Diana (2013)

Film about the late princess of Wales shows her reckless, romantic sides but marks a terrible Anglophone début for its revered German director.

dianaUK
2*

Director:
Oliver Hirschbiegel

Screenwriter:
Stephen Jeffreys

Director of Photography:
Rainer Klausmann

Running time: 115 minutes

With Diana, director Oliver Hirschbiegel, who made a film about Adolf Hitler in 2004 (Der Untergang, released for the English-speaking market under the title Downfall), has created a movie about another figure who is not exactly loved in her own country. Though not generating the same kind of vitriol as Margaret Thatcher, the late princess of Wales was thought to be enjoying the limelight a little more than she let on when she was publicly denouncing the British press’s lack of respect for her privacy.

The film only focuses on the last two years of her life, and in particular her on-again, off-again relationship with cardiologist Hasnat Khan. It is easy to see why Hirschbiegel was drawn to this project, as this is again a historical character who was a point of conversation and always in the public eye. Far from empathising with her, the director shows the situation in which she finds herself – at the mercy and yet simultaneously at the beck and call of Buckingham Palace – and her inability to realise how difficult it would be to make a relationship work with someone who cherishes his privacy much more than she does, and for whom hers is an alien world.

Khan seems like a very intelligent man who would give Diana the world if he could, but he refuses to give up his own identity. While the princess claims she is not asking him to do that, she simply fails to realise what an impact the constant flashing of the paparazzi’s cameras – or, for that matter, the hush-hush, the whispering or the finger-pointing in the street or in a restaurant – has on the life of an otherwise ordinary citizen. Having lived with such trifles for a long time already, she simply cannot sympathise with how little desire Khan has to interact with the nosy press.

We are shown what a narcissist Diana was by her constant looks in the mirror, and that goes some way towards explaining her actions late in the film, when she intimately plays along with members of the press, hinting at where she will be so she can be photographed and thus annoy “the Windsors” with her antics. She was anything but a damsel in distress when it came to the media; on the contrary, it almost seems she would start to drool Pavlov-style at the click of a shutter.

But we never get closer to her than did all the tabloids that covered her for so many years. While we see some details about her relationship with Khan, enormous chunks of her life are left out. She interacts with her own children in one single scene, and by the time we meet them she is seeing them off at the airport. For a woman who boasts about having four mobile phones, such an absence of communication between her and her children is impossible to understand.

Poor Naomi Watts, though not given much to work with in the title role, doesn’t meet our expectations either, as her delivery is often histrionic, and especially in the recreation of the well-publicised BBC television with Martin Bashir, Watts tries to interpret rather than mimic the real Diana but ends up appearing robotic and embarrassing.

Hirschbiegel nearly gets into Diana’s mind when she meets famed South African heart surgeon Christiaan Barnard (who performed the world’s first heart transplant) at an event in Italy and opens up about her love for Khan, but instead of asking him about his own experience reconciling his public and his private lives, she doesn’t even flinch when she asks him to find a job for her boyfriend so they can move abroad. The scene isn’t helped either by actor Michael Byrne, who plays Barnard, making a truly ghastly attempt at an Afrikaans accent.

The viewer will have many questions, most pressing of which is probably why Diana dons a wig only some of the time instead of carrying it around with her to avoid being recognised. But here is one of the most famous women in the world prancing around the streets of London at 3 a.m., completely exposed. Such lunacy does not elicit empathy, and neither does her self-pitying piano rendition of Bach’s “Aria”, which she performs not once but twice.

Diana famously said there were three people in her marriage with Prince Charles, referring to his mistress, Camilla Parker-Bowles, but going by this film, even if they were only two, the marriage would have been too crowded with her ego taking up so much space.

This is a story about a very troubled woman whose problems we are supposed to know from the real world and not because the film tells us or even hints at them, and such a reliance on facts outside the immediate world of the film nearly sinks the production, because it undercuts its very existence. That, on top of the slightly deranged central character whom we never really warm up to, the flat delivery of mediocre dialogue and truly odd directing choices (the opening scene prepares us for a Hitchcockian thriller), makes this film just another run-of-the-mill biopic.

Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015)

Sadly, another case where it is (far) better to read the book than watch the movie.

hitchcock-truffautUSA/France
2*

Director:
Kent Jones
Screenwriters:
Kent Jones
Serge Toubiana
Directors of Photography:
Nick Bentgen, Daniel Cowen, Eric Gautier, Mihai Malaimare Jr., Lisa Rinzler and Genta Tamaki

Running time: 80 minutes

It may share a title with one of the most accessible studies of a filmmaker ever published, but in his documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, director Kent Jones (assisted here on the screenplay by Truffaut biographer Serge Toubiana) forgot to take a page from the very book with which it shares a title, namely by presenting the facts and presenting them in a way that would be compelling.

What we end up with here is a messy assortment of thoughts and reflections on the Master of Suspense, countless extracts from his films (none of which is indicated to the uninitiated) and a mish-mash of audio excerpts taken from the legendary eight-day interview back in 1962 between the young but ultimately immensely influential French film critic/director François Truffaut and the aging sage who had been thrilling the masses for many decades with his tales of murder but whose status as one of the cinema’s great auteurs was still underappreciated, Alfred Hitchcock.

In the film, we meet 10 directors, among whom only David Fincher proclaims a personal connection with the book, first published in 1966, which contains a wide-ranging discussion between the two cinephiles of all of Hitchcock’s films up to that point, just four short of the ultimate tally by the time he passed away in 1980. The conversation, which sadly was not filmed but only recorded, was facilitated by the bilingual Helen Scott, who gets only one shout-out here without any further information about her. Truffaut spoke no English, and Hitchcock spoke no French, so Scott interpreted back and forth between them from morning till late afternoon every day for more than a week.

Besides Fincher, some of the most loquacious speakers here are French directors Arnaud Desplechin and Olivier Assayas, with speed talker Martin Scorsese also called upon to share his views of Hitchcock’s most famous works. However, it is wholly unclear why these particular filmmakers and their ilk, including Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Paul Schrader, Peter Bogdanovich, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and the little-known James Grey, are recounting their impressions. Had we listened to someone like Brian de Palma, or Steven Spielberg, perhaps we could have learned something about tension, art and entertainment, but while these particular filmmakers are amiable enough, it remains a mystery why they were chosen to share their opinions of Hitchcock. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, they’re no François Truffaut.

Time and again, we return to the question of whether Hitchcock was an entertainer or an artist, a doubt he even expressed to Truffaut. Predictably, the film leans very heavily towards the latter, as was the intention of Truffaut at the time, who along with his colleagues at the Cahiers du cinéma film monthly extolled the Hollywood-based British director for being the force that drives every one of his films, in other words for being an “auteur”.

In the words of Truffaut, the work of an auteur might not always be good, but it is always better than the work of a non-auteur (he used the examples of French filmmakers Jean Renoir and Jean Delannoy as representatives of these two respective kinds of directors).

Hitchcock/Truffaut, unsure of its own raison d’être, turns towards armchair psychoanalysis in its second half, as the directors, most of whom are too young to have met Hitchcock, speculate about the fetish objects in Hitch’s films. Fortunately, we are spared any significant amount of discussion about the blonde actresses he employed, but the topic of dreams does come up, and it is truly puzzling that there is no mention of Spellbound, which was Hitchcock’s big “dream” film and also dealt very cynically with psychoanalysis.

Most frustrating is an extended sequence that encompasses an analysis of Vertigo, during which we learn precious little, except that the film works not because of its narrative, which is deeply flawed and more than a little silly, but because it is, in the words of Scorsese, “poetry”. Such bland statements about Hitchcock the artist, as opposed to Hitchcock the mass entertainer, bring absolutely nothing to our understanding of the director’s undeniable appeal.

What would seem to be the most important point of discussion is one that is mentioned all too briefly: Hitchcock’s problem with realism, especially following the brutal reality of World War II.

