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

Yasujirō Ozu, Late Spring (1949)

There is a certain sadness that permeates Ozu’s films, of the passing of time and an era; of transience, of a time that will be long gone, but needs to be preserved. This is most particularly true for his so-called “Noriko Trilogy”, which stars Setsuko Hara, Ozu’s muse; Last Spring is a part of the trilogy. The film follows Noriko as she is living with her father, her devotion to him and her reluctance to get married and leave him. It is a domestic drama that strives for simplicity, but also portrays an era Japan is going through, the post-war period. The rapid change of social structure and most particularly young generations is presented.

His other films, Tokyo Twillight, for example, show the consequences of those changes for the structure of the society, most notably the family. Ozu is called “the most Japanese” of the directors famous in the West; Akira Kurosawa was never recognized in Japan in a way the Western societies valued him. Ozu was called a “social conservative” by the New Wave Japanese directors, and that may very well be true. His portrayal of the changes that ocurred in the post-war Japan show the impact of Westernization policies in everyday life and in the prevailing atmosphere.

 Late Spring opens with a shot of a railway station sign written both in English and Japanese and a shot of a traditional Japanese building. This scene alone shows that the film deals with the traditional and newly emerging influence on the Japanese culture. Later, Coca Cola sign appears; it was not unusual for Japanese directors of that era to use its symbolism as a sign of the Western influence on Japanese culture – the ending of Imamura’s Profound Desires of the Gods uses this particular symbol extensively. When Noriko’s father and his friend are talking about in which direction Tokyo, the ocean and the shrine are located, his friend seems to lose orientation with regard to the exact location of the places and static objects. This implies that Japan is losing its cultural locus  and identity in the historical changes, and is lost in the transformation that is taking place; the identity needs to be rashaped and found again.

West Tower

The changes are not just cultural, in the sense that children are playing baseball and Gary Cooper is a symbol of masculinity; they are broad in the sense that the societal structure is changing, but there is a need to preserve the traditions of the people. This particular tension is the major force behind Ozu’s most important works. Late Spring seems to be a personal film for Ozu, since he never married and stayed with his mother until she died, he passed away two years later.

 The film is mainly about filial devotion and care, and ultimately the sacrifice for the loved one. A particularly powerful scene is the one in which Noriko and her father are at a Noh play in the theatre. Noriko, anticipating the possibility of leaving her father and marrying, looks down sadly, while the chants and music are being performed. The camera beautifully captures Noriko’s feelings and sadness over her anticipated departure, the solemn atmosphere and her father’s face showing delight make it the key scene in the film.

 

Noriko’s father tells how she was engaged in forced labor during the war and  used to “spend her holidays scrounging for food” and how that built her character. Ozu implies that character is built through sacrifice and suffering. The scholar Motoori Norinaga invented a term to define the essence of Japanese culture; it is called mono no aware, the phrase derives from aware which means “sensitivity to things.”. This kind of sensitivity is particularly present in Ozu’s films, Late Spring seems to capture the moments with great care and the film delicately captures the feelings of the protagonists and the spirit of the tradition. There is a certain warmth in this portrayal, characters are shown as deeply sensitive and caring toward others and prone to endure what is necessary.

 

Vigourous line:

“If I had said otherwise she wouldn’t have married”

Noriko’s father

 

Noriko’s father lies about remarrying, wanting to leave impression that he will ve someone to live with and take care of him. This is particularly hard for him since Noriko repeatedly expressed her wish to stay with him so he can be taken care of. When they talk for the last time before her marriage, she says: “Even marriage couldn’t make me happier. My greatest happiness is to be with you.” Ozu uses an ellipsis, which is a characteristic of his cinematic style, when he does not show Noriko’s marriage on screen; her fiancé is not present as well. Her father’s lie about remarrying is what Plato presented as a “noble lie”, a lie which is necessary to be the foundation of something of utmost importance; for him the foundation of a state, for Noriko’s father the prospect of his daughter starting a new life in marriage.

