Luchino Visconti | Siamo donne / We, the Women | Senso | White Nights | The Damned | Death in Venice | L'innocente

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Luchino Visconti

Luchino Visconti was an Italian film and stage director, noted for his artistic gifts.

Some common subjects in the films of Luchino Visconti:

Music: Architecture: Color: Costumes and Color:

Siamo donne / We, the Women

Siamo donne (We, the Women) (1953) is a series of episodes of a comedy film, each made with a different star and director. Visconti directed the episode with Anna Magnani.

Visconti's episode is a sort of Utopian fantasy. It shows Magnani, playing herself, wandering around Rome. Everywhere she goes, she spreads a bit of fun. The film is a fantasy about being a diva, and what that might mean in terms of comic joy.

The brief film has a structure a bit like The Leopard:

Multi-Story Courtyard

The police building has a huge, multi-story courtyard in its center. Other Visconti films will involve such interior, multi-story areas.

We also see people in boxes at the theater, another Visconti favorite image. This also involves a well-like, multi-story interior.

Uniforms

Everywhere Magnani goes, she meets crowds of young men in uniform: sailors, policemen. They all smile, and have a brief holiday, showing her courtesy. The film anticipates the interest Visconti will show in uniforms in The Leopard and The Damned. But, unlike these later films, these are innocent, modern day Italian young men. None is associated in any way with an oppressive regime, or any sort of sinister political program. They are just young guys, getting a welcome break from their serious routine, by meeting a movie star.

As usual in Visconti, the men are in groups of identical uniforms. Early on, we see groups of sailors, all in the same uniform. Later at the police station, there are large numbers of identically uniformed police. Such men in repeating clothes form building blocks of Visconti's compositions.


Senso

Senso (1954) is a romantic drama. Like The Leopard, it is a historical drama set against key events in Italian history.

The Opening: Color

The opening of Senso is one of the major set pieces in Visconti.

Ar first the colors are mainly neutral: an opera chorus in brown, officers in white uniforms, civilian men in black-and-white white tie and tails. The opera house is spectacular in gold: brilliant, but more a metallic tone than an actual color.

Then the display erupts, in the colors of the Italian flag: green, red and white. First we see flowers, those softest of all objects, hurled by a woman in defiance against a soldier. This contrasts softness with militarism. Then hundreds of paper manifestos in the same colors are rained. This is the first real color. Color seems part of a social protest.

Later, we see a woman in the opera house lobby looking at a announcement of the opera Il Trovatore on the wall. She is in a green dress, and soon we see another woman in a pale red gown. The colors of the clothes echo the colors of the protest.

Uniforms

Visconti once again builds up images from groups of men in identical uniforms. The opera is full of enemy Austrian officers in white uniforms. The uniforms are largely identical, although some have red collars and some yellow.

Later, we see a smaller number of men at the opera in light blue hussars uniforms. The contrast of white and blue anticipates the two colors of waiters' uniforms in The Damned. White and light blue are hardly the most macho of colors, and the pretty, light weight styling of the uniforms further undermines their wearers' gravitas.

Protest and Non-Violence

The opening is one of the most powerful depictions of a protest in film history.

The protest itself is non-violent. But what it is calling for is war. This means that the event is hardly a pure expression of non-violence as a philosophy.


White Nights

White Nights (1957) anticipates features of later Visconti films.

There are links to The Leopard:

White Nights also anticipates Rocco and His Brothers (1960): The visit to the opera in White Nights recalls on a more modest scale, the opening of Senso. Both have the characters in a crowded box or gallery, on the wall of the opera theater.

The Damned

The Damned (1969) opens with a family celebration among the Essenbecks, a wealthy German family of industrialists. The celebration reminds one of the aristocratic Italian family in The Leopard. Just as the aristocratic family centered around its patriarch, the Prince, so is this celebration the birthday of the Essenbeck family's patriarch, the elderly Baron Joachim. The wealthy characters seem infinitely powerful, and totally entrenched in the social order. But this is not so. While the characters and their political and social power seemed eternal in The Leopard, we are in a startlingly different situation with the Nazis in The Damned. This party will be the last expression of capitalist "normalcy" for the characters. Their whole world will immediately collapse, due to the destructiveness of the Nazi regime.

