Luchino Visconti, Death In Venice (1971)

Luchino Visconti’s Death In Venice is an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novel; it follows Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), a composer who, due to ill health, comes to Venice. The film explores the encounter of true beauty amidst the decay – Venice is struck down by a plague toward the end of the film. The music present throughout the film are Gustav Mahler’s the Third and the Fifth symphonies and the main character is himself a composer, while in the novel he is a writer. This change made by Visconti is important since it highlights the musical nature of the protagonist and connects him to the romantic music we hear throghout the film; it amplifies the intensity of Gustav’s feelings, but also provides a setting which facilitates the contemplation of beauty. Gustav is infatuated with the beauty of a stunningly beautiful youth, a teenage boy.

The Nietzschean concepts of Apollonian and Dyonisian are particularly relevant to the film; the protagonist, as his friend makes a remark in the flashbacks we see in the film, sets high moral standards of perfection and restraint upon himself (the Apollonian element) and suppresses the irrational and passionate Dyonisian element. During the flashbacks, we witness the conversations of philosophical nature regarding the role of the artist and whether the artist creates from the spirit or, as his friend suggests, through the senses. “Evil is a necessity”, says his friend while despising Aschenbach’s self control and the lack of passion for things, his sterile self-composure. The artist “feeds” himself upon the decay and sickness, his friend emphasizes, and good health is a dry thing, as well as the neglect of the passionate, sensual encounter with the world. “Genius is a divine gift. A sinful morbid flash fire of natural gifts”.

 

When Aschenbach comes to Venice, he encounters a grotesque figure wearing make-up and later in the film he himself tries to look youthful and gets a similar make-up resembling a death mask. Upon arriving to Venice, a corrupt gondolier takes him in the direction he doesn’t want to go; this points to the fact that Aschenbach’s encounter with Tadzio is not an act of his will, as he sees him he is momentarily infatuated and cannot escape the admiration of beauty he sees. The film conveys the appearance of beauty amongst decay, beauty degenerating into the grotesque and implicitly the degeneration of art, being either a pure form for the contemplation of beauty and the aesthetical or a sensual manifestation. In other words, degeneration and decay and the possibility of encountering beauty in its purity is the main theme of the film.

Aschenbach says that at his father’s house he had an hourglass and that “the aperture through which the sand runs is so tiny that… that first it seems as if the level in the upper glass never changes. To our eyes, it appears that the sand runs out only… only at the end.” The antinomies between youth and old age, sickness and health are deeply present throughout the film as well as  the perception of timelessness during the contemplation and admiration of beauty. Aschenbach’s  friend says to him that he has never possessed chastity since purity is a privilege of youth: “In all the world, there is no impurity so impure as old age.”

 

Vigorous line:

“You must never smile like that. You must never smile like that at anyone. I love you.”

Gustav von Aschenbach

 

In Plato’s dialogue thematically dedicated to eros and love, Phaedrus, Socrates says that although madness can be illness, it can bring us blessings. The form of “divine madness” Plato writes about is love that comes from Aphrodite and Eros. We can see that Gustav, after seeing Tadzio on the beach, starts composing, while we can assume that, due to his illness, he was not artistically productive before that. For Plato, the madness of love arises from seeing beauty and being reminded of true universal beauty. Gustav is vilely distressed when he does not see Tadzio and joyous when he does, he is completely obsessed with the boy; not until the last part of the movie does he engage in any contact with him. Tadzio is for Gustav, and for Visconti as a creator of art, an artistic form itself, like an ancient statue that majestically shines in the sun.

Whether Gustav’s affection for Tadzio is sensual is debatable, but the impression the film leaves is that Tadzio is a manifestation of Gustav’s obsession with beauty and perfection and that that relationship is erotic in the Platonic sense of the term. If we borrow Plato’s vocabulary, Gustav is “reminded” of the universal beauty which Tadzio represents in the material form. When he touches his hair and his hand shakes, it can be compared to the child’s desire to touch statues at a museum, but knowing that it is forbidden.

 

For Gustav this is forbidden, not only because of the social conventions, but because by experiencing beauty through the senses the Platonic element of observing the earthly reflections of the idea of beauty is compromised. Tadzio’s smiling to him compromises the aesthetic experience as well, since it brings an element of the emotional and sensual.   In this moment, Gustav’s degeneration commences regarding to experiencing Tadzio as a reflection of Divine Beauty. Gustav’s friend says: “No, Gustav, no. Beauty belongs to the senses, only to the senses.”

This is particularly the view Gustav is opposed to and he cannot accept since he sees art and beauty as coming from the spirit. In an ending scene, when Gustav is dying on the beach and observing Tadzio as he is illuminated by the Sun in the sea, blood is trickling down his forehead, the artist dies while observing pure beauty. Symbolically it may mean that when the artist is confronted with the purest form of beauty, he starts dying, since everything he may observe later would be degenerate in comparison with the Beauty he experienced.

