A short festival on Venice

Venice is a city of mazes, uncertainty, disguises, says Vilanelle, heroine of Jeanette Winterton’s The Passion. ‘I need a map’ says her hapless lover, Henri. ‘It won’t help’, she replies. ‘This is a living city. Things change’. People, too, it would seem, at least in the imagination of many non-Venetian authors, playwrights and filmmakers. So it is into Venice’s warren of streets and canals, darkness and fog, they send those seeking to find what to do with themselves and their lives.
Perhaps the most famous seeker is Aschenbach, protagonist of Death in Venice, a novel (Thomas Mann), opera (Benjamin Britten) and film (Luchino Viconti). He is an artist (variously a composer or a writer) who has lost his muse and himself. The muse appears as the adolesent boy Tadzio, first sighted in the Hotel des Grande Bain on the Lido, Venice’s beach and, appositely, the home to its annual film festival. In David Lean’s Summertime, Katherine Hepburn is Jane Hudson, come to Venice to ‘find what she’s been missing all my life’. This turns out to be Reynaldo (Rozzano Brazzi), the quintessential older Italian man, sophisticated, tender, passionate and a wow in a finely cut linen suit.
But Venice is the city of Carnival, a festival of masks, and it’s citizens are not who they seem. Reynaldo is married, though separated. Jane’s landlady, Signora Fiorini runs a business on the side procuring gigolos for the women who come to her pensione. In Offenbach’s opera, The Tales of Hoffman, a Venetian courtesan, Guilietta is a procuress for the devilish Dapertutto. She tricks our hero, the poet Hoffmann, into giving her his reflection, thus forfeiting his soul to the dark side. Sir Robert Helpmann played Dapertutto in the 1951 Pressburger and Powell film version. In Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers, one the two boatmen is the King of Barataria, hidden in Venice at birth by the Grand Inquisitor determined to stop the child following in the Weslyan steps of his father.
Casanova, Venice’s great lover, was also a victim of the Inquisition, leading to his imprisonment and self-imposed exile on escaping. He died of age and venereal disease in Bohemia, never having returned to Venice. In Fellini’s Casanova, he is allowed to return in a dream, to waltz on the frozen canals with a mechanical doll with whom he claims to have once had sex.
Death by disease, or the threat of it, also features in fictional tales of Venice. Catarrh looms over its citizens in Winterton’s Venice. Aschenbach worries Tadzio will die from an outbreak of cholera that is being covered up by tourist hungry authorities, but it is he who dies. The writer of Robert Dessaix’s Night Letters, is dying of AIDS and has come to Venice to ‘live out my fantasy, to taste bliss while I could’. Katherine Hepburn had to fall into a canal in Summertime. They protected her ears from the polluted water, but forgot about her eyes, which became dangerously infected.
Death by knife is the other popular way of disposing of the seekers in Venice. In Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, Donald Sutherland is an architect, obsessively guilty about his failure to prevent his young daughter’s drowning. In the wintry foggy night he pursues a figure wearing a red raincoat like his daughter wore. It is not a child but a dwarf serial killer and Sutherland is murdered. In The Comfort of Strangers (Paul Schrader directing, script by Harold Pinter) Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson come to salvage their relationship, but become the object of the dangerous games of a sado-masochistic Venetian couple. His throat is cut as the prelude to their final sexual act.
This is another literary theme in Venice; sexual ambiguity, scandal and perversion. Portia in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice dons the garb of a male attorney to defend her future husband. His Othello the Moor of Venice is a confronting look at inter-racial love and the consequences of jealousy and mistrust. Villanelle is a bisexual whose passion is for the wife of a Venetian merchant. In the finale of Top Hat, the piazza’s and bridges of Venice become a deco setting for the Piccolino, danced by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, perhaps the most enduring role-reversed film partnership – Fred a SNAG before the term was invented, and Ginger the tough, brassy dame with a heart of gold. No wonder the transsexual author Jan Morris nominates Venice as her favourite city.
The lesson of Venice is, ultimately to become ‘grown up’ and learn ‘when to leave a party’. These are the American Jane’s words to Reynaldo as she leaves him and Venice. Villanelle chooses not to pursue her lesbian lover. The English innocents of Roeg and Schrader don’t learn this lesson and are killed. And Aschenbach dies, rouged, powdered and alone on the Lido, having wanted too much, too hard.

Copyright (C) 2003 Paul van Reyk

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© Paul van Reyk 2019.