The Purposive Properties of Film
The Leopard is Luchino Visconti's most beautiful film but we offer this less as a comment to put on the film's poster, more as a way of understanding Gilles Deleuze's concluding quote on his few pages on Visconti in The Time-Image. "As Baroncelli put it, "the beautiful truly becomes a dimension in Visconti'; 'it plays the role of the fourth dimension.'" What Deleuze manages to convey here through the quote is the properly decadent quality in Visconti's work which needn't be dismissed as superficial but as a different kind of profundity. It is, of course, a risk to take historical subjects like the war for Italian Independence (The Leopard), the collapse of a family under the rise of Naziism (The Damned) and the spreading of a plague (Death in Venice), and insist on the Beautiful as the measure of all things, but we can leave Deleuze aside for a moment and note Kant's remark: "Beauty is an object's form of purposiveness insofar as it is perceived in the object without the presentation of a purpose." (Critique of Judgement) To insist on the beautiful within the purposeful can indeed suggest the decadent, yet vital to Visconti's work, and never more evident than in The Leopard, is the determination to emphasise the Beautiful through events and situations that might otherwise suggest the purposeful. Whether it is a plague that nobody does anything about in Death in Venice, or the rise of Hitler that the family accepts in The Damned, Visconti isn't interested in problems that must find solutions, but in compositions that acknowledge their decomposition yet retain their beauty.
Indeed Deleuze in breaking down Visconti's work into four main preoccupations notices the importance of composition and decomposition (as well as the significance of history and the too-lateness that leaves his characters adrift in their moment). First we have the composition of the aristocracy, "in the first case, the aristocratic world of the rich, the aristocratic former rich...Visconti's genius culminates in the great scenes or 'compositions', often in red and gold: opera in Senso, reception rooms in The Leopard, Munich castle in Ludwig, grand hotel rooms in Venice and music-room in The Innocent." But Deleuze adds, "these crystalline environments are inseparable from a process of decomposition which eats away at them from within, and makes them dark and opaque: the rotting of Ludwig II's teeth, family rot which takes over the teacher in Conversation Piece...the abomination of The Damned." Visconti's importance doesn't just reside in composing beautiful images but retaining that beauty in their decomposition. He insists that it isn't decadent to make beautiful films about situations that could be seen as tragic, atrocious or desperate but significant to find in all of them a serenity of despair that acknowledges the purposive over the purposeful.
The Leopard, released in 1963, is of course adapted from Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa's famous novel published only several years earlier, an enormous success in its own right, and written by a man, like Visconti, whose aristocratic heritage went back many generations. It is a book that demands a voice-over that Visconti all but resists, as if he is wary of Time (in the Proustian sense) taking precedence over the Beautiful (in the Kantian formulation). When near the end of Time Regained, Proust says "...Time seemed to dispose the different elements of my life, had, by making me reflect that in a book which tried to tell the story of a life it would be necessary to use not the two-dimensional psychology which we normally use but a quite different sort of three-dimensional psychology", this three-dimensionality releases Time just as Deleuze and Baroncelli indicate the Beautiful represents a fourth-dimension. Deleuze understandably makes much of Visconti's place as a director of time-images, and more specifically the crystal-image, all directors which for Deleuze doesn't just suggest a dissolution of objectivity into subjective thoughts but which looks for constant multiplications. The "crystal is expression. Expression moves from the mirror to the seed. It is the same circuit which passes through three figures, the actual and the virtual, the limpid and the opaque, the seed and the environment." (Cinema 2: The Time-Image) But while there is nothing to disagree with in Deleuze's formulation as he focuses on the temporal, what we might wish to do is emphasise that closing remark and see why the Beautiful is as readily the operative term as Time, even if Visconti came very close at the beginning of the seventies to adapting Proust.
