Sunday, April 25, 2021

Ludwig: Viscontians, One More Effort

Slightly revised version of Liz Heron's translation for the abandoned Cinema in Transit project. One of the few texts by Serge Daney on Visconti.

Ludwig (Luchino Visconti) / Viscontians, One More Effort

An uncut version of Ludwig is on Paris screens. We will never see an end to the guided tour of this unclassifiable monument. Neither to Ludwig, about which everything is known. Nor to Visconti, who remains, whatever might be said, a director as little known as he is famous. 

First condition: a German version two hours ten minutes long (by all accounts a real slaughter). Second condition: an English version three hours long (it’s this half measure that came out in France, ten years ago now). Third condition: an Italian version four hours and five minutes long (released today). Viscontians, one more effort if you want to take the tour of this Ludwig, in the disarrayed condition it is, always changing language, lineaments and length without ever ceasing to be your favourite monument. The long version, a “work of devotion” for which we have to thank Ruggiero Mastroianni (the most famous Italian editor) and Suso Cecchi d’Amico (one of the most famous Italian screenwriters), is no doubt more “in line with the original”. Except that the original version of a film that is already so original (to put it in a nutshell, a monster) doesn’t mean all that much. In her – sadly, bad – hagiobiography of Visconti, Monica Stirling alludes to half a dozen scenes which the maker of Senso ended up cutting out. Among them was a private performance of Tristan, the death of Wagner, the reaction of Elisabeth “Sissi” of Austria to the news of her cousin’s death: “They’ve killed him! Traitors! Murderers!” she exclaimed. 

Nothing stops us from imagining all the additional pictures which Visconti could easily have inserted into his Chinese box fresco. Nothing stops us from suspecting the truth: that in Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-1886), Visconti the man (1907-1976) had found his perfect “subject”, Visconti the painter his fondest motif, Visconti the engagé artist his favourite anti-hero. Had the result been a short, a two-part film or a twelve or seventy-two-hour-long series, the effect would have been the same. This film is infinite like the infinite patience of the man who, having made you his guest, honours you with hospitality and is your guide in his (great) small world. We shall always visit Ludwig for the nth time. All we had seen to begin with were the ceremonial rooms, there suddenly encountering a coronation filmed as if in a kitchen. Then we discovered the key to the keep where the master of the house has his childhood memories. Sooner or later, we’ll come across sealed up doors, forbidden apartments, sauna vapours in a Wagnerian grotto, a stud farm in a corner of this baroque garden, a farm boys’ bordello filmed as if in a palace. We shall never be surprised. We’ve got our minds made up (about Visconti). 

Domesticity, promiscuity, prostitution are the key words of the Visconti universe. It’s not so much that he has made films about love, more that he has filmed every desire as sexual (in its essence) and as economic transaction (in its form). Remember Romy Schneider, the wife who sells herself to her husband in Il Lavoro, an admirable, though short, film. Visconti is less a witness to class struggle than an entomologist with an unimpeded view of promiscuity between classes. And yet, if we forget for a moment the painful clichés about the contradiction of the engagé aesthete or the queer Marxist prince, if we wonder what a Visconti film “is like” (as old Sam would say), we come up against one of the most hermetic styles in the history of the cinema. With the effect of a stationary monument, with the tedium of guided tours, with the feeling of not counting for much in this spectacle which unseeingly tolerates us. 

For there are directors who demonstrate and directors who show. They are seldom the same. Visconti has long had a weakness for demonstration (in The Damned for instance). Not for showing. Which is what, I dare say, makes him a monster. For when all’s said and done, the cinema is “giving to have”. Except that the manner of giving is sometimes more important than what is given. When the Visconti camera frames, de-frames and re-frames, zooms, de-zooms and re-zooms, when it crosses the space of the scene like a thick pencil line (you can almost see the arrow, like in a Veličković painting), hacking through the extras who trample across the shot in full harness, it is not the eye of the master who sees for us, or we who see thanks to him; it is not even the gaze that moves back to judge (there is never any judgement with Visconti, only condemnation, silently and without appeal); it isn’t a matter of vision, it’s a hand. Yes, a hand. The hand of the painter who already has the whole painting in his head and is (furiously) touching up a detail or (hastily) layering a coat of extra colour across a slow-moving scene. The hand of the master of the house who takes advantage of the guided tour to dust his collectors’ items in passing, as if he were discovering them along with us, as if he didn’t know, as if he knew no longer. Always courtesy, always the hand. It is to the painter’s hand that we owe Senso (but then Visconti was, as they say, more engagé with History). It is to the proprietor’s hand that we owe this disarrayed Ludwig. For that’s the oddest thing; Visconti isn’t the inventor of his world (its auteur) more its proprietor. He doesn’t express this world (that would be in distinctly petit-bourgeois bad taste), he takes us round it (that’s the minimum courtesy). He lets us see it, he doesn’t show it. 

Paradoxically, in this orgy of sumptuous sets, and costumes to turn Louella Interim pale with envy and real live castles, there isn’t an ounce of fetishism. Oddly, in this story of kingly extravagance, there isn’t a milligram of surprise, nor any room for suspense. And yet this monster-film is no stone cold alter or disused cathedral (as in Syberberg’s version). You only have to know how to look at it and, for that, to move a little to the side in relation to the unshifting picture and the hand at work drawing. What do you see in the end? Redrawing the ineluctable decline of the king of Bavaria, Visconti opts for no romantic treatment (Ludwig alone, patron and builder) but for a decidedly clinical approach. 

Each scene in the film always plays out the same little scenario: a character “of sound mind” converses with the mad king, demanding something of him, and each time the king yields. He yields to everyone about everything (except to the expensive tart paid to deflower him). To the ambitious Von Holnstein (Umberto Orsini) who asks him to give up his throne, to Durkheim, the noble spirit (Helmut Griem) who reminds him of his kingly duties, to Cosima von Bülow (Silvana Mangano) who asks him to settle Wagner’s debts, to the minister who proves to him that Wagner is an adventurer, to father Hoffman (Gert Fröbe), who dissuades him from ceasing to be a virgin king, and above all to his cousin Elisabeth (Romy Schneider, more Sissi than ever) who asks him not to love her. To all of them, he yields; the rest he pays (the travelling player, the valet-lover, etc). 

This is where Visconti catches us out. Either you choose to look at only Ludwig in the image, or else you look at the gallery of “others”. It’s hard to do both. It is a comic situation, a cruel comedy, worthy of Molière: the master is raving, for sure, but the representatives of “good sense” are hardly any better. There’s an Orgon in Ludwig and a Tartuffe in Wagner. So much so that when we look at the others, what we see is painful: not just their toadying faces or their hypocritical demeanour, but also the slack indulgence of those who have realised that, in any case, given the king’s autistic exaltation, there’s no longer a need to feel uncomfortable. What we then see, by anamorphosis, is pure obscenity. On both sides. 

First published in Libération on 6 July 1983 as "Viscontians, One More Effort". Reprinted in Ciné journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986.

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