Friday, May 27, 2022

Confronting Death in Venice

You don’t expect a film called Death in Venice to be cheery. And of course this 1971 adaptation, by Italy’s great Luchino Visconti, of a Thomas Mann novella does stay true to its title. So there aren’t a lot of laughs here. Still, it’s an exquisite rendering of Mann’s story about a celebrated artist who falls prey to a vision of newly ripe male beauty. What I hadn’t remembered is that this work is set during the throes of a pandemic. It’s cholera, not COVID, that’s haunting the streets and canals of Mann’s turn-of-the-century Venice, but that sense of approaching doom is something we all know quite well. 

 Visconti, who collaborated on the screenplay as well as directing, made one significant change, turning Mann’s central character, Gustav von Aschenbach, from an author to a composer. He also gave his von Aschenbach, played with clenched intensity by British actor Dirk Bogarde, something of a backstory. Visconti’s von Aschenbach, has (or had) a loving young wife and little daughter. He also has a friend, a fellow aesthete, who insists that his music would be more vibrant if he were to let go of his usual self-discipline and try boldly challenging the boundaries of high art. Since Death in Venice is a subjective piece, filtered through von Aschenbach’s memory and imagination, some of the scenes playing out on screen could not have happened. And elsewhere there’s a surreal quality (a strange gondolier, a ghastly group of laughing entertainers) that helps make von Aschenbach’s solitary stay at a grand old beachfront hotel on Venice’s Lido particularly ominous.

 It's at that hotel that von Aschenbach first spots a slender boy in a sailor suit. This boy, a young teen with golden curls, is part of an entourage that includes a stylish mother and several modestly dressed little girls. They speak amongst themselves in Polish, obviously looking forward to a genteel seaside holiday. Instantly the boy, Tadzio, becomes von Aschenbach’s obsession. Entranced by his beauty—reminiscent of a slim young Greek statue—von Aschenbach takes to shadowing him, following the group onto the beach and into the Venetian streets, where remnants of disinfectant hint at a health crisis no one is officially willing to discuss.

 That’s pretty much the story, until its grim conclusion. Von Aschenbach lurks, passes Tadzio in corridors,  thinks of speaking (but does not), fantasizes warning the family away from the coming plague, generates in the young man a fleeting wisp of a smile. Tadzio is so crucial to the story that the DVD of the film (beautifully restored to show off Visconti’s pastel palette) contains a featurette on the search for the young actor who will fill this nearly silent but essential role. Visconti, certain he will not locate in Italy the young blond godling described by Mann, travels through Europe to find his prize. He visits schoolchildren in Poland and Romania, then heads for Scandinavia to scout out blue-eyed blonds. In Sweden, interviewing young actors (ideally about age 12), he discovers fifteen-year-old Björn Andrésen, whose tousled curls and classic features make him stand out. Worried that he’s too tall, Visconti keeps looking. Ultimately, though, Andrésen gets the job.

 Be careful what you wish for. Andrésen is perfection in the role, but his life would never again be the same. Promoted in the press as “the most beautiful boy in the world,” he’s worked hard over the years to dispel rumors about his sexuality. Andrésen has said, “My career is one of the few that started at the absolute top and then worked its way down. That was lonely.”

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