The points of comparison between Proust and Visconti are many but one of the key differences rests on the diegetic quality of Proust and the mimetic aspect of Visconti. If Visconti so often resisted or minimised voice over even in adapting books that would seem to demand one (The Leopard, and Death in Venice especially) then this rested on a mimetic insistence that could often make the dialogue cumbersome, with Visconti insistently putting thoughts into characters' mouths. But this was a risk he was willing to take, a choice he insisted upon, to stop the films from reflecting Time rather than Beauty. Though Visconti does occasionally adopt voice-over and quite frequently uses flashback, they seem extraneous to the material rather than vital to it. When in The Leopard we have a brief flashback during the picnic scene to soldiers wandering around the Count's house, or when in Death in Venice the film flashes back to scenes where Aschenbach argues with someone over passion in music, the scenes interrupt the beautiful rather than opening up the temporal. Proust knew precisely that he had to destroy many of the assumptions about character and plot, time and space, dialogue and figuration, to release Time into the novel; for Visconti, Beauty is chiefly a spatial problem that time augments rather than vice versa. When in The Leopard, the Prince's (Burt Lancaster) nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) and Angelica (Claudia Cardinali) reunite we see them kissing passionately before Visconti match cuts on them kissing in a different place: from the drawing-room in the house to a disused building next door. As Tancredi plays hide and seek with Angelica, so Visconti composes beautifully within the decompositional state of the disused property itself. The plaster and wallpaper are peeling off the walls, walls look half-knocked down, paintings are propped up against each other, cobwebs hang off objects. Everything is in a state of decay but not the image of that decay. Whether it is Tancredi saying the place is mouse-ridden as we see a very exact composition that turns the characters into objects within the frame, a minute later when we see doors framed within doors framed within doors, or a shot just afterwards of a large wooden cabinet before Delon enters through a door and into the frame, Visconti finds the beautiful in the decomposition rather than the temporal in the decay.
Disappointed when the film was originally released Stateside, Tino Mendes Sargo reckoned "Visconti oscillates between an historicist interpretation of history and a romantic view of the characters that make and are made by the same history. The theme of the flux of history is washed out by the theme of an aging man's foreknowledge." Later he also notes "I am told that Visconti, in the scenes of the ball, is greatly influenced by Antonioni, in his attempt to create a sort of emptiness." (Film Quarterly) Putting aside the dubbed American cut that Sargo was reviewing, in any version of the film the tension between history and romanticism will be present, and Antonioni's influence important. In Visconti's formulation, history is romantic rather than historical if we mean by this the affects of change are more important than the logic behind that change, and part of that romanticism is to find in the image whatever decay might historically be present a beauty that needn't be dissipated by that decline. Visconti consistently approached in his aristocratically inclined films (Senso, The Leopard, The Damned, Death in Venice, Conversation Piece and The Innocent), in films that suggest great wealth and comfort, even if the characters might not be strictly aristocratic but industrially oligarchical as in The Damned, a decline rather than a progression. People are losing their wealth and status, not gaining it. What is the affect of this, rather than the cause and effect of it, Visconti asks? How does one film a world that is falling away without in the process falling into the historical analysis of such a collapse? How is such a world framed? When Tino Mendes Sargo says of the battle scenes in The Leopard that "these sequences are of appalling mediocrity in their conception and directorial handling" (Film Quarterly) he has a point if we view them historically within two modes of cause and effect: the broader historical aspect and the narrower strategic function. In a perfectly competent film like David Michod's The King, based loosely on various Shakespeare plays including Henry V, the director makes clear why the English are in France and how exactly they can win the battle against a much better-equipped army. As they take advantage of the muddy conditions that the king's right-hand man predicted, so the French struggle as their horses get caught in the quagmire and their heavier armour proves counter-productive against the more lightly attired English. But such an approach wouldn't seem to interest Visconti since what he wants from the battle scenes is not militaristic rationale, but an aesthetic evocation which brings to mind the painterly over the dramatic. They are compositions awaiting their decomposition; not battles waiting to be won or lost. There are almost no close-ups and no point of view shots Visconti's battle scenes, even if by the end of the sequence we will follow a little more closely one of Garibaldi's men who will enter the story of the aristocratic family where he falls for one of the daughters. But the sequence instead of detailing the battle seems to seek out a series of compositions. Whether it is a shot of Garibaldi's men shooting at the king's horsemen, or a little girl walking down a burning