The Too Late Blues
"I don't love you", aristocrat Tullio's (Giancarlo Giannini) mistress Teresa (Jennifer O'Neill) tells him at the end of L'Innocente - "you are a monster." There is little doubt that over the prior two hours' running time Tullio has indeed been an awful human being: frequently cheating on his wife, and murdering the baby she had with another man. After Tullio's philandering ways his spouse Giuliana (Laura Antonelli) was left with little choice but to find solace elsewhere, with the writer Filipo D'Arborio. Nevertheless, many monstrous men are still loved by women, and Teresa's claim appears especially hollow given her capacity to play with men's feelings. If Giuliana had offered the same remark it might still lack the cause and effectual authority of someone saying that their wallet was stolen and they are going to the police, but it would contain a plausibility within its own moral universe. Moments after they talk, Teresa says she wants to sleep. Tullio says he would prefer she didn't until she witnesses something. He goes out from the vast sitting room and into the hallway, blowing his brains out with a pistol we see him taking from a drawer. He could just as easily have blown her brains out as his own, or killed her and then himself. They are both, after all, moral monsters.
Adapted from D'Annunzio's 1892 novel, the film plays a little like a melodramatic Proust. In the scene where Teresa describes Tullio as a monster, she talks of the time a year earlier when "you spent your nights beneath my windows." How can we not think of Proust's later Swann in Love, and Charles Swann's obsession with Odette? Proust's volume ends on a note of litotes: Swann finding it odd he could devote so much time and energy to a woman who wasn't even his type: a woman he will nevertheless eventually marry. Charles is obsessed with one woman and will remain living; Tullio is preoccupied with two women and will take his own life. L'innocente is a melodramatic story but possesses immense nuance of character and situation. It might not have the subtlety of Proust, yet it is a fine exploration of honour rather than obsession, even if it cannot easily separate the two qualities.
It is partly why we mention the film's moral asymmetry. When, in a generally insightful review, Pauline Kael talked in the New Yorker of being disappointed by the film, asking why Visconti allowed it to "function so moralistically", she was expecting a movie closer in tone to Ophul's Madame De... (both films use Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice). Instead, it becomes darker the longer it goes on, and Kael wonders if this lies in Visconti's death before the film was released: that he might have tightened it up in the editing. She also acknowledges that Visconti wasn't afraid of maundering conclusions (Death in Veniceends several times). Kael however seems to be equating bleakness with morality, where we believe the film examines a universe where moral cause and effect are out of synch. In the type of amoral world Kael seems to admire, people act according to their own best emotional interests: people might get hurt, but they wouldn't self-sacrifice. They may take advantage of others, but wouldn't be too surprised if in turn people take advantage of them. Such a world may not be moral (certainly in any Kantian sense of making one's desire universally applicable), but it would be symmetrical. This would be an enlightened ethics that allows everyone to have their pleasures, while acknowledging that the most important characteristics in this emotional merry-go-round (the central metaphor in Ophuls' La Ronde) is a sense less of fair play than a sense of humour: everyone is fair game. People can see the situations they are in for what they are.
In L'innocente we have a very different world from Ophuls': one that justifies why for years Visconti wanted to adapt Proust's novel, and why we also disagree with anotherNew Yorker writer, Richard Brody, when he says Ophuls is the most Proustian filmmaker: surely Visconti happens to be. Ophuls could of course present love darkly and obsessively, evident in Letter from an Unknown Woman, where a young lady becomes fascinated by a man who barely notices her and can't remember her. Yet it is a darker side of love still that we see much more often in Visconti: his first film goes by the title of Obsession, Senso shows a woman going insane over her love for a soldier, and Death in Venice follows the composer's afflicted fascination with the teenage Tadzio. Visconti never possessed the lightness of touch that leaves love as a glance and a caress that was evident in Ophuls' trademark tracking shots. Ophuls' films can end as pessimistically as Visconti's (evident in The Letter from an Unknown Woman and Lola Montes - with the leading female characters meeting their deaths), but Visconti's despair is darker. In Letter from an Unknown Woman, the lady of the title might be dead, but the man finally takes responsibility for his actions when at the conclusion he goes to fight a duel with her husband. The moral tone is optimistic as a shallow, self-centred man finds his dignity in an action that might well cost him his life. InL'Innocente, Tullio blows his brains out: a duel with his own conscience that he loses, aware his mistress doesn't love him, his wife can hardly respect him, and he can't find a single reason to justify why he should go on living.
