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

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

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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

 

Wim Wenders, Wings of Desire (1987)

 

The original title of the film Wings of Desire is Der Himmel über Berlin (Sky Over Berlin); the English title beautifully captures the main antinomy present in the film – the one between spirituality and celestial purity and the carnal, eroticism and sensuality. In Marion’s character, the sensuality and existentalist wondering about being-in-the-world (Heidegger) are both present, she frequently asks herself questions of profound meaning; her character is authentic. She is beautiful, sensual and radiates eroticism of elegant stature.

Titian Angel

Tiziano Vecellio, Angel, 1520-1522

Note: Tiziano’s Angel beautifully embodies the aforementioned ideas of celestial purity and carnality; Tiziano’s nudes can be contrasted to his Annunciation; the erotic and the divine are equally important for his work

On the other side of the coin is Cassiel, an angel who is portrayed as the angel of Temperance is in the Renaissance art; he is one of seven Archangels. At the end of the film, when Nick Cave performs and the meeting between Marion and Damiel is about to happen, Cassiel turns himself against the wall in sadness and a hint of anger arises. The film is abundant with existentialist voice-overs, but the carnal and the erotic aspect enriches it and makes it similar to its photography. Black and white often turn into colour palletes of symbolic meanings; most of the last half an hour of the film is shot in colour – when Damiel becomes a man.

It is interesting that the tale of Genesis and a primordial river that emanated life is rather detached from religious narratives; beautiful shots of trees and water show the essence of life, its origin in the abundance of nature. It is symptomatic that water is the element which is presented as a spring of life, everything came into being from water. The character which is in spiritual communication with Cassiel is the Storyteller, a keeper of man’s memories and a well of creation. He admits that he is old, he longs for days long past, but through his words everything is preserved and new tales come into being.

At the end of the film, Damiel and Marion meet and she has a monologue characteristic of Wenders’ work (Paris, Texas), she opens her soul to him, tells him that with him she can be lonesome, an idea that is associated with true companionship – “to be alone together”. Nick Cave performs in the background, we can hear his song “From Her To Eternity”, a song which contemplates suffering over a woman. One of the verses says:

But, Ah know, that to possess her,

Is therefore not to desire her.

 

Vigourous line:

 “When the child was a child, it walked with its arms swinging. It wanted the stream to be a river, the river a torrent and this puddle to be the sea. When the child was a child, it didn’t know it is a child, everything was full of life, and all life was one.”

Damiel

The Croatian novelist Vladan Desnica once wrote: “There was a multitude of religions and philosophies that claimed that a man has a soul, and that very soul is endless and immortal. It often seemed to me peculiar that never and nowhere there was a belief that a child has an endless and immortal soul, and later when it grows up, loses it.”

This Desnica’s belief can be compared to the main ideas of Wings of Desire. When Bruno Ganz’s character, the angel Damiel, listens to the thoughts of people, those thoughts are often banal and without substantial meaning, while the children who see him, smile at him and ask themselves profound questions. A phrase “When the child was a child” is a leitmotif of the film, it is often repeated; child has an endless soul and is entagled in much deeper existential questions than a grown man.

Children In the Sea

Joaquin Sorolla, Children in the Sea

A child is immersed into the world, the trees in the woods breath with life and life is similar to a dreamlike experience. Friedrich Nietzsche in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra tells a parable of transformation from a camel into a lion and then a child. A camel carries the burdens of the world on her back, the lion destroys those burdens, while the child has abundant creativity and carefree freedom for play. Heraclitus wrote: “Eternity is like a child playing at draughts, the kingdom belongs to a child.”

Hrvoje Galić

Hayao Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke (1997)

In 1995 Hayao Miyazaki took a group of artists and animators to the ancient forests of Yakushima, which inspired the landscapes in the film. At the beginning, the narrator says:

“In ancient times, the land lay covered in forests, where from ages long past, dwelt the spirits of the gods. Back then, man and beast lived in harmony, but as time went by, most of the great forests were destroyed. Those that remained were guarded by gigantic beasts… who owed their allegiance to the Great Forest Spirit, for those were the days of gods and demons.”