street, a dead body in front of her, or a moment when local rebels are killed by a firing squad, Visconti wonders less about the how of events than the pictorial possibilities they offer. If we accept with Deleuze that one of the most important aspects of Visconti's work is not at all action but composition we can understands why the battle scenes in the film are so badly done on dramatic terms, which isn't the same thing as saying they are rhythmically inert. Visconti gives them the sweep of history but removes from them the motivations behind the actions. The men are very much figures in a landscape, rather than soldiers at war. They bring to mind the third aspect of Deleuze's fourfold analysis of Visconti's work: the historical, yet a sense of history that is "caught obliquely." Visconti's cinema can easily elide the 'battle' scenes it sometimes shows (in Senso, here and in the night of the Long Knives sequence in The Damned) because the dramatic delineation of event is always secondary.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that Visconti cares less about how events unfold within a historically dramatic logic, than how they reflect upon people who aren't directly involved in those events. There is no motivational reason to show the Night of the Long Knives in The Damned even if central character Friedrich Bruckmann has been in cahoots with another character to improve his status in the steel business that he has married into. Equally in Senso, the battle sequence two-thirds of the way through the film between the Italian and Austrian troops isn't necessary even if an important character (the central character's patriotic cousin) has been fighting in it. And in The Leopard, Tancredi is hardly to be seen in the battle sequence, turning up afterwards with a scarf over one eye after a wound, a result we can assume of a bomb going off during a battle scene that shows him floored for a moment before he once again starts fighting. It isn't that the scenes are extraneous but they are not essential as the battle scenes in Spartacus, Patton, Braveheart or Ben Hur happen to be. Partly this is question of identification in Patton etc. the characters are either in the thick of the action or dictating its terms. In Visconti's films, they aren't quite doing either, so that though history is as important if not even more important than in the four films we have just mentioned, Visconti's retreat from the purposeful in his work means that they needn't be necessary.
The second reason leads us again to invoke Deleuze (in Cinema 1: The Movement-Image), and an important exchange between Sergei Eisenstein and Mikael Romm. Romm was making a film from Maupassant's short story Boule de Suif and Eisenstein asked Romm whether he was going to focus on the vast story concerning the Prussian invasion or the small story concentrating on the stagecoach. Romm proposed he would concentrate on the small story; Eisenstein indicated he would have gone for the epic telling. Deleuze is talking more broadly about what he calls the 'large' and the 'small form', and the importance of working from the index, the small detail, which can elide action yet leave us well aware an action has taken place. In this sense, Visconti offers both a large and small form simultaneously. It is in the possible eschewal of the action that we see the potential for the small form, and evident too in the indexical aspect, knowing that Tancredi has been injured because of the headscarf over one eye after battle. Yet Visconti also wants to show the large form not as action but as sweep, making clear compositionally that history has been taking place. When he shows us the battles in the streets of Sicily, the director doesn't ask us to place ourselves strategically within the fighting but aesthetically beyond it, suggesting this is how history is viewed from a certain perspective, and that it owes as much to painting as it does to narration. Works by Baldassare Verazzi like 'Five Days in Milan' and 'Episode from the Five Days', for example, but also more obviously Pierre-Auguste Renoir's 'Picnic' ('Le dejeneur sur l'herbe') during the picnic scenes. Visconti worked as Jean Renoir's assistant on the film that clearly resembled this latter painting, Partie de Campagne, but while Renoir's work occasionally suggested the painterly (The Golden Coach, The River and indeed the film Le dejeneur sur l'herbe) Visconti's work is as great an example of a filmmaker trying to find in images stillness within movement. If many a painter wished to create movement out of stillness, evident for example in Velasquez's important breakthrough in painting a wheel, Visconti moves in the other direction. As E. H. Gombrich states, the painter Philip Angel criticised other painters for "painting the spokes of a wheel when the carriage is supposed to be in motion....'whenever a cart wheel or spinning wheel is turned with great force, you will notice that because of the rapid turning no spokes can really be seen but only an uncertain glimpse of them..." How to suggest their movement? "It needed the imagination and skill of a Velasquez to invent a means of suggesting that 'uncertain glimpse' in the spinning wheel of the Hilanderas which appears to catch the so-called stroboscopic effect, the streaking after-image." (Art and Illusion) While battle sequences usually indicate not just movement but action, Visconti manages to invoke a painterly approach to battle that asks us to contemplate an event rather identify with participants in it. He offers the small form as index but the large form as compositional vastness without involving us in the thick of an event.