Noriko’s father’s friend remarries and Noriko calls him “unclean”, jokingly, but she sees that act as indecent, to say the least. Her father’s sacrifice is thus even greater since the biggest lie he told, as he says, involves an act which his daughter sees as immoral. The viewer cannot but feel respect toward a man who does not shy away from putting his honor at stake for good ends; at the same time he loses his loved one and condemns himself to loneliness.

 

The film ends with father entering the house, sitting on a chair and peeling an apple. There is immense sadness in this scene, and the viewer cannot but feel father’s pain, alongside him. His head falls down in despair; he is left alone so his daughter can have a prospect of a good life and happiness. One cannot but think that this symbolizes the end of the old Japan, as it was known to many. A shot of the sea at the end reminds us of the transience of life, but also that endings are the new beginnings. Thus, with life’s spring ending, a new season begins.

Hrvoje Galić

Krzysztof Kieślowski, Three Colors: Blue (1993)

Three Colors: Blue came out half a year after the Maastricht Treaty was signed, transforming the European Community into the European Union. The film was supported by the Council of Europe, but mostly financed by the French. It celebrates the idea of the European unity and integration, but also the three principles of the French revolution – equality, brotherhood and freedom.

 Kieślowski said in an interview: “The words [liberté, egalité, fraternité] are French because the money [to fund the films] is French. If the money had been of a different nationality, we would have titled the films differently, or they might have had a different cultural connotation. But the films would probably have been the same.” The films are, of course, titled after the colors of the French flag.

The film follows Julie (Juliette Binoche) as she suffers after she had lost her husband and a child. She is struggling with her feelings, trying to repress her emotions and suffering, to appear strong and not vulnerable. In a memorable scene we see an extreme close-up of infant mice; we can see how the newborn affect Julie’s tortured psyche since she has lost a child. She gets a cat and exterminates them.

Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote: “Without music, life would be a mistake”. Julie’s husband was a world-famous composer, composing a piece in celebration of the creation of the European Union. The composer who wrote the music for the film was Zbigniew Preisner; he worked with Kieślowski on other films, most notably The Double Life of Veronique.

 

 

The song in the finale, Song for the Unification of Europe, is majestic, its verses are from the 13th chapter of St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians and his famous words about love. It must be higlighted that the Greek word for love is agape, which can be also translated as charity, a selfless love (in the film, Julie and her lover refer to the Greek version of the text). It is seen as the highest form of love. St. Paul says:

 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.

 

Francisco de Zurbaran, Allegory of Charity, 1655

Francisco de Zurbarán, Allegory of Charity, 1655

Van den Budenmayer allegedly composed in the late 18th century Netherlands, in the period between Baroque and the Romanticism. Baroque’s majestic force of classical harmony and order was celebrating the pain of Christ and his sufferings, while Preisner celebrates love, and brotherhood of the European people. Romantic movement on the other hand, which was strong in Kieślowski’s Poland as well, celebrated the irrational, emotionalism, fantasy and imagination. Preisner seems to draw inspiration from both movements.

The French principle of equality is mentioned in the movie in the brief scene in the court, but is also celebrated at the end of the film. While The Song for Unification of Europe is playing, we can see the faces of people we encountered in the film, among them a prostitute; they are all equal in their joys and sufferings, Kieślowski implies.

 

Vigourous line:

“You emptied out the blue room?”

Julie

room-2100820_640

Julie’s asking if the blue room is emptied symbolizes her rejection of the mourning process. Her maid tells her that she is crying because Julie is not. She also says that she vividly remembers Julie’s husband and child. After a trauma one experiences pain, sense and memory loss, among other side-effects. When the doctor tells Julie of her husband and child’s death, we can see an extreme close-up of her eye, which is moving distressfully.

 As Derrida says, a “phantom” may be produced if we refuse to mourn. This implies that someone incorporates the lost body and “acts out”. Julie bites her daughter’s candy stressfully and tosses it into a fire and breaks a window in the hospital. Mourning is constitutive for the subject; one may refuse to mourn after experiencing a trauma out of the desire to stay the same as before; Julie wishes to stay strong and self-dependent. This can, of course, be dangerous for a person’s well being. The only reminder of her daughter she decides to keep is the blue chandelier, with blue symbolizing sadness and loss. Earlier in the film, she violently breaks it.

