Focus On Film: Death In Venice (1971)

Having christened their new course with what is widely believed to be one of the finest literary adaptations in the history of cinema, David Lean’s Great Expectations, Dr. Chris Murray continued Dundee Contemporary Arts‘ latest Focus On Film with the much maligned Death In Venice, and a recorded introduction by absent fan Dr. Brian Hoyle.

Death In VeniceVacationing in Venice in an attempt to recoup his health, widowed composer Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) immediately finds himself at odds with the city and its comparatively laid back approach to life. Before he can bring himself to leave his room at the Grand Hôtel des Bains, however, he is stricken: first by Tadzio (Björn Andrésen), a beautiful young Polish boy on holiday with his family, and later by cholera as it proceeds to poison the surrounding Po and Piave rivers.

Adapted from Thomas Mann’s novella of the same name (or Der Tod in Venedig to give it its native German title), Death In Venice was released in 1971 by theatre, opera and film director Luchino Visconti, then best known for adapting Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard for the big screen. Despite being awarded the Golden Palm at Cannes and earning an Academy Award in costume design, the film was largely met with criticism for its controversial depiction of homosexual desire.

While attitudes have rightfully changed and LGBT cinema is no longer a hot topic in its own right, the subsequent years have done little to dull the reputation surrounding this particular film. That’s because it is not simply same-sex attraction that is at issue, but the fact that an older man is obviously lusting after an adolescent, as played by the then thirteen year-old Björn AndrésenIt’s an uncomfortable watch, and whatever the film’s merits it is impossible to invest in the relationship apparently being established onscreen.

And there are merits. Cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis has done a superlative job of lensing what is essentially the holiday from hell. While rarely beautiful, his camera captures a Venice that is labyrinthine, disquieting and extraordinarily oppressive (no wonder director Nicolas Roeg optioned the similarly Venice-set Don’t Look Now so soon after). Each frame is impeccably composed and expertly captures the calamity and clutter of the hotel beach, the old-world opulence of the Grand Hôtel des Bains, and the classical connotations of Tadzio’s various statue-esque poses.

Similarly strong are the film’s themes, with a number of parallels and oppositions being drawn between a younger Aschenbach caught in debate with a contemporary (in flashback) and the older man contemplating his life and the lessons that it has taught him. The concepts of art, love and dignity are each explored to thought-provoking effect — the development of Aschenbach’s character scored beautifully by select Gustav Mahler symphonies. The character’s fate feels incredibly apt, poetic even — it’s just a pity that it is so undermined by the sometimes dubious directorial decisions of Visconti.

Having now read the original text, I disagree that Death In Venice is a failed attempt at adaptation. At the same time, however, it is undoubtedly problematic, and more could have undoubtedly been done to dramatise Aschenbach’s inner demons and alleviate the need for endless eye-gazing. This isn’t Twilight, after all.

3.5-Stars

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About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

One Response to Focus On Film: Death In Venice (1971)

  1. Pingback: February 2013 – Snitches end up in ditches! | popcornaddict

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