However, towards the end he is lead towards a path of self-deterioration in all its physicality despite his desperate attempts to maintain even the semblance of youth. Mise-en-scène, specifically costume and make-up provide this effect — as he finally begins to give in to death as audiences view his face mask crumble and his hair color melt. Any qualms of physical desire for Tadzio are also left unresolved, understood through the technique of voyeurism, wherein in his last glances at Tadzio at the beach, he is unable to lift himself off his chair and is lead to his eventual demise. Hence, the quest for both spiritual and physical beauty end in vain for Aschenbach.
The protagonist is a personification of the setting
Whilst their debate between Aschenbach and Albert is pivotal and sets up base for the film’s themes of solitude and Aschenbach’s lack of human connection, Aschenbach’s perspective on art is actually a grave reflection of his own characteristics and circumstances, as well as a parallel to those of Venice. When discussing spirituality in relation to art, Aschenbach comments that “reality only distracts and degrades us” and that the “creation of beauty is a spiritual act.” This severe disconnect of reality is what lends both Aschenbach and Venice their demise. While Venice is plagued because of the invasion of cholera, its people complacently ignore its condition and keep mum for the fear of the wiping out of tourism. Just as Venice maintains a façade of health, so does Aschenbach; he makes an attempt to feel bodily pleasure with a prostitute which ends up in dissatisfaction, and puts on a mask of youth using face and hair paint, which eventually falls apart as he comes to the end of his life. What Venice fears losing is what Aschenbach lacks greatly — human connection, caused by a severe pulling away from reality. Their debate heavily foreshadowed what lead to Aschenbach’s eventual failure to reconcile himself with true beauty both in flesh and spirit, and also hinted towards the dual end of Aschenbach and the city of Venice.
An argument in favour for Visconti’s Death in Venice is at its strongest where it delves into Aschenbach’s doomed search for pure beauty in both the spirit and the flesh. When reliably linked together, this argument outlines how such a quest for an idea as abstract as beauty leads both the film’s setting and its protagonist to their demise. However, it is just as essential to acknowledge the dialogue sequences as the sections embellished with music and visuals.