Scorsese admits that Vertigo has a “spirit of realism”, but that the film cannot possibly be described as realistic. This is in fact a larger issue in the director’s works and ultimately led to his excommunication from the world of entertainment because of his stubborn refusal to renounce outdated techniques such as rear projection. This gimmick, often utilised in studio pictures during the age of black-and-white cinema, made Marnie — released in 1964 in between the French New Wave and in the middle of the British New Wave, both of which focused on the lives of people in the middle or the bottom half of society and whose films were shot on location — look downright laughable.

Truffaut, who was just 30 years of age at the time he conducted the interview in 1962, is always a magnetic speaker, his enthusiasm for Hitchcock palpable, and it is a shame Jones only very superficially compares an incident in the Frenchman’s début feature, The 400 Blows (les 400 Coups) with a famous story Hitchcock often told. But he fails to share with the audience, for example, that Truffaut asked himself “What would Hitch do?” when he shot the suspenseful scene in which the rebellious Antoine Doinel’s mother shows up at school to confront him about his lies.

It is all well and good to assemble a few friends to talk about a man who was a giant in the industry before they came along, but this film does not contribute to a deeper understanding of the man, his life or his films. At best, it may serve as a starting point for students who need to write a film review for their high-school English class. Those who did not know anything about Hitchcock or Truffaut before watching the film might very well learn the basics, but for everyone else, this film offers less than the bare minimum. Go out and buy the book instead.

This is a slightly modified version of the writer’s review that first appeared in The Prague Post.

Viewed at the San Sebastián International Film Festival 2015

The Assault (2010)

assautFrance

2*
Director:
Julien Leclercq
Screenwriters:
Simon Moutairou
Julien Leclercq
Director of Photography:
Thierry Pouget

Original title: L’Assaut

Running time: 85 minutes

A very daring assault of a hijacked Air France aircraft took place Dec. 26, 1994, on runway three of Marignane Airport on the outskirts of Marseille. Broadcast live on national television, images of the successful rescue of the passengers onboard and the neutralization of the hijackers, four members of the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA), made heroes of the SWAT team that carried out the operation.

It would later be determined that the gunmen wanted to redirect the airplane to Paris and send it on a collision course toward the Eiffel Tower. After the Algerian government had nullified the election victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut) in 1991, the latter’s more militant GIA wing tried for years to overthrow the government and install an Islamic State. Algeria sought the help of their former colonial power, and the GIA targeted France in order to make its displeasure known.

These events show enormous potential for either a straightforward action film with a dimension of human drama (think back to the stories of the passengers in United 93, in which the terrorists’ target eerily resembles the one in this film) or a more subtle evocation of the bickering that unfolded in the corridors of power while people’s lives hung in the balance.

Instead, The Assault opts for an awkward three-legged balancing act that, given its running time — a breezy 85 minutes — provides too little information for the viewer to be involved at any level. In fact, some of the main characters are never even introduced by name, and we get no real motivation for the actions of the fighters. The film simply wants us to infer they are bad because they are Islamic terrorists (or, in the parlance of any U.S. politician, “radical” Islamic terrorists). And yet the passengers also remain a vast mass of individuals with whom we cannot possibly relate, except to infer, once again, they are good, simply because they are not Islamic terrorists.

This lack of sophistication in the screenplay is reflected by the film’s colour palette: The images have been desaturated to the point where all we see are shades of blue, black and gray. These colours would suit a post-apocalyptic movie just fine, but in The Assault, where so much depends on the interaction of real people, all of them involved in a struggle for life and death, such cold, alienating colours drain the life from the story.

While the hijackers are waiting, first on the runway in Algiers, then on the runway in Marseille, a French special operations team is preparing to storm the plane. One of the officers is called Thierry, and we know he will have some special role because his wife is always watching the events on the television screen, seemingly in a state of permanent anguish, her face contorted to express her fears as visibly as possible, while she is either sniffing or sobbing in quiet desperation.

The ringleader of the gang of four on the plane is Yahia, though we have no idea what his plan is or whether he has a plan at all: Throughout the film, he seems oddly confused, his non-stop screaming making him appear to be a hysterical nut job driven by emotion rather than ideology.