In the scene at the end with Teresa, Tullio talks of his wife refusing to believe that our problems "should be solved here on earth and not in the hypothetical hereafter." He on the other hand is there with himself: "without illusions, without regrets." Yet moments later he takes his own life: is he not relying on the hereafter rather more than his wife will? Not long before Teresa says: "your two rivals cannot be vanquished because they're dead." This is the baby he killed by leaving him out in the cold, and the child's father, D'Arborio, who has died from disease. He cannot hope to vanquish them but he can join them, which is exactly what he does by putting a gun to his temple. Just after talking about purity and the hair shirts of the ascetics, has Tullio found his conscience as he kills himself?
We should be careful here, finding one's conscience isn't the same thing as losing one's identity. Many appear to lose their conscience without losing their sense of self, just as there are plenty who lose their identity without losing their moral bearings. Innumerable villainous figures exemplify the former: the tyrants who feel ever more aggrandized the more bad deeds they commit. At the other end, there are people weakened by another's power: the bullied and the cowed. They haven't lost their conscience at all, but their sense of self has been enormously undermined. Tullio is both tyrant and weakling, however, and it is as though the combination has destroyed him. He is a monster, but this shouldn't be in the eyes of Teresa, even if it is she who voices the statement. In her pereption he is closer to weakling than tyrant as we may recall the scene early in the film when he deserts his wife and goes to see Teresa. There she is waiting at home playing cards, sure that Tullio would leave his wife at the salon and come over to visit her. "As you see. I know you quite well."
No, the monstrousness is reserved for his wife, though in evidence later also with his mother. As he explains to Giuliana that one is defenceless in love, so he asks her to treat him like a sick person. Many watching the film will indeed see him as sick, but not in the basic sense of a malady, but in the modern colloquial sense: as someone unwholesome. He talks to his wife in a manner that is brutally honest, but the emphasis is on the brutal. He tells her how his frustration over his mistress's behaviour leaves him nevertheless vital and alive. He says this to her while they are seated on the couch. As he speaks, she gets up and the camera follows her in one shot as she moves towards the doorway. The film then cuts back to Tullio saying that we sell our soul for youth; that this has never happened to him before. The film cuts to Giuliana as she turns again towards him, saying: "you talk as if I'd never existed." At that moment perhaps she doesn't, with Giuliana a shadow of herself in her movements through space. When she gets up from the couch this isn't the body language of a woman asserting her identity; it is closer to one unsure of who she is. We are not surprised to see her turning towards Tullio when the film cuts from the couch to the doorway, and it is no surprise either when she returns to the couch.
Here we have a woman beholden to her husband as well as betrothed, but there is a fine moment not long before where we at least know Giuliana is capable of having another man on her mind. At the salon one evening D'Arborio looks across at her and Giuliana averts her gaze. Initially Visconti allows a zoom in on the man's face as the camera surveys a room, and then gives us a couple of close ups that make clear exactly who he is looking at and what he is feeling. That she has him in her mind rather than only in front of her eyes is evident when just afterwards as she is looking preoccupied but not looking in D'Arborio's direction, the camera shows Giuliana in medium close up and we see a man coming up behind her. He puts a hand on her shoulder and the camera zooms out to reveal Tullio standing behind, and a look of disappointment and confusion on Giuliana's face as she turns to face him, and then turns round again. She might not have been expecting Tullio, but it would have been to defy physics for D'Arborio to have been standing behind her. Yet is this often how the metaphysics of feeling works: that we see nearby someone who looks like our dead husband, and there is a moment, no matter how impossible, that one feels the husband is once again appearing in front of us?
In these marvellous few moments, Visconti captures the nature of an affection that shifts from one place to another, as if one needs a mise en scene to indicate how we find our feelings moving from one person to the next. Giuliana attends the salon to save face rather than find another man: people think she should show herself in public rather than hide herself away. But by turning up well turned out, she is still a beautiful woman capable of catching not only the gaze of pity but also of admiration. When she briefly meets D'Arborio in an earlier scene it is when her brother arrives to offer solace, with D'Arborio the friend coming along. Giuliana is a wreck: her hair a tangled mess and tears streaming down her face. D'Arborio gives her a look of sympathy which, when they meet again, becomes the look of love. This doesn't mean simply that D'Arborio and Giuliana fall in love with each other - D'Arborio is a well-known womanizer and Giuliana isn't over Tullio - but it is the sort of scene that allows someone to take their own emotional temperature, to understand an aspect of their emotions that they might not have understood if the situation hadn't presented itself. If someone had asked Giuliana what she made of the handsome writer, she may have said no more than that he was attractive and seemed interesting. She would have been unlikely to express the strength of feeling manifest in that disappointed look when she sees it is her husband putting his hand on her shoulder.