It is this combination of large and small form that makes Visconti especially interesting from the perspective of the beautiful even if he is for Deleuze one of the four major figures of the crystalline image (alongside Renoir, Ophuls and Fellini) and thus to the centrality of time in film. But there is something no less suggestive in the question of movement, and thus to the large and the small form, which interests us. If we accept that Visconti needn't show the nature of events but instead their indexical impact, then by this reckoning we might see his best films as the ones most inclined towards the small form. But while a film like Conversation Piece is a valuable work, its insistent wish to remain in the small form was more a consequence of the director's physical limitations than a desire to work on more contained projects. As Geoffrey Nowell Smith says, "Visconti's state of health remained precarious and a big location project such as the Proust would have been out of the question." (Luchino Visconti) Focusing exclusively on the apartment the central character lives in, the film suggests offscreen events indicating that one of the main characters may or may not be part of a terrorist organization. However, our sense of the Visconti-esque which nevertheless incorporates films as broad as Ossessione, La Terra Trema, Senso, Rocco and His Brothers, The Leopard, Death in Venice and The Damned, rarely denies the large form within its interest in the smaller one. Deleuze says that the two important aspects of the large form are "the synsign [which] is a set of power-qualities as actualised in a milieu, in a state of things or a determinate space-time" The other is "the binomial, in order to designate every duel, that is to say, what is properly active in the action-image. This is binomial as soon as the state of a force relates back to an antagonistic force...it involves in its very exercise an effort to foresee the exercise of the other force..." (Cinema 1 - The Movement-Image) What we see in Visconti's work is an "interest consistently in the power qualities as actualised in a milieu" but not much interest in the duel. If the latter were more prominent so the director's battle scenes would be more evidently realised. In the latter, we would obviously have Kant's purposeful rather than purposive and this would call into question the importance of the Beautiful. It isn't that a battle scene must indicate the painterly as a means by which to elevate the film to an aesthetic superior to the cinematic; it is that the painterly allows Visconti to suggest that movement must never indicate action over contemplation. If Velasquez insisted painting must find a way to suggest motion, Visconti consistently finds the means by which to indicate that cinema accommodate a pace more evident in the 'still' arts: painting and sculpture, arts where the beautiful has been more pronounced.
In the now-famous ballroom sequence, which has influenced numerous American films that have sought their own contemplative possibilities within action images (like The Godfather, The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate), Visconti never pushes the dramatic when he can offer observations on the milieu over the dramatising of the action. In one shot, Tancredi and Angela enter a room from behind and Visconti holds on them exiting through a doorway before cutting to inside the room they have entered. A few moments later, the Prince crosses over to a mantelpiece and, leaning his hand against it, looks offscreen with an amused expression on his face. The shot is held for a moment as we may wonder what he happens to find so amusing before the film cuts to a wide shot of numerous young women laughing and playing with their fans. Visconti then holds this shot for around ten seconds before cutting back to the Prince looking both exhausted and distraught. In the first instance, with Tancredi and Angela, the shots match smoothly enough from them seen entering the room to the cut where we see them frontally in it, but there is also a delay too between the two shots, with Visconti always looking to frame the image and convey a thought that cannot be instantly assumed. If Visconti had cut as soon as Angela and Tancredi entered the room he would have denied us this thought as he moved directly from one room to another, but by delaying the shot, by holding onto the image from behind, he allows for a moment of contemplation. In the shot from Fabrizio to the women having fun and cutting back again to Fabrizio, it is more complicated, as though something befell the Prince in what is only a matter of seconds. What has he seen in these young ladies that impacts so strongly upon him, or has he seen anything at all and is instead reacting suddenly to an instant tiredness in his body? After the film cuts back to him he lays his top hat on the mantelpiece and places both of his white-gloved hands there too, seeing his reflection in the mirror. This isn't quite the same as saying he looked in the mirror; it is more that the mirror seems to be looking at him throwing his image back at him rather than the Prince taking a look at his reflection. He then begins to appraise himself before looking down for a moment of thought and looks again in the direction of the laughing girls before someone comes up to him and asks if he is bored. Instead, the Prince reasserts himself and suggests that, "all these marriages between cousins do not improve the beauty of the race" as he speaks pejoratively about the women. The films cuts back to them as we might be inclined to see less their youth than their idiocy, but has Fabrizio's comment come out of his past youthfulness and a mild resentment? The men exit the frame and pass through the image that we have just seen of the women laughing but we can see perhaps in the framing ,as Fabrizio and the other man are lost in the shot, that the Prince is part of this history of inbreeding too, marrying a woman whose navel he admits never having seen even if their liaison produced seven children. There is nothing to suggest he married a beauty; more a woman he ought to have married.