Miyazaki’s vision of the “days of gods and demons” seems to be inspired by the ancient Japanese religion, still practiced today, Shintoism. Kami are the spirits that are worshipped; they are not separated from nature, but are of nature. In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s vision of the life of prehistoric man, a savage lives in accordance with nature and in peace with animals. He states: “no animal naturally makes war upon man, except in case of self-defence or extreme hunger, nor expresses against him any of these violent anthipathies.” He also writes: “Nature speaks to all animals, and beasts obey her voice.” On the other hand, in Princess Mononoke man and beast wage war against each other.

It is a tale of corruption, of both beast and man. The corruption of man can be found in two different shapes. The enemy of both “industrial man” and beasts are the Samurai (Miyazaki seems to follow the tradition of great Japanese directors Masaki Kobayashi, Kikachi Okamoto and other New Wave directors in this matter); the enemy of beasts are men who possess iron. The Samurai are corrupt since they follow the authoritharian form of government in which some are oppressed and others rule, while the “industrial man” is corrupt because he uses technology, namely, iron, to subdue nature and others. Rousseau also writes: “It is a very difficult matter to tell how men came to know anything of iron and the art of employing it… mines are formed nowhere but in dry and barren places… so that it looks as if nature had taken pains to keep from us so mischiveous a secret.”

Rousseau sees the discovery of iron and agriculture as a great step toward man’s tyranny over himself, other men and nature itself. It is no coincidence that in Miyazaki’s animated movie man possesses iron which destroys animals and turns them into demons. Prince Ashitaka is touched by the demon and becomes cursed himself; his hand wants to murder Lady Eboshi, while his mind remains uncorrupted. He serves as a mediator between the Beasts and “industrial men”, while he makes no fine moral judgments regarding the Samurai, the relics of the Japanese past.

The Great Wave at Kanagawa

Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave of Kanagawa 1830-1832

In Princess Mononoke the nature is abused and it hits back, turns against man. The Beasts wage war against man, while their sovereign, Forest Spirit guards over them. This can be seen as a parable directed against contemporary man’s behaviour toward nature. His machines destroy it and nature “fights back” in the form of hurricanes and earthquakes. In the last few decades, the number of hurricanes in the world has tripled, and indicators show that this happens as a consequence of man’s actions.

Thus, Princess Mononoke is an environmentalist film, but its scope is even greater. The corruption of man is demonstrated by numerous examples; his lust for power is endless and he will stop at nothing to achieve that goal. It is symptomatic that the Emperor wants Forest God’s head to achieve immortality. The moral is that he will not get immortality, but he will only engineer his own destruction. The film ends with Lady Eboshi advocating  a return to the traditional form of life and states that she will build a village and live in accordance with Nature. This is fairly optimistic, it is a fantasy of reunion with our own essence.

Note: This lullaby perfectly captures the feelings princess Mononoke experiences throughout the film.
Vigourous line:

“Life is suffering. It is hard. The world is cursed. But still, you find reasons to keep living.”

Osa

buddha-199462_960_720

The aforementioned line reminds one of the works of Arthur Schopenhauer. He was well-versed in Indian philosophy and compared his philosophy to Buddhism. Schopenhauer’s anthropological and metaphysical pessimism emphasizes that to live means to suffer. Prince Ashitaka, although aware that he is cursed and is about to die, has the will to continue striving and fighting for what is good and just; he is a heroic figure. Princess Mononoke often calls him human; in other words enemy, yet he chooses not to take sides and strike whenever it is needed against those who bring chaos and disorder. Living in this world may entail suffering, Osa implies, but the moral of Princess Mononoke is the necessity to find the will to continue fighting. When all hope fades, those who can bring change by a heroic act or seemingly small acts ( e.g. of compassion), are the people who, against all odds, bring order and harmony into the world.

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