The Royal Treatment

Nick Pinkerton on the Luchino Visconti Retrospective at Film Society

Luchino Visconti, Ludwig, 1973, 35mm, color, sound, 238 minutes.

WE TAKE IT FOR GRANTED—or should, at least—that access to the motion picture apparatus at the highest levels of authority indicates a certain advantage of birthright. If feature fiction filmmakers’ publicity doesn’t make a point of mentioning that they didn’t grow up more than comfortable, it’s a pretty safe bet that they did. Hollywood nepotism and garden-variety privilege march through top-ranked film schools every year, and then there’s the case of Count don Luchino Visconti Count di Modrone. There aren’t many defectors from the ruling class coming from this high in the ranks; as such, their testimonies are invaluable.

Visconti, the subject of a long-overdue career retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, was a nobleman by birth, and a member of the Italian Communist Party by choice—though his political commitments had little impact on his lavish lifestyle. From 1277 to 1447, his family ruled Milan, and they still held a goodly chunk of it when he was born there in 1906, raised in an ancestral palazzo in spitting distance of La Scala opera house. The family crest, a crown-bedecked zigzag of a viper swallowing a man usually described as a Moor, can be found everywhere in the city, and you’ve probably seen it around elsewhere, as a design element of the logo for Alfa Romeo.

Young Lucino’s first ambition, befitting a gentleman, was to train and breed racehorses. After winning the Milan Gold Cup at twenty-six, however, he began to cast about looking for more worlds to conquer and landed on cinema, working as an assistant to Jean Renoir after Coco Chanel brokered an introduction between the two. It was Renoir who introduced Visconti to the book that would become the basis for his first feature, James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, adapted in 1943 as Ossessione, with Cain’s love triangle turned deadly material moved from roadside Southern California to rural Italy.

Ossessione, banned by the fascists whose authority the young director challenged with the haughty disdain of a true aristocrat, and its follow-up, La Terra Trema (1948), set in a Sicilian fishing village and cast with nonprofessionals, established Visconti at the vanguard of the emerging Italian Neorealist movement, though his preference for elegantly unfurling sequence shots was at odds with the rough-edged aesthetic of something like Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945). The contemporary, lower-class milieu of those first movies would be left behind with Visconti’s 1954 period piece Senso, a film that indicated the direction of his future work. Set during the Italian-Austrian war of unification in 1866, Senso begins with a scene of Italian nationalist protest during a performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore—by this time, Visconti had begun his career as a director of opera and stage plays, making a star of Maria Callas and helping to introduce Tennessee Williams, credited with Senso’s English-language dialogues, to Italian theatergoers. No longer pretending to obey the dictates of an external realism in style, Visconti here moved his camera as if it were a conductor’s baton, to the cadence of music and welling emotion, all while employing real, glamorous movie stars: Alida Valli as a miserably married Italian countess and the American Farley Granger as an officer in the Austrian army. (Granger, like Williams, was gay, and Visconti never much troubled to hide his own homosexuality—witness the lip-smacking reveal of star Massimo Girotti in Ossessione.)

The destructive sexual passion in Senso is not so different from that of Ossessione—upper and lower classes are leveled out by horizontal desire—but we are in a different, rarefied milieu here. As a filmmaker, Visconti used the specialized knowledge conferred by his high birth to show something of both the outer forms and inner lives of the class from which he originated, his deliberate and intricate blocking perfectly matched to the formal rituals of the noblesse. On a purely practical level it is, quite literally, difficult to imagine someone without Visconti’s connections making his haute monde films. Simply put, he knew the people with the keys to the palazzos.

Luchino Visconti, The Leopard, 1963, 35mm, color, sound, 186 minutes.

Lincoln Center has Visconti’s Neorealist efforts and Senso and other previously restored and revived favorites, including Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and The Leopard (1963). Though, without doubt, the event of this series is the long cut of his Ludwig (1973), an opulent, trance-like biopic of the mad king of Bavaria that has been bowdlerized and truncated from the moment of its completion, playing for a weeklong run on an exquisite 35-mm print in its preferred almost-four-hour version.

Ludwig may be considered a kind of apotheosis for Visconti. It is, for one thing, the last film that he made with his physical faculties intact more or less throughout its production. For all the significant merits of the chamber drama Conversation Piece (1974), Visconti’s reunion with The Leopard star Burt Lancaster, it is a work designed on a diminished scale to suit the diminished capacities of its director, whose chain-smoking and overworking resulted in a debilitating right-hemisphere stroke. (Diminishment of age is among the film’s subjects; per Lancaster’s character: “Old people are strange animals . . . Cross, intolerant, with sudden fears of the solitude they’ve made for themselves, which they then defend as soon as they see threatened.”) It also crystallizes themes that run through his preceding thirty years of filmmaking: the uneasy interplay between personal passions and prescribed duties in individuals, carried on even as the class structures dictating their roles come down around their ears.