In such moments, Visconti insists on generating a space between deeds to allow for the possibilities in pensiveness. He insistently 'holds the shot' which only has meaning if we assume there is something in the shot that we must observe rather than something that we must follow. If we can say that dialogue and action are what one follows then filmmakers usually respect the prioritising status they possess to show us characters doing things or saying things. But if they are no longer doing or saying something, the shot is thus being 'held'. In an early sixties war epic like The Longest Day, an hour by hour account of the allied invasion of France, for all the slowing down of the war to a single day, nevertheless the shots themselves are never held for any longer than informationally necessary. In one scene a French woman in cahoots with the allies cycles past a couple of Nazis who are walking along the train tracks. They stop her and, after looking at her ID, one of the Nazis walks off with her while the other Nazi looks around. Allied soldiers are waiting in a ditch and we cut back and forth between them and the remaining Nazi before they steal up on him as one of them knives him in the neck. He screams in pain and the film cuts as the audio is matched to a train howling into the station. It is economic action filmmaking, giving us all the necessary information to follow the sequence without for a moment dwelling on the events. In All About Eve, the film does the same to dialogue as The Longest Day has done to action: it cuts according to what people have to say. When in the film Margot is talking to a playwright who has written a play with her in mind even though she is forty and the character is twenty, in a mixture of two shots and shot/counter shots, the film never gives us a moment to ourselves and in this rests its brilliance, even if we can see innovation elsewhere in its use of voice over. Our point is simple: mainstream film however good or bad usually follows the deed or the word; Visconti's influence on Hollywood was to create a space between them, hence the influence on Francis Coppola's The Godfather and Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate. It made sense that one of the seven films by others Michael Cimino chose during a retrospective of his work in Lisbon was The Leopard (Filmmaker Magazine) Coppola was no less enamoured. "By choosing Visconti as his model," C Jerry Kutner says, "Coppola infused new life into what was at that time a dying genre." (Bright Lights Film Journal) The Godfather also used the same composer as Visconti's film, Nino Rota. Meanwhile, in Heaven's Gate there is the scene when the train arrives in the station and the film cuts to its arrival and we might expect to see one of our leading characters played by Kris Kristofferson getting off. Instead, we scan the image and find no familiar faces before the film cuts back to Kristofferson still on the train and in the process of trying to put his boots back on again. A guard tells him the train has arrived at Casper, Wyoming, and the film cuts to a couple of shots where we see the billowing black smoke from the train before cutting back to Kristofferson walking along the coach and disembarking. There is only one word of dialogue 'Casper' and no action: Cimino allows the properties of the image to take precedence over the usual hierarchies of action and words. Whether gangster, war movie or Western, we see directors more than willing to hold the shot rather than simply convey information in it. It gave to seventies American cinema an often contemplative quality that we can't pretend wasn't occasionally there in early sixties cinema that wouldn't have at all shown the influence of a film still to be made: One Eyed Jacks, Mutiny on the Bounty and Lawrence of Arabia were all made before shortly before The Leopard. Yet of all these early sixties films, it seems Visconti's was to prove the most influential.