In Three Colors: Red, the red color appears quite often, while on the other hand, the blue color in Three Colors: Blue appears rarely. Only the pool, certain objects and sometimes the screen are blue; this symbolizes the lack of sadness. During the final scenes, we can see her naked body in her lover’s eye and her tears, at last. The ending credits are blue, and that should not be taken lightly. The grieving process has just started and the film was only a preparation, a journey through suffering and the creation of art, and in the end, the beginning sadness, melancholia.

Hrvoje Galić

 

Alfred Hitchcock, Vertigo (1958)

 

Alfred Hitchock’s desire was to make movies in which dream and reality are indistinguishable. In his Vertigo, he creates a nightmarish world in which Scottie (James Stewart) draws the female progatonist into a surreal ordeal, or it is the other way around; at certain moments we cannot really tell. The film is centered around several themes and reccurent motifs:

  1. The impact of psychological trauma on a person
  2. The necessity to preserve (relive) the memory
  3. Erotic obsesssion (l’amour fou – mad love)

The film opens with a tragic death of a police officer who was trying to save Scottie, and that very experience shook him and had a severe impact on him, although this is not mentioned in the film; he suffers from acrophobia, a fear of heights, after that event. Psychological trauma he experiences later in the film is the perceived death of a loved person and a feeling of guilt because he did not prevent it because of his own incapability.

The scene in the courtroom after “Madelaine’s” death is surreal in its structure and it can mirror Scottie’s psychological state; the judge blaming him for her death because of his “weakness” seems to personify his conscience. In the hospital, Mozart’s music is played to Scottie while he is suffering from melancholia; his friend says that it won’t really help and it would be a wonder if it could; it amounts to playing cheerful folk music at a funeral.

Vertigo

The scene by the sea, when “Madelaine” and Scottie kiss each other, has the quality of a memory, of something that longs to be preserved. The whole set-up Scottie got into is imbued with the reliving of memories and pyschological traumas, a suicide, to be more precise, because a mother lost a child. Scottie becomes obsessed with Madelaine and her death; after meeting Judy his obsession can be materialized into another “object” of passionate love. Georges Bataille once wrote: “Eroticism is assenting to life even in death.” This quote can be compared to Scottie’s desires toward Madelaine and Judy.

In Scottie’s dream, we can see flowers disintegrating, him falling from the roof (the guilt complex) and looking into a tomb. The woman in the painting, who was presented as a great-grand mother of Madealine, appears as well. The colours change forming an esoteric nightmare of utter terror to the dreamer. Life and death, his own fears and sufferings, all merge into a singular uncanny experience.

Scottie is caught in a helpless vortex of appetite and feeling; this type of love deranges the senses and is essentialy an obsession, l’amour fou, as it came to be called by the surrealists. In other words, love is a type of madness. His need to relive the memories he experienced with Madelaine compels him to turn Judy into his doll, resembling Madelaine down to the most precise details. It is the same person, but at the same time it is not. It seems that in Vertigo Hitchock captures the spirit of erotic feelings in their fullest force. The title of the film does not allude only to Scottie’s fears, but to his desires as well.

 

Vigourous line:

“It is as though I were walking down a long corridor that once was mirrored, and fragments of that mirror still hang there. And when I come to the end of the corridor, there is nothing but darkness.”

Madelaine

Broken Mirror

“Fragments of the mirror” may represent memories, what was once a whole, a life experience  now shattered into fragments of dispersed memories. Vertigo’s life force relies on memories, on the past and on the days long by, which need to be relived again. The darkness which represents death needs to be overcome so life can take its place. In Hitchock’s artistic world this is an illusion. Scottie’s sin is not his “weakness” and fear, it is his hubris, a belief that he can enjoy days that have passed.

 Memories cannot be relived again, and the very attempt to do this is a starting point for a nigthmare, more darkness and thus death. This may be the moral of Vertigo, told in a surrealist fashion which traps the characters into a corridor through which they walk, observing fragments, memories, trying to reshape them into life, but in the end they fail – tragedy is inevitable.

Hrvoje Galić