Hrvoje Galić

Leos Carax, Holy Motors (2012)

Holy Motors is a French film directed by Leos Carax; it competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. In its quaint particularity it approaches themes like sex, modern life, libertinism and aesthetics, completely justifying the aforementioned honour. It opens wih a shot of people in the theater watching a film, suggesting that film-watching experience is a dreamlike state. The film follows a day in the life of Monsieur Oscar who is, as we can tell, a businessman who performs various tasks during the night (aiming to escape his stressful life lacking meaning). 

The tasks are ordered by a woman named Céline (possibly an allusion to the great French novelist). He murders, pretends to be a beggar or a derranged person, an old man on his deathbed – all of these role plays symbolizing the place of  man in contemporary society. He exchanges personalities as easily as articles of clothing, rises from the dead and breaks down in cries. Holy Motors combines music (a very powerful scene with an accordion – “trois, deux, merde!”) with hypnotic shots of driving down distorted streets.

When Richard Wagner was composing and writing the libretto for Tristan und Isolde, he was deeply influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer’s metaphysics and his vision of the world as Will (irrational, mindless, aimless), beneath the world as we perceive it (representation). Tristan and Isolde, during the second act, are together during the night (world as Will) and must be apart during the day because Isolde is promised to King Marke (world as representation). 

The same can be applied to Holy Motors. During the night, Oscar lives as he truly is, he follows his primordial instincts, and during the day he is a successful businessman. It is true that the graveyard scene and the one with a model happen during the day, but we must keep in mind that Oscar is masked. It is an another argument that can be interpreted by means of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics which implies that the world is our representation.

One may be inclined to use the term “surreal” to describe it, and one may not be wrong. Nevertheless, the film’s main point is not in its surreality, but in the distortion and chaotic misrepresentation of reality aiming to transform our perception of  it; at least during its running time. It is a powerful satire that is sometimes sentimental but does not reach the “point of no return”. The scene with Kylie Minogue in its sincerity and restrained sensitivity is one of the most captivating moments in the film. One of its many virtues is that it does not take itself seriously; its main aim is to provoke reflection.

The most interesting (and possibly shocking) scene in the film is the one with a model (Eva Mendes) which is abducted by monsieur Oscar. The shots with him putting a veil on her and him lying naked are particularly interesting to analyze; Michel Houellebecques’ novels Submission and The Elementary Particles deal with such issues.  Holy Motors presents the modern man stripped down to his instinctual desires; he is aching for liberation. It is as if Carax proclaims “the death of man” as Michel Foucault does.

Vigorous line:

“Beauty? They say it is in the eye of the beholder”

Michel Piccoli’s character

“And if there’s no more beholder?”

 Monsieur Oscar

Eye of the Beholder

This line presents the traditional notion of perspectivism, as supported by Nietzsche and lately by postmodernist authors, but expands its scope. It is no longer self-evident that we will find beauty in a piece of art or an object of possible aesthetic worth simply by enjoying it and contemplating it. According to Mr. Oscar, that is no longer simply a truism. When he questions the existence of “the beholder”, he questions the capability of man to perceive beauty according to his aesthetic inner eye (if it exists).

 Modern man has gone a long way in the advancement of technology, but as it is pointed out earlier in the conversation, technology may very well be the destruction of beauty (Martin Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology particularly adresses the question of dangers that technology brings).

Oscar says: “I miss the cameras. They used to be heavier than us. Then they became smaller than our heads.” With the advent of the internet it is possible to view artistic works of Botticelli and Raphael (to take an example) for free. It makes a great difference if one views paintings online or goes to a “pilgrimage” to Toledo to see the El Greco Museum. If something is free, its value in the eye of the beholder downgrades. This simple truism reminds of Oscar’s nostalgia that points to the fact that as soon as technology reaches a certain point of development it radically changes the very way we perceive reality.

In line with Mr. Oscar’s arguments, it can be concluded that the beholder is annihilated. Nowadays, art is consumed, eaten (as Refn’s The Neon Demon suggests); the beholder’s inner eye for beauty is distorted. The other notion that Oscar’s line adresses is the transformation and disfiguration of an eye that does not perceive the world aesthetically, but through pragmatic lenses. Remember that earlier in the film the photographer maniacally cries “Beauty! Beauty! Beauty!”. When beauty becomes an obsession in a crude manner, it ceases to be beauty and is a distortion of  mind that sees only an object before him, not a piece of art with its soul, rhythm and vigour. Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote “Only as an aesthetic phenomenon can the world be justified.”; his interpreter Raymond Geuss asserts that the world justifies itself if it offers an aesthetically pleasing spectacle to an appropriately sophisticated observer. In other words, when these notions are juxtaposed to the words of Mr. Oscar, an appropriately sophisticated observer [the beholder] may cease to exist.

Hrvoje Galić