Perhaps because The Leopard more than the others utilises the beautiful to call into question the purposeful: it suggests that the historic needn't manifest itself only or even chiefly in action but also in the beauty that is a preserve of its moment. Visconti is well aware that the historic isn't just a movement of time, it also resides in the tectonic shifts of the many facets of a moment. The more action-oriented the historical work happens to be the less evident the time given over to the moment focused upon. No historical epic can get away without paying attention to the costumes, the uniforms, the period interiors but often the film does so out of necessity rather than desire. Whether it is Kingdom of Heaven, Braveheart, Spartacus, up to WWI and WWII films like 1919 and Dunkirk, a general verisimilitude demands an attention to period detail but not an attentiveness to detail, which is at the same time not at all a fetishisation of detail. One of the basic differences between the costume drama and the historical epic is the fetishisation in the former and the 'mere' attention to detail in the latter. Merchant/Ivory films including A Room with a View and Howards End, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are merely pretty because the costumes are fussed over but the image doesn't attain to the beautiful that must concern itself with a complex combination of attentiveness to the historical, the content (the costumes, interiors etc) and the very image itself how things are framed. We needn't insist that the costume drama is a debased form but we might wonder if most examples happen to be as the force of the variable elements upon the genre are weak next to the fetishisation of the costumes within it. The costume drama is frequently the inversion of the action epic the former focuses chiefly on the action while the costume drama often involves a degree of romantic stratagems. If The Leopard is a masterpiece it rests partly on managing to contain everything from the action to the costumes, to the history it invokes, a contemplative aspect that asks us to feel the micro-movement in change and to see how beauty can convey this as long as it doesn't become a subsidiary aspect of the image. If beauty becomes a detail then it loses its full Kantian possibilities and falls into prettiness.
To understand this more fully we can utilise Deleuze again, and how he invokes Nietzsche's three approaches to history in the context of the action image. Nietzsche discusses "'monumental history', 'antiquarian history' and 'critical', or rather ethical history." In the first, we have the initial aspect of the large form we mentioned earlier: "the physical and human encompasses, the natural and architectural milieu", with Deleuze mentioning Babylon and its defeat, the sea which opens for Moses and so on. Here history is shown in its peaks rather than its troughs, proving properly epic. In the antiquarian, the duel is pronounced and the individuals very evident. But it isn't what matters only: "vast tapestries, clothes, finery, machines, weapons or tools, jewels..." Deleuze sees that, "the fabrics become a fundamental element of the historical film." But there is also the ethical dimension to history, as Deleuze notes "a strong ethical judgement must condemn the injustice of 'things'. Historical films often incorporate all three aspects of Nietzsche's taxonomy but clearly the costume drama will emphasise the costumes and jewelry (like Gone with the Wind), the epic, the broader sweep (like The Ten Commandments) and the ethical the pursuit of social justice (like Gandhi) but what very few of them do is attain to the beautiful which, in our formulation, rests on the attentive. The monumentally historical, the antiquarian conflict, incorporating social details, and the injustices of exploitation, are all secondary in The Leopard to an attentiveness that insists the film remains on the side of the purposive perceptions overs the purposeful actions. This can clearly be seen as a question of time in the Bergsonian approach to perception that Deleuze so focuses upon in the second book in which Visconti finds himself, but by taking a slightly more Kantian approach to the question, to emphasise the difference between the beautiful and the agreeable, which from a certain perspective can resemble the difference Bergson makes between the durational and the mechanical, between time as flowing constantly versus time as a series of discreet moments like the hands on a clock, we see how space is occupied rather than time delineated. We can notice from a Bergsonian angle why an action sequence might be eschewed, why a character may reflect rather than act. As he says, "our psychic life may be lived at different heights, now nearer to action, now further removed from it, according to the degree of our attention to life." (Matter and Memory) Differentiating between the beautiful and the agreeable, Kant says, "as regards the agreeable everyone acknowledges that his judgment, which he bases on a private feeling and by which he says that he likes some object, is by the same token confined to his own person." Kant reckons, "it is quite different...with the beautiful....The thing is beautiful, and does not count on other people to agree with his judgement of liking on the ground that he has repeatedly found them agreeing with him; rather he demands that they agree." (Critique of Judgement) By analogy let us think again of Visconti's battle scenes. He is less interested in us siding with one army over another than seeing the beauty in the battle, in the presentation of its choreography. It demands we attend not to the action but instead to the aesthetics behind it. To understand Visconti's work, and no film more than The Leopard, is to comprehend the contemplative possibilities he offers the image consistent with the Bergsonian notion of attention but not exclusive to it. A film could easily possess an interest in the contemplative without having much interest in the beautiful that may or may not accompany it, but for Visconti the attentive is only as good as the beauty it produces.
We can think in conclusion of three further scenes from the film: the first the famous instance when Fabrizio dances with Angelica, one a little earlier where Fabrizio, Angelica and Tancredit talk, and a moment very near the end when we see the Prince after praying on his knees walking along towards and down a side street. In the first scene, as Fabrizio dances with Angelica we see both an older man dancing with a much younger woman but we also witness the grace of two people moving in smooth unison as if there is no age gap at all. There is no sense that Fabrizio lusts after Angelica but there is a vampiric dimension to the sequence as he momentarily finds his youth in her beauty and her flattery. Yet throughout, he retains his dignity towards a situation where he does not fool himself into thinking this woman would desire him over his nephew. Yet the film also cuts back to Tancredi with a look on his face indicating initially jealousy and then even a sense of loss. To whom does he feel jealous; to what does he owe this sudden sense of diminution? Is it that he knows he lacks a quality his uncle possesses and is thus not jealous over the dance but of something much greater; envious of an aspect of another? He will be well aware that the Prince will never possess his wife but he also perhaps knows that he will never finally possess her either; as if she sees in the dignity and demeanour of the Prince all that Tancredi lacks, with hints of this already evident in the scene a little earlier where Angelica thanks Fabrizio and in her affection towards the older man we cut to Tancredi looking on, momentarily lowering his eyes as though Angelica and Fabrizio are sharing an intimacy to which he ought not to be privy. Might we see in such a moment the presence of the beautiful as Angelica is desired by Tancredi but admired by The Prince? The distance that they respectfully and insistently bestow upon him becomes the disinterest towards her that turns Angelica not only into the sexually desirable figure she will be for Tancredi but a marvel to behold in the eyes of Fabrizio. It is his look which gives to Angelica a beauty far greater than that which Tancredi offers. In this earlier scene, Tancredi admits to his jealousy after Angelica invokes it, saying "when one has a handsome uncle like him, it's natural to be jealous." But the envy Tancredi appears to register in the scene where the Prince and Angelica dance indicates a feeling that reflects less the fear of someone stealing what one has, than recognising in oneself what one doesn't have; in this case the disinterested eye of a wise man who unlike Tancredi isn't likely to have, as Angelica says, "tantrums like you." Angelica can see surely in the Prince's gaze a beauty she possesses that needn't be merely the lust the passionate Tancredi may indulge in. His ageing body may be a great sorrow to The Prince but from a certain perspective (and that perspective is the beautiful we have insistently invoked) it is better than the raging body of Tancredi.
In the film's final scene, where we see Fabrizio listening to the church bells as he then turns and walks along the side street the films shows us first The Prince in the centre of the frame in the square, but with a third of the frame given over to a wall on the right-hand side which becomes reduced and all but disappears as the camera pans left as we watch Fabrizio walk down the side street on the left-hand side of the frame with the square still in view. It is one of the great moments of solitude in cinema, registered not at all in the close-up but in a long shot that accepts the distance between Fabrizio and the world. After the clutter of the ball, with numerous characters in the frame, artworks on the wall and objects on sideboards and mantelpieces, we have an all but empty image. Apart from a cat there is only Fabrizio, and he begins to disappear from our view as the film turns to black. He is himself dressed in black and the frame indicates a darkness that suggests the sepulchral. The Prince may well not have long to live but we see him going gently into the night with no sense that he will rage against the dying of the light that Visconti's image shows him against. It contains the life and possible death of Fabrizio in an image of such beauty that it doesn't at all counter death (how many purposeful films expend so much of their energy on that?) but on countenancing it, finding its proper measure. Here we see Visconti not so much showing a man's possible demise but framing it within an aesthetic that immortalises an existence.
© Tony McKibbin