Newly restored, Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice is a dark and haunting artifact of the last century, the ultimate hazy fever dream tragedy of the rough-riding, arthouse 70s. Where else can everything else end but here, in a perfectly manicured palace of decadence, everyone ominously dropping dead of some unspeakable disease? The story, originally penned by Thomas Mann in 1912, is frank enough: a man enters a city and silently chases an object of some interminable beauty while the beach town around him is hit by one of those pre-vaccination era plagues, until he dies. It was an allegory that suggested to make art was to suffer. To love things was to suffer. To live outside the realm of ordinary life itself, was to suffer. It was a parable of queer life, by definition an entire existence outside of the ordinary run of things, and this was perhaps why the story has a long history of appealing to queer artists, from Benjamin Brittan, who turned it to his final opera, to Visconti who applied himself to the same material around the same time.
In Visconti’s film, the man suffering is Dirk Bogarde, who arrives bundled in scarves and bad outfits and donning the John Lennon glasses of a misplaced artist. Apart from flashback conversations about art and comic anger expressed at hotel concierges and the like, Bogarde is largely silent, following around a young man with a detached kind of erotic curiosity. Visconti’s style is to keep his camera still for long and almost overbearing takes, which make the ordinariness of everything else feel so oppressive. Those people, how can they just live! Visconti’s major edit to Mann’s novel was to rewrite its author protagonist as a composer — Visconti was adamant that Mann had actually based the novel on Gustav Mahler’s life and, true or not, he used Warner Brothers’ money to commission grand performances of Mahler’s Third and Fifth Symphonies. Recovering now from a failed performance of his own, Bogarde’s Gustav is driven to illness by every idle noise, laughter overheard at dinners, inept hotel concierges, a cacophony of small disgusts. In the world of noise, his desire achieves a kind of queerness that persists outside the realm of even speech.
The attention of the world made the leap that Gustav spent two hours of film not doing — diligently following his eyes to the object of his affection, Tadzio, played by a young Björn Andrésen. Visconti suffered little to find a physical form to occupy the subject of Mann’s existential quest and, in his choice, created a character who, as Will Aitken argued in his monograph “Death in Venice: A Queer Film Classic,” was among the first gay characters to cross over into mainstream fascination.
Critics were less fascinated. The mere presence of a young man, occasionally walking on the beach, turned the chaste self-abasement of its source material — at that point Mann’s novel occupied the space in teen imagination that Catcher in the Rye owns today — into something less cerebral, surely vulgar. The phrase “heavy-handed” appears in both Vincent Canby and Robert Ebert’s respective pans of the movie and both fault it for essentially the same thing: making physical what could be ignored or skimmed over in a book. “There also is a lot more to the man,” Canby writes of his own idea of Mann’s Gustav, without saying exactly what is missing about Bogarde’s incarnation besides his not being “more mysterious, complex, awesome and magnificent.”
But this would the film’s outstanding legacy — the young Andrésen would be the movie’s most remembered image, which persisted while Andrésen himself eventually gave up acting in order to try and fail, numerous times, to be, just like Visconti’s Gustav briefly imagines him to be, an excellent piano player who can translate the notes of the imagination into music perfectly. It is his face, after all, punched up like marble bust at the Met, that appears on the movie’s Criterion re-release and it is the shot of his half-naked body that, more controversially, appeared on the cover of Germaine Greer’s 2003 book “The Beautiful Boy,” coffee table study of young male sexuality that had the second-wave feminist cheerfully fearful she would be labeled a pedophile. It was Andrésen who would object most adamantly, who would use the occasion to relate to the Guardian an entire history of feeling used, as much by Visconti’s film as by its admirers.
But it is Gustav who comes to Venice in order to recover and, instead, he sit and watches others recover from their dreary lives, as stuck on a personal ring of hell crafted for ill-tempered vacationers. This is misery worse than the shadow of Andrésen’s beauty, which doesn’t really move me one way or another. We wonder, maybe, why Gustav doesn’t leave. The conventional reading of the material gives away too easily — he is so corrupted by his passion, he stays in this dying town! But how many of us really leave our bad holiday trips once we’re in the car and realize that the week ahead will only bring another kind of unmitigated hell upon our lives? If we die on vacation, of all places, it isn’t very likely we would have survived anywhere else.
Visconti’s Venice is fittingly dark in its mundane nature — the bad tourist-stiffing gondoliers, the big simpering families who take over its dining halls, the gaudy period-piece flowers stuffed into every vase. It’s a horrid beach town, a parable announcing the end of the decadent modernity from which Mann wrote from. It is no coincidence that his novel’s publication date antecedes the beginning of the first world war by less than a year. On the page, it is as if Mann can see these people already in the trenches and at home, morning over the deaths of the millions that will collapse for no purpose and to no end. The opulence of Visconti’s version feels similarly tired, the dreariness, disease, bodies slumping dead and then kept hidden away to keep the tourists coming. It feels like nothing less than a premonition of the decade that followed.
Is there any other movie where queerness is both so central and yet so sad? There are those movies about undefined love, the relationships communicated and excommunicated in the smallest and most perfectly executed glances. Then there is the ordinary melancholy, the lurch of love and the pang of heartbreak. But in Death In Venice, there is only total foreclosure. It is an emotion which cannot be felt, a study of repression which clangs back decades. It is, and maybe, as the newly exuberant queer cinema tells us, we are so lucky, something which can only be felt in that lost century, drowned in a mist we can only find here.