The Hall: Multi-Story Architecture

Many of the opening shots are staged in an indoor hall that is two stories high. Around the upper floor is a mezzanine, that extends around the edges of the hall. The camera frequently looks down from this balcony, into the deep well down to the hall below. The staging is similar to the courtyard at the end of Rocco and His Brothers, which looks at multiple levels of balconies within the apartment building courtyard. And to the opera sequence that opens Senso, which is set across a series of opera boxes ringed at various levels around the theater. In both of these early films, the staging is on three or more levels, but here the hall has only two stories.

Color Series

Colors are often repeated within a shot. Huge sections of walls will all be the same color wood, while other sections with be all white, for example. Or furniture pieces will be multiple instances of a matched set, all in identical colors. Floral decorations at the table will be repeated versions of the same shade of pink. Groups of characters will share identical clothes. The two little girls are in identical, light blue dresses. The attendants include a group of young men all in blue uniforms. A second group are all in white uniforms.

What this means is that most shots are made up of a series of regions and figures, which are made out of two to four colors, that repeat themselves throughout the image. Each figure or piece of furniture or wall section has its own geometric shape. But it is also matched to a whole series of other shapes or regions, that are also in identical colors, spread across the image. The figure or shape is not all by itself; it is part of a larger series of shapes that function as a visual group. A frame might have a series of shapes in blue, a second series in white, a third in reddish-pink. The three series will all interlock on screen, each color series with its own visual rhythm, spread out across the image. The eye sees the whole color series at once, as part of a pattern stretched across the frame. This can be quite different from the compositions of other filmmakers, in which each region onscreen has its own color, and functions as a shape all by itself in the overall composition.

Visconti tends to keep his different regions with the same color firmly separate from each other. If we see a series of waiters in blue, each will be in a different section of the shot, isolated from each other. Each waiter will be clearly marked out, forming a distinct, individual shape within the image. The same is true of identically colored furniture pieces, or wall sections. The eye sees each as a well-formed, geometrically distinct region. All of these separate shapes then form a color series spreading out across the screen.

Characters and Class Imagery

When first seen, Aschenbach (Helmut Griem) is in a gray suit, while Frederick Bruckman (Dirk Bogarde) is in brown. Visconti uses the same color symbolism here that will later be part of men's fashion in the 1975-1995 era, with gray symbolizing business success, and brown being a color indicating subservience and lower status. Aschenbach will always wear the most business-like clothes in the movie. He will always be dressed to indicate his success, competency and confidence within the world of the story. Here, nothing could look more official or business-like than his sharp gray suit and matching gray tie. He stops to adjust his perfectly tied tie in the mirror, further underscoring how perfectly he is groomed. The other male family members in the opening are in tuxedos. Only Aschenbach and Frederick Bruckman are in suits, and only Aschenbach's indicates business success. This immediately characterizes Aschenbach within the world of the film.

Although Konstantin is a member of this same powerful industrial family, Visconti associates him with working class imagery and style. He talks constantly about the factory, and berates other family members for being too snooty to want to enter it. The actor portraying him is a big roughneck, who reminds one of such working class icons as William Bendix in The Life of Riley, or Ernest Borgnine in Marty. We first see Konstantin in his bath, without clothes that might indicate any sort of upper class status. Instead he is talking with a working class servant. This anticipates Konstantin's later involvement in the SA, a group of violent lower class thugs who enabled Hitler's rise to power. The bathtub conversation with the servant, who rubs his back, also foreshadows the gay orgy that the SA will stage later on. This orgy will be friendly, abandoned, without any sort of cruel imagery, vulgar, and strongly working class in feel, just like the bathtub scene.

Sexuality as a Destructive force

Visconti often depicted sexuality as a destructive force. This is true of both gay and heterosexual sex. This too is the exact opposite of what any theory of the Male Gaze would suggest. Visconti had a double vision: his films ferociously depict sexuality, so that every viewer, gay or straight, gets a tidal wave like understanding of the sexual feelings the characters are experiencing. AND he shows the destructive political or social consequences of this sexuality. It is not a simple vision, and one hard to keep in balance, sometimes.