Yet this isn't quite the same thing, as we have suggested, as saying she has fallen in love with D'Arborio; more perhaps that it gives her the strength to fall out of love with Tullio - what the film captures well in that gaze which D'Arborio allows to rest on Giuliana is a look that goes beyond pity but falls short of presumptuous desire. It is the sort of look that tells a woman that she is not alone, not incapable of attracting another man. It is a look which also shows her just how differently her husband looks at her. She still loves Tullio - evident in that scene where she gets up from the couch and stands over by the door - but there is little blindness now in that affection. When Tullio talks to Giuliana we might be astonished that he is having this conversation with his wife, but we don't assume that Giuliana is a woman incapable of creating distance between her thoughts and her feelings. Partly what makes the scene where Giualiana goes to the door so interesting is that she is a woman not so much in two minds, but a woman with a set of feelings in her body and a set of thoughts in her head. Visconti shows a woman who doesn't quite know how she feels partly by offering a woman who doesn't quite know where she should be: should she get off the couch, stand over him, stand at a distance by the door, leave the room, or leave the house? This is the undecidability of the body when a feeling and a thought aren't quite moving in the same direction.
But what about Tullio's thoughts and feelings? In this scene with his wife he is making clear how much he loves Teresa, but it isn't as if he has lost any feeling for his wife; he just can't access the emotion pertinent to desire and yearning. When he tells Giuliana how much he respects her, how important she happens to be for him, we might be horrified at the bluntness of his remarks, at how painful this must be for Giuliana to receive. Yet if we assume that we should ignore his feelings, we would be simplifying our own. When a great filmmaker details the nuances of emotional register, we have to be equal to the expression, not registering moral disapproval. Tullio is of course the monster Teresa indicates he happens to be, but that he is trying to explain the nature of his monstrousness in this scene means we have to go with the complexity of his situation. We shouldn't impose upon him a view that indicates he wants the best of both worlds and will greedily try and sustain them. This is not what he is saying: he feels his love for Teresa is a sickness; his love for Giuliana health. But he cannot help the malady; he can only express his despair at its presence. What he is trying to convey is that for years he has been terrible but happy: now he is vitally yet debilitatingly desirous but frustratingly miserable. He admits to Giuliana that he sees Teresa as a liar and a cheat; while as he says to his wife in an earlier scene how much he respects Giuliana, and has always thought his marriage worth defending against all onslaughts. But he wasn't in pain and confused. As he walks up and down the room, he is a man whose sense of self has gone; a note from his mistress and he would be there. But he wouldn't be all there even if when, in scenes where we see Teresa and Tullio lying in bed together, he gives the impression that he is. Doesn't he still have feelings for his wife even if all the emotion is with Teresa? We might assume that any ill-ease he would feel around Teresa is predicated on the idea that she could leave him at any moment: but as we will see, the unease and despair that he believes can be cured by the appropriate drug (Teresa), is a malady of the soul that no substance can counter.
If we sense his despair it lies in knowing he has lost his self, a self he might assume is predicated on his passion for Teresa, but where it rests much more on his failure to be himself however compromised. When he talks to Giuliana about having numerous lovers in the past, this was part of the monstrous Tullio who could deny his conscience and feel fully alive, but it is as though his misery makes him morally aware. As Proust says: "one becomes moral as one is unhappy." Tullio can't accept that someone is making him miserable, so needs to apply to Teresa the sort of judgement that could as easily be applied to himself. As long as he remained happily immoral his conscience wasn't so much clean as ignored, and his identity firm. But an unhappy man who has done wrong, and where wrong is in turn being done to him, starts to fray at the edges. The unravelling in Tullio's case continues until he would seem to have no choice but to kill himself as he becomes ever more unhappy, and for all his moral awareness, acts ever more immorally. Not only does he become miserable over Teresa and her numerous flings, but also over Giuliana and her affair with D'Arborio. He finds that once again he is in love with his wife, but partly because of jealousy towards her lover. When Teresa says near the end of the film "you're even more in love with your wife. So much in love that you're pitiful", it is only a half astute statement. It is as though he fell in love again with her because he could project onto another man strong feelings for Giuliana, and thus once again finds his own. His sense of self has unravelled because of an inversion of emotional priorities. When he was protecting his relationship with his wife and having lots of affairs (all of which took place before the film's starting point), we can assume that the pleasure principle held over a moral principle, and was strong enough to override the latter. That is why we have talked about villains who do atrocious things but without any threat to their sense of self. Baddies rarely mentally collapse; they are usually forcefully dispatched. Their identity is properly predicated on the deeds that they do: to do otherwise would be to risk a confrontation of conscience that might be the mental equivalent of going down in a hail of bullets.