In Ludwig, Visconti’s lover and muse Helmut Berger—the star of both his The Damned (1969) and Conversation Piece and recently the subject of Andreas Horvath’s transfixing train wreck of a documentary portrait Helmut Berger, Actor (2015)—plays King Ludwig II from his coronation at age eighteen to his mysterious death at forty, following his being deposed by a cabinet conspiracy and institutionalized, his corpse recovered in shallow water at Lake Starnberg. Here, as ever, Visconti is interested mostly in monarchs and aristocrats on the cusp of obsolescence, the anachronistic state into which he was born—he inherited his title from his playboy father, but much of his money from his mother, an heiress to a pharmaceutical fortune. The rise of modern nationalism alongside industrialization is a historical phenomenon which exerts on Visconti a particular pull. The unification of Italy plays a key role in both Senso and The Leopard, in which the family of the prince of Salina (Lancaster) is divided between Royalist loyalty and the draw of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s rebel redshirts. Ludwig portrays the waning of the independent Bavarian state under the absentee rule of the royal aesthete, a saturnine homosexual who quenches his desire with sleepover playdates. Looming in the background is the inexorable waxing of Prussian militarism, setting into motion a chain of events that ends with the rise of the Third Reich, as addressed in The Damned.

Luchino Visconti, Ludwig, 1973, 35mm, color, sound, 238 minutes.

We watch Berger’s Ludwig age from a beautiful, idealistic boy into a corpulent paranoiac piled under furs befitting a barbarian chieftain, his ice-blue eyes recessed into dark circles, his teeth like black pearls. Decadence and decay abound in Visconti’s films of the etiolated upper castes, whose members are seen draining into ghostly half-life well in advance of their actual physical demise. In her review of The Leopard, Pauline Kael described Lancaster and his retinue coated with road dust: “Seated in the Salina family pews, they’re like corpses––petrified, dead-wood figures.” In Death in Venice (1971)—part of, with The Damned and Ludwig, Visconti’s “German Trilogy”—Dirk Bogarde’s vacationing Gustav von Aschenbach, sick with desire for a beautiful Polish boy, makes himself quite literally sick, staying on through a cholera outbreak to primp and curl and paint himself for a fantasy courtship, fever sweat turning his age-concealing makeup into a hideous, garish mask of counterfeited youth.

Visconti, in adapting Thomas Mann’s short novel, changed the central character from a writer to composer, turning out a film awash in the music of Mahler that, nevertheless, inevitably evokes Richard Wagner’s last days in Venice—with its languorous, lulling pacing, the movie suggests the title of Franz Liszt’s eulogy for his fellow composer, “The Lugubrious Gondola.” Wagner seems to have been much on Visconti’s mind during this time. He appears, played by Trevor Howard, as a pivotal character in Ludwig, a beneficiary, as he was in life, of the munificence of the king; the Italian title of The Damned translates from the German Götterdämmerung as “twilight of the gods,” a phrase inextricable from Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle. One suspects that Visconti saw in cinema the medium best suited to the Wagnerian project of Gesamtkunstwerk, a single art that encompasses all others—a similar preoccupation of the Englishman Michael Powell’s. In Ludwig, Visconti might be undertaking something of a double self-portrait: Ludwig the patron/soft touch sucker, and Wagner the artist/opportunist.

Proletarian allegiances aside, Visconti was not known to be a particularly fraternal fellow—in playing The Leopard’s prince, Lancaster famously studied and imitated the aloof, straight-backed comportment of his director. Ludwig has none of the prince’s ineradicable dignity, though he does have his own sense of style. Inviting an actor he fancies to his Linderhof Palace, Ludwig makes an entrance in the indoor Grotto of Venus, a simulacra of Capri’s Grotta Azzurra equipped with an artificial waterfall, live swans, and a cockleshell boat, on which he appears in full regalia.

Here, as in Bogarde’s sweat-streaked final moments in Venice, Visconti courts camp grotesquerie. Yet Ludwig is not only absurd but touching—and certainly more harmless than the forces who work to dethrone him. Seeing him removed from these fantastic environs to putter around a somber chamber fit for a bachelor bourgeois Victorian bank clerk, one almost wants to cry, as Marlene Dietrich is said to have done after a Paris screening of Jean Cocteau’s La belle et la bête (1946): “Where is my beautiful Beast?” So long as this revival is underway, however, there will be a menagerie on display.

“Visconti: A Retrospective” runs from June 8 to June 29 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.