Similarly, Visconti inverts millennia of dramatic traditions, with the climatic marriages in his films. While such marriage is traditionally seen as a happy ending, in Visconti marriage can be an expression of evil. In The Leopard, the marriage cements the unholy alliance of the aristocrats and the upper middle classes against the poor. And the engagement party is intercut with the mass murder of the Garibaldians, and seen as its cause. In The Damned, the marriage is conducted as a Nazi ceremony. It centers entirely on Nazi racism and eugenics, the two most evil aspects of the Nazi regime, and a forecast of the Holocaust.

Uniforms

Both male and female characters in Visconti are overwhelmed by the sexual attractiveness of men in uniform. The uniforms worn by Delon in The Leopard and Aschenbach in The Damned seem to have a hypnotic effect on everyone around them, an almost irresistible sexual force. Yet the uniforms are also symbols of right wing social corruption, something the left wing Visconti viewed with abhorrence. When Delon and his friend abandon the Garibaldians for the established government, and put on their blue uniforms, it is the beginning of their embrace of a corrupt social order, one that will keep Sicily in poverty for another hundred years. And Aschenbach's SS uniform in The Damned represents everything evil about the Nazi regime. (The name Aschenbach anticipates Death in Venice.)

Aschenbach is the smooth-talking, manipulative SS man who seduces everyone in the film. He uses his uniform as part of this seduction. It has a powerful effect on Sophie (Ingrid Thulin), getting her to support the Nazis. Later he tries to persuade both the liberal Gunther and the psycho Martin to join the SS. Both listen to him spellbound. We never learn the effect on Gunther (did he join up? flee the country?) but we soon see Martin in an SS uniform too, for the film's final scene. Aschenbach uses his uniform on Frederick (Dirk Bogarde), too, but Aschenbach has more effect with his spiffy gray business suit at the beginning - it represents the business success that Frederick would like to have.

Similarly, the scene where Delon and his friend show up in government blue uniforms is the moment of their political corruption in The Leopard. Both are quite intoxicated with the sexual effect they are having on everyone at the party.

Visconti sees both sides of all this. He presents the uniforms as sexually irresistible. And also shows their connection to sinister government regimes.

One has to add that there is a "good" uniform in The Leopard, too - the red Garibaldi one. But still, Visconti has quite a lot to say about uniforms as combining both sexual appeal, and the exploitation of such appeal by right wing governments. It is a major theme running through both films.


Death in Venice

Death in Venice views its protagonist's sexual obsession with an underage boy with horror. In The Damned, Visconti showed what happen when a pedophile obsessed with little girls acts on his desires. It is a nightmarish descent into hell. It inflicts incalculable harm on the man's victim. The director seems no more endorsing of male pedophilia in Death in Venice. The composer protagonist suppresses and refuses to act on his feelings, which earns him far more sympathy from the director than the character in The Damned. And Visconti also shows that the man is not responsible for his feelings, which he cannot control - only for his actions, which he can. But the director does severely criticize the composer for not informing the family about the cholera epidemic. This shows obsession trumping moral decency.

This is part of what is problematic about the concept of "the Male Gaze". It suggests that filmmakers simply take their sexual obsessions, play them out on-screen, and expect the audience to feel the same. There is no suggestion that a director's attitude towards sexuality might be complex, or than the director might be creating complex characters, rather than simple sex objects, or exploring sexuality other than his own. Writings on Hitchcock's Vertigo often rightly describe Scotty's romantic obsessions in that film as "creepy", destructive, and condemned by the director. Similarly, a gay director such as Visconti might have similar negative feelings about something he is showing on-screen.

I am not an expert on Visconti's sexual life or personal sexual behavior. But some arithmetic shows that Alain Delon was 25 when he entered the world of Visconti's films, and Helmut Berger 22. These well-documented romantic obsessions of the director suggest he was attracted to good-looking men in their 20's. This seems far removed from the world of Tadzio.


L'innocente

L'innocente (1976) is Visconti's last film.

The opening scene is another Visconti look at men in identical uniforms. In L'innocente, these are fencer's outfits, rather than military uniforms.

The opening is in green and white, with the white uniforms standing out against the white background. It is an almost ghostly color scheme. The opening shot shows equally white light fixtures above the room. These anticipate the white uniforms, in a sort of visual pun. The fixtures too are multiple repeated images.

The concert is in red-and-green, with much gold ornamentation. It is intense, the film's richest color scene.