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Death in Venice [1971] by Luchino Visconti

Death in Venice is a sumptuously beautiful Technicolor immersion into pesilential Venice. Dirk Bogarde gives a lot in his performance as the isolated composer Gustav von Aschenbach.  He is holidaying alone in Venice to recover from the overwhelming stresses of his life, particularly of being massively uptight and self-denying, while simultaneously giving of himself through the committed and considered perfection of his music. 

Flashbacks of passionate conversations with a friend spell out explicitly how we are to interpret the present scenes in Venice. There is no separation between the man and his music; he expects perfection of himself, moral purity, and no corruption through a mere pleasure of the senses. He dreams of a spiritual beauty that is pure and perfect. And he discovers this in the beautiful form of a teenage boy he sees in his Venice hotel, holidaying with his family, the magnificently beautiful Björn Andérsen. He observes this boy from afar but does not dare to approach him. Tadzio notices his attention and is as captivated by his gaze as Gustav is captivated to gaze upon him. But, as we are so clearly told in the flashback philosophical conversations, his engagement with life is as a detached observer.

Bogarde's performance is excruciating in its precision and commitment to communicating, through almost no dialogue and often merely sitting alone, the painful self-loathing expressed as pomposity and cowardice. Gustav is horrified in the beginning to encounter a painted and flamboyant queen who addresses him on equal terms, as if to a fellow queen. He does not want to humiliate himself with such shameless abandon.

Tadzio plays with his attention and the power it gives him, but Gustav cannot act, cannot place himself on the line, cannot risk to feel so much, cannot allow himself the potential pleasure promised by engagement with this beautiful young man fluttering about in front of him like a butterfly. I suppose this self-loathing and self-denial speaks to a very specific queer experience that would have been all too common at the time, and only somewhat less so today. The expression of queer desire and admiration of beauty is more permissible in Western societies today, but the admiration of the beauty of adolescent boys, is less permissible perhaps.

Gustav's struggle is as much present in the languorous gaze of the camera, its subtle movements and carefully editing, as it is in Bogarde's performance.

While I find it unpleasant to identify with Bogarde's character in very personal and humiliating ways the film remains a work of beauty and sympathy, with the squalid and dangerous beauty of Venice and the as-yet-uncorrupted beauty of Tadzio, perhaps equally dangerous.

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