Monday, 16 February 2009

Life and death in Venice

When Jane Hudson disembarks from her train in Venice, she’s full of excitement at the prospect of spending time in the beautiful city. But her awe at the beauty of the sights takes a blow when the sights that she sees include Italian men eyeing up women in a rather obvious manner.

As her dream holiday unfolds, Jane is torn: desperate to be her independent self on the one hand, but lonely on the other; shocked by the sexual openness that she sees around her, yet desperate for an experience that has eluded her.

And when she meets handsome antique dealer Renato de Rossi, he challenges a whole host of her beliefs about relationships.

Written originally for the theatre by gay US playwright and stage director Arthur Laurents, before being scripted for film in 1955 by the quintessentially English talents of HE Bates and David Lean (more famous for Dickens and deserts than romance) Summertime, Lean's own favourite film, is as astonishingly open work for the time.

It’s quite clear that there can be no hope of anything but a holiday romance, and Renato, separated but married, challenges Jane to question her illusions: that all romances could be out of the storybook of her dreams, with a complete set of idea criteria. Indeed, he even tells her that Americans are mixed up about sex.

So when Jane makes her decision, she is under no illusions, but chooses to embrace life. Extraordinarily, in terms of the 1950s, there is no price that must be paid by this unmarried woman who has an adulterous relationship, and the film closes with no moral judgment.

The judgment of the viewer, though, will surely be that she was right to grasp the opportunity: that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. It is better to have reached out and grasped the opportunity to taste the life-affirming power of love and lust, passion and sensuality, than to have fled in the belief that somehow those things are wrong unless governed by strict rules.

And it brings to mind another work set in the same city – Death in Venice. Thomas Mann’s novella, filmed in 1971 by Luchino Visconti and starring Dirk Bogarde in the central role, tells the story of acclaimed writer Gustav von Aschenbach, who is utterly dedicated to his art, disciplined and ascetic to the point of severity.

Tired and disturbed by a strange encounter with a rough-looking man he sees on a walk, the writer resolves to take a trip to Venice. Once there, he is appalled by the appearance of an elderly man who has tried desperately to use make-up and a wig to make himself look young.

Once installed in his hotel, Aschenbach finds himself fascinated by the young son of an aristocratic Polish family who are fellow guests. Over the weeks, it becomes an obsession and, even when he realises that cholera is ravaging the city, he stays put, refusing to warn the family and convincing himself that, if the boy Tadzio dies now, he will never age and lose his beauty.

But even as Aschenbach tries to regain his youth, his own trips to the barber for hair dye and make-up a pathetic mirror of the man at the beginning of his visit, he realises what he’s doing and warns Tadzio’s mother.

A day later, as the family prepare to leave, the sickening author sits in his deckchair, watching the boy bathe one last time. Delirious, he sees Tadzio as an almost classic vision beckoning him. Aschenbach attempts to rise, only to fall back, dead from the cholera.

Mann, who spent a lifetime struggling with his own sexuality, partly intended the piece to show passion and sensuality as a disease. But it is far more than that.

For Aschenbach, at the end, has an epiphany: finally, he is full of joy – full even of life. He pays for it with his life, but his existence before that lacked anything but dedication to his work. Work as disease, denying the human being the chance to blossom fully, to become.

Mann, like Aschenbach, was disciplined and ascetic, his writing almost a duty. This was the Protestant work ethic applied to art. Perhaps he believed that, if he gave full rein to his own passions, it would kill him – or at least his work. Perhaps that, by submerging himself in his work, he could kill the passions. But perhaps he envied Aschenbach too, for that final epiphany: a salvation, if you will, that is earned at the last by his warning to the family to flee.

Unlike Jane Hudson, Aschenbach pays a price that we know of. But as with her, Venice opens him up to sensuality and pleasure: as with her, it breaks down the barriers of Anglo-Saxon repression and fear and even guilt, and offers him, however fleetingly, a moment of pure beauty.

Life and death intertwined in Venice. Two works created by two very different northern European artists, but both reaching a strikingly similar conclusion. To live fully, means to live sensually and passionately.

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