Sunlight plays on the Venetian waters, the absurdly rich adagietto from Mahler's 5th symphony plays in the background, and a steamboat slowly, silently chugs into view. It's a languorous and self-consciously dazzling opening scene, which sets the pace and tone for Visconti's slow-going, three-hour-long meditation on beauty.
The steamboat, we learn, is carrying Gunther von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), a repressed, over-stressed Austrian composer, who is visiting Venice for some recuperation. As a composer, Aschenbach is all technical whiz with little emotional substance to back it up -- somewhat the opposite of Mahler, in fact. For Aschenbach, beauty lies entirely in the perfection of technique; it's firmly a matter of art, not nature. So when he unexpectedly falls in love with natural beauty, in the form of a golden-haired, blue-eyed Polish boy on the edge of adolescence, it challenges not only his sense of propriety, but the very foundations of his art.
At first, Aschenbach is confused and disturbed by his feelings for the boy; he even half-heartedly tries to escape from the city. But gradually, he allows himself to indulge in his passion, gazing at the boy as he plays on the beach, following him and his family on their walks around the city. He is spurred on by the boy's knowing glances, which confound him further, torn as he is between sexual desire and his need to worship the boy as an ideal of incorruptible beauty. And his growing awareness of an outbreak of cholera in the city turns the last days of his Venetian holiday into a race against the transience of life and beauty. Albeit a very slow one.
Auteur theory be damned -- it's clear that there are not one but two principal artists at work in this film. I refer, of course, to Bogarde and Mahler. Bogarde's performance is simply amazing. With little dialogue to play with, he has to communicate almost everything with expressions -- and he communicates so much. At times subtly chuffed, at times beset with longing, pleasure, fear, sadness, all the time stifling some immense bottled-up passion -- Bogarde's face is like a musical instrument played by a master. And he doesn't just have to communicate the feelings of a moment: with the camera lingering on him for minutes at a stretch, he has to communicate paragraphs and pages of emotion, and succeeds. With the subtlest movement of his brow, with the slightest shift of his gaze, he holds my attention like the most captivating storyteller.
All told, Bogarde is such a pleasure to watch that I wanted to look at him a lot more than the object of his affections -- who is beautiful as gangly youths go, I suppose, but nothing like as interesting as his hopeless lover. That said, the boy does strike me as the kind of youthful paragon Aschenbach would fall for, with his vaguely classical features, his lean limbs, and his odd coquettishness. At least we were spared some hideous freckly moptop.
Death in Venice can be frustratingly slow and heavy-handed, beating one over the head with its symbolism. I'm also not sure I agree with its thesis that beauty is just something that exists, rather than something invented or interpreted. But unlike American Beauty and similar dreck, it does communicate something of what it is to experience the beautiful, and earns its emotional payoff. A lot of credit must go to Bogarde and the omnipresent adagietto, but Visconti's slow pace and gently swirling camera also help to mesmerise, weaving magic in the way beauty does.
It's worth watching Death in Venice if only for the final scene, as Aschenbach dies on the beach watching someone he loves, in the lazy sunlight, with his absurd hair dye dripping down his face, Mahler swelling all over the soundtrack, and his expression a mixture of pain and contentment and finally, I think, acceptance. It's an oddly uplifting finale. A reminder that when confronted with inaccessible beauty, we don't need to torment ourselves; we can be simply glad to have found such beauty in the world, and glad to be alive to see it.