If at the beginning of the film Teresa would have called him a monster, Tullio may have been inclined to agree, and offer a sly smile that would suggest he intended continuing to get away with his monstrousness. But by the film's conclusion such a statement cannot be contained within the context of the pleasure principle; residing instead in a Proustian moral unhappiness as over the course of the film he has kept adding to his despair rather than augmenting his satisfaction. Killing the child doesn't return his sense of honour (removing from the world his wife's dead lover's baby) but weakens still further his own value. He has become whether he likes it or not a moral man, a man of moral unhappiness who cannot return it would seem either to gleeful amorality, or justifiably indignant morality. The person who does wrong and can override it with amoral joy, and the moral person who consistently acts with a clean conscience, can remain themselves even if they are at opposite ends of the ethical spectrum. But what we see in this instance is Tullio the man at one end who cannot reach the other due to the actions that make it impossible to be a figure of bonne conscience, nor able to be the man of self-serving satisfactions evident before he meets Teresa.
Teresa is of course the personification of the scarlet woman. She is a figure from the ancient kingdom of Babylon: the great mother of abominations. Visconti dramatises this from the moment we first see her surrounded by various admirers as she talks about finding English men not at all cold, and symbolises it not long afterwards when we see that the red dress she wears in the earlier scene is emphasised by the predominant use of red in her apartment. Resembling the rich predominance we find in Bergman's Cries and Whispers made four years earlier, but used for very different ends, Visconti uses it not to suggest death, as Bergman does, but to indicate passion leadingto death. By the film's conclusion, the red dress will be black, as if to reflect the role Teresa has played in Tullio's life. The whore of Babylon becomes a grim reaper; it is Teresa who ensnares him in a passion that leads to personal dissolution, and yet in his fascination with her she is also perhaps a woman who cannot allow him the religious comfort his wife seeks. When Tullio says that his wife "is the loser in this story" as she "obstinately refuses to believe that our problems should be solved on earth", we might think she is more the ethical winner who can imagine for herself an afterlife as well as living with a conscience in this one. She has not lost her identity; only her living self.She will have lost her lover, her child and her husband, but there is nothing in the film that she does that we are likely to frown over. We say this not only as viewers watching the film nearly a hundred years after it was set, but by seeing that Giuliana has done nothing wrong in this age or any other. Now while we insisted that in the scene where Tullio defends his behaviour we should view it from the perspective of his dilemma, this isn't the same as saying we admire his values. Giuliana's are much more coherent and consistent, but even that wouldn't be enough: aren't quite often a villain's coherent and cosnistent too, if destructively so? It is instead that Giuliana's character may appear weak but she manifests a strength consistent with Jesus's claim that the meek shall inherit the earth. Obviously Tullio would see such a remark as ridiculous, but the resolute Giuliana would be able to say with some confidence that she is the same person at the beginning of the film as she happens to be at the film's conclusion. If Tullio is the pathetic figure Teresa insists he is, it resides not in any love he has shown for his wife after she sleeps with another man, but the weakness of his personality.
Where does this weakness reside we might wonder. The film covers a short period of time in a rich man's life, but the film has little interest in his earlier years because it isn't the dissolute period of womanising that Visconti wants to capture, but the irresolution of a man falling apart when his established ways are no longer tenable. He is a man of his class who wants to save face and instead loses his mind. We see this early on at the salon when he turns up with his wife unaware that his mistress would be there too. Teresa says she is leaving if his wife stays, and Tullio is caught in a bind. He wants the marriage and he wants the affair, but never the twain should meet. It is the twain that will create a division in his mind that he will never recover from, and that creates a further division when his wife has an affair which means his mind divides again. It will divide for a third time when the baby is born and he cannot countenance its presence in the house. As he says to Giuliana of the baby: "you love him. And by loving him you love the father." Tullio offers this in a state of dripping anxiety. Visconti shows Giannini in tight, widescreen close up, a face of sweat and tears. He is no longer saving face, with its connotations of social propriety; he is his face: it becomes the means by which he registers his feelings of impotence. While earlier in the film he can rush over to his mistress and insist she shouldn't leave; two thirds of the way through the film the body is no longer capable of asserting itself, and the film uses far more close ups, often extreme close ups, as we see when he berates Giuliana over the child.
When Gilles Deleuze says the "close-up makes the face the pure building material of the affect, its 'hyle' - Greek for matter or content" (Cinema 1: The Movement Image) he captures well the interiority of a close up that has little room for action, but often registers collapsed thought. We don't usually think of Visconti as a director of the face, of course: he is famous for the elaborate elegance of his mise en scene, but he also often shows characters in crisis, and occasionally the close up is the means by which to illustrate this despair. When the aristocrat is reduced to the close up his world has collapsed, as if the terrain of power, the arena of wealth that can cover rooms, houses and vast swathes of land, is no longer reflective of his personality. His being has become increasingly a struggle of self over an expression of wealth.
Deleuze, writing specifically on Visconti in Cinema 2: The Time Image, notes that the most important element in Visconti is that "something arrives too late." He sees that "in Senso, the distraught lover cried 'Too late,' too late, in relation to the history that divides, but also because our nature, as rotten in you as in me. The Prince in The Leopard, hears the 'too late' which spread through the whole of Sicily." Too late is the "shattering revelation of the musician in Death in Venice, when through the young boy he has a vision of what has been lacking in his work: sensual beauty." Too late is the "unbearable revelation of the teacher in Conversation Piece, when he discovers a petty criminal in the young man, his lover in nature and his son in culture." What has arrived too late for Tullio? We might call it his conscience. Kael insists this is the film's weakness; we would say it isn't only its strength, it is the film's deepest purpose. Kael says: "instead of turning out to be a tragicomedy about a man who is in torment because his wife doesn't love him, it becomes a melodrama that truckles to Catholicism." We are more inclined to see it as a film about a man who realises too late that he has a greater sense of moral purpose than he can readily accept. Just as earlier in the film he could claim that he no longer loved his wife only to find when she embarks on an affair that he loves her very much indeed, so he can proclaim to be a man transcending socio-religious values only to discover that this is another example of the weakness of his character: he can't. We don't want to say categorically that he kills himself because he discovers he has a conscience; more that a discovery of a conscience reveals to him yet again how divided his character has become. The film isn't the moral tale Kael supposes. It is the story of a man divided, whose personality comes apart under a series of pressures and the centre cannot hold.
In a film that gives us a clear villain, the behavioural awfulness is often consistent and the baddie eventually killed. A villain kills himself only in a desperate situation, when he (and it is usually a he) feels there is no way out or for some perverse personal gain, as in Wild at Heart or The Dark Knight. He doesn't do so because of a failure of personality on his own terms. Society might hate these individuals, but their purpose is to remain consistently themselves. To die in a blaze of bullets is to remain integrated; to feel that they have lived a bad life at the last moment would be a hopeless sign of weakness. It is one reason why many films featuring villains are implicitly right-wing: they suggest no redemptive or transformative dimension to indicate incarceration and rehabilitation are worth the tax payers' money. Tullio might be an appalling character, but one reason why we insisted that we should be reserving moral judgement when he tells Giuliana about his love for Teresa, is that we are witnessing a man in at least two minds, not the single-minded account of someone acting out of villainous self-interest.
That Tullio discovers too late that he has a conscience is perhaps what kills him, and this is where the film's irony lies. Not in the tragicomic, but in the indeterminate: in an awareness that here is a man who, had he discovered his moral bearings and love for his wife earlier, then wouldn't have had to deal with her affair, and the son produced from this fling. As she says: "I was very lonely. Very sad." In this exchange that takes place after she announces she is pregnant, Tullio speaks with feeling and tenderness, and doesn't at all claim his rights as husband, nor does he view his wife as his property. As he kisses her he says: "the same right applied to you as to me." He may have had the affairs but she could have done so too. Even if he doesn't really mean this (her affair made him see how much he cared for her) nevertheless he says it. He doesn't tell her that she has an obligation to be faithful to him as his wife, while he as a husband is entitled to a freer rein. The scene comes exactly halfway through the film and, as is often the case, Giuliana is wearing clothes far less striking than Teresa. Here she wears an aqua dressing gown: still the innocuous wife rather than the fatal lover, but she is perhaps contributing to his death even if we would see Tullio entirely responsible for his own fate. Chancing his arm he allowed himself to lose his head: Teresa doesn't only destroy his marriage, but leads him to destroy himself. Yet is it not finally his love for Giualiana that kills him. "You're in love with her", Teresa says, "and for the first time you are defeated."
He is indeed, but if it is because he is in love with his wife, it rests partly on the conscience she possesses invading his sense of self, a self no longer decadent and worldly, but wracked and self-preoccupied. This final sequence takes place in a grand home that Tullio owns, but for all the beauty of the dcor, the emphasis is on the colours of a death foretold. Tullio is dressed in black too, and Teresa lies on the black settee. We don't want to over-egg the symbolism here: there are other scenes where the characters dress in black (including Giuliana), and we see the couch in other scenes too. But Visconti lends this sequence a sombre tenor that suggests it can only end in Tullio's demise. It is too late, too late, for any other option to be viable.
© Tony McKibbin