The third main character is Carole, the always-confident aid at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, who assures things get done even though she gets none of the recognition she deserves. This political power play could have been fascinating, but sadly the film spends little time mulling over its own story.

None of the characters has a back story, and therefore no one’s actions can really be explained — nor can anyone’s demise elicit feelings of sadness or loss from the viewer. We need not sympathize with the terrorists, but some clear motive for their actions would have gone a long way toward our understanding of their mission, aside from the continual cries of “Allahu akbar” (God is great).

Films about terrorists are usually approached with much more circumspection regarding the characters involved and the political or religious driving force behind their actions, but The Assault doesn’t seem very interested in telling its story in a more than cursory way. This is a shame, since similar incidents from the past, from Munich in 1972 to Waco in 1993 and New York City in 2001, have captivated audiences around the world who watched these events unfold live on television.

But we are not captivated, because the characters are remarkably superficial. The story is inherently interesting, but very little thought has been put into its execution, and the result is this sad excuse for a “based on true events” biopic. It should have been made for television.

This is a slightly modified version of the writer’s review that first appeared in The Prague Post.

Only God Forgives (2013)

Only God ForgivesDenmark/Thailand

2*
Director:
Nicolas Winding Refn
Screenwriter:
Nicolas Winding Refn
Director of Photography:
Larry Smith

Running time: 90 minutes

Luis Buñuel’s 1929 short film, Un chien andalou, is well-known for one good reason: In a close-up, it shows a human eye sliced by a razor.

In Only God Forgives, cult director Nicolas Winding Refn references this image — in full colour — at the climax of a scene that sees a man lose not only his eyes, but his ears, his arms and his legs as well, all in near-silence, except for the constant, piercing scream of the victim.

Despite a torrent of violence and most scenes bathed in deep red by either blood, red neon lights or both, Refn maintains a curious and alienating distance from his characters, which means we don’t much care for these individuals who are under constant threat of execution by the sadistic blade-wielding policeman Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).

Chang is one of two enigmatic central figures responsible for the many sordid incidents of blood loss. The other is Julian, a big drug smuggler in the Bangkok underworld, played by Ryan Gosling, who also starred in Refn’s widely beloved but overhyped Drive.

At the beginning of the film, Chang is called to the scene when a 16-year-old prostitute is found dead in Bangkok. For some inexplicable reason, her killer, an American named Billy, has decided it would be a good idea to stay behind. The girl’s father seeks revenge, and Chang allows the man to beat Billy to a lifeless pulp.

But then, suddenly, Chang turns on the father and pulls a sword from behind his back (which doesn’t, however, impede his ability to chase a criminal at full speed down the road in another scene later in the film) before slicing the man’s arm clean off.

It turns out Billy is Julian’s elder brother, and when Billy dies, their ice-cold mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) flies into town to demand justice be served.

These early scenes are soaked in red light, which would seem seedy if the visual metaphor of blood wasn’t so ridiculously obvious. The stone-faced Julian, who says little and expresses even less, is unwilling to avenge his brother until his mother forces action from him through emotional manipulation wrought by a personality verging on that of a dominatrix.

The film oozes with style, and the ambiance of the opening act is electric thanks to the dozens of crimson-cloaked objects highlighted by the deep shadows that envelop them. There are hints of film noir, for example the meshwork of shadows that outline the jasmine rays of neon as light is cast through a cement barrier, but without a narrator or a serious femme fatale, the film doesn’t take advantage of the genre.

As he did with Drive, Refn dedicates Only God Forgives to Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose El Topo and The Holy Mountain were Surrealist explorations of spirituality. Refn doesn’t do much with spirituality, but the surreal brutality of his work, amped up even from the grisly acts of Drive, is clearly a point that connects the two filmmakers.

A few moments in the film do stand out as particularly impressive. One is a scene in which Julian points a gun at the man who killed his brother, who emotionally confesses to the crime but does so in complete silence, as the music on the soundtrack is the only sound we hear.

Another scene of spectacular filmmaking is the big fight between the otherwise expressionless leads, Chang and Julian, which is accompanied by a Cliff Martinez composition that mixes music produced by an organ