Anniversary of the death of Luchino Visconti: 46 years later, his aesthetic of decadence is more relevant than ever

Because art alone makes reality bearable in times of crisis, and because the themes addressed by this undisputed master are terribly topical, I suggest you, after a brief presentation of his universe, to take a brief journey with me. in his filmography.

Question universe, the least that we can write is that it is difficult to do richer and more ambitious than what this madman of arts and literature from the highest Italian aristocracy that was Visconti will have proposed. A politically upset aristocrat whose motto could have been, you will forgive me the expression: “happy who communist”… Even if it means surprising, the word which in my opinion could best characterize, cinematographically, this erudite aesthete (unless this either the opposite) would be… “genealogist”. But be careful, it is not a question here of understanding this word in the traditional use of the term… But rather in the will that an artist would have to designate those responsible for the decline of a society, the rotting of a social class or the individuals who compose it. With the constant concern to always place the action in very precisely defined historical temporalities and datings to help to identify, to conceive… If through an abundant cinema Visconti has never ceased to auscultate, and even to autopsy these moments of crises, these shifts, these moments when individuals go straight towards their goal (the fall), I have selected three films particularly representative of his fascinations and his talents.

To specify the conditions of this choice, necessarily arbitrary, I will first present to you the two great stylistic periods which characterized the work of Luchino Visconti… Because if he was strongly inspired in his beginnings by the neorealist influence (from “The diabolical lovers”, then with “The earth trembles”, “Bellissima” and up to the famous “Rocco and his brothers”), Visconti has gradually specialized in what could be called an aesthetic of decadence (we come close to an oxymoron), in which the putrefaction of a system, of a social class and of the characters contrast violently with the sumptuous beauty of the images. It is in this dazzling baroque, called the second period of the master, and in an order that will not be chronological, that I propose to take you… are not overused, which will enlighten you as much about our past as about your future…

Because you always have to bang hard on the table to get your attention, we’ll start with “The Damned”, made in 1969. Let’s just say it right away, this film is not just a film… It it’s more of a rant, a punch in the stomach dedicated to the rise of Nazism, in the heart of the very civilized Germany of Mitteleuropa… In this chilling and chilling masterpiece, the director points to the archetypal responsibility of a family of wealthy industrialists in the advent of the barbarism of the Third Reich… Believe me, visiting this museum of horrors with majestic aesthetics, this morally unsustainable and appallingly complete catalog of this that the man has the most vile, will leave you dazed and haggard (even if the haggard dies but does not surrender)… As if that were not enough, it will also give you to understand how they could take root how deep the roots of evil and how, in a world without victors, neutrality remains impossible in time s of war. I assure you that to see the Viscontian homosexual sink into irreparable danger, when the embers that go out under his feet rekindle under his heels, is a spectacle as fascinating as it is uncomfortable. It is generally recommended to see this film as Shakespearian (the character of Sophie is a Lady Mac beth of the first category), as Oedipal (the love/hate of Martin for his mother), without redemption and without possible dawn, preferably the day of a big lottery win… Or else… during a festive evening, on the euphoria, just after your mistress announces to you that she finally decides to abort the child she is expecting from you. The two situations being comparable, it can help.

To recover from your emotions, ideally, I would then invite you to immerse yourself in “The Cheetah”, Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1963. This time it is an elegiac fresco taken from the majestic (and unique) novel eponymous by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and in which Visconti once again calls upon the great History, in the long term as in the event. Through the melancholy but lucid eyes of Prince Salina, icon of a vanished world (masterful Burt Lancaster), you will be projected into the Italy of the 1860s, just after Garibaldi’s landing in Sicily… You will You will then witness, dumbfounded, the decline of the nobility and the irresistible rise of the bourgeoisie. With its Proustian reminiscences, its stunning staging and reconstructions (the famous ball scene with Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale alone required 48 days of filming), the obsessive care given to costumes, hairstyles and lighting, Visconti will show you brilliantly how a class, the feudal aristocracy in this case, is forced to adapt in order not to die. Like everyone at the end of this summit of eternity and beauty, I’ll give you my ticket that you’ll ask yourself, watching Alain kiss Claudia, “Why him and not me?” and what part of Visconti hides behind the stature of the Prince of Salina…

To complete this walk, the ideal is to pay a courtesy visit to the dreamlike and delirious universe of Ludwig II of Bavaria. In this last masterpiece entitled “Ludwig or the twilight of the Gods”, Visconti again made things big by proposing a sum film of four hours, final, and often presented in two parts. There, having taken the precaution of choosing your best armchair, you will face a veritable monument of the Baroque, and a funeral score exceptionally enhanced by the Wagnerian rides. Obviously, with his homosexuality, his imbalances (cursed inbreeding), his extravagance, his taste for pomp and his artistic delusions (he had four castles built to live in only one while his people were starving), his disgust for politics and war, this character from a novel that was good old decadent Ludwig could only seduce a filmmaker bewitched from an early age by all forms of excess. By showing during long scenes the life of the sovereign, since his coronation, at the age of eighteen, then evoking his ambiguous relationship with his cousin Sissi, his irrational passion for Wagner, the war against Prussia, his internment for paranoia and schizophrenia and by ending with his physical decline and his death, Visconti completes this film-testament (he will die four years later) by affirming an unfeigned tenderness for a man overwhelmed by his responsibilities. Thus making the sovereign out of date, a misfit (brilliantly embodied by Helmut Berger) betrayed by those who were dearest to him and whose artistic passions could not resist realpolitik, the ambition of unscrupulous rivals and the challenges of his era. To understand this extraordinary character whose death has never been elucidated, I urge you to throw yourself into this film like others throw themselves out of the window, headlong. Though I think it over, I don’t see any other way to help you better understand the twilight of a man ready to sacrifice everything in his utopian and vain quest for poetry, music, dreams… absolute.

Through this totally suggestive triptych, I hope I have given you the desire to visit the man whom the world of cinema called Il Maestro. Because any selection is a renunciation, and also to whet your appetite, it is with death in my soul that I now list some other splendours of his cinema. I will therefore quote “Senso” (1954), “White Nights” (1957), “Sandra” (1965), “Death in Venice” (1971) and again “Violence and Passion” (1974). So many opportunities to meet the many literary influences (Shakespeare, Dostoevsky or Thomas Mann to name a few), which have marked the work of a filmmaker who maintained a very special and very fine relationship with time. .. the music… the off-screen and… the silence…. And there, I owe you some explanations.

Because to properly decode the work of this giant, it is better to know two or three things…

Know first that with Visconti time is relative… Already because after a quarter of an hour of screening one of his films, an hour has already passed… And then because with him the notion of time is free from conservatism and nostalgia… In fact, Visconti uses time rather as a “substance”, a time when it is anyway “too late”… Whether it be conjecturally or structurally , since with Visconti, whatever we do, it’s always been too late!

On the music side, it’s simpler, because this director has afforded the luxury of resolving once and for all the delicate matter of making melodies coexist with words. For such an enterprise, we can say that this great opera director, close friend of La Callas, did not go with a dead hand… By winning the services of a dream team composed (between others) by Schumann, Wagner, Mahler, Verdi, Mozart, Beethoven or even Verdi, he will have sublimated his work by taking the exact opposite of the convulsive impatience and epileptic syncope that characterize the clips and films of today. today. You see how everything is lost…

Finally, echoing the last arguments, Visconti will have used and abused, as a virtuoso, the off-screen (the one which induces that sometimes the essential is not shown but suggested) and silences… Large stretches of silence. .. immense stretches of silence… In those moments, which have become too rare today, when the characters no longer have anything to say to each other because they are as much reduced to the role of victims as of voyeurs, with all the the impotence it suggests.

Here, the little stroll that I wanted to offer you in the Viscontien universe is over. If the contemplation of these film-monuments will not allow you to return to your demons a little less heavy, it will however give you the chance to savor the chance to be a spectator, which is already a lot. A privileged spectator who will be able to capture the criticism of a modernity that is unfortunately still relevant and the masterful ambivalence of the work of a great filmmaker. By ambivalence, I mean the contrast that can arise from the spectacular encounter of the most ancient beauty and the very fine observation of systems in putrefaction. Throughout his works, in the long walks in emotion that Visconti will offer you, you will have a front row seat to observe how, throughout his career, his leitmotifs have changed less than his aesthetics and how his unique know-how allowed him to combine forms, music and a new way of thinking about an era.

Frankly, if we don’t need such filmmakers, then what do we need?

These things being specified, all you have to do is let yourself be carried away by the immense work of a director perpetually visited by intelligence who will have succeeded in the feat of giving as much flavor as knowledge to all audiences. And if you think my statement is too partisan, if you don’t believe me, I ask you at least to give me the benefit of the doubt. You really believe in your wife’s fidelity, don’t you? So let yourself be carried away by the waltzes of The Cheetah and the creative madness of Ludwig, and turn, turn, turn again with them to never leave the traveling of your lives again. In these waltzes and this madness, you won’t go for a walk, you won’t go a day, you will always spend… Keeping in mind, perhaps, this quote from Rainer Werner Fassbinder, perfectly representative of the work of the great Visconti:

“What we are unable to change, we must at least describe it”.

We wish to thank the author of this article for this incredible material

Anniversary of the death of Luchino Visconti: 46 years later, his aesthetic of decadence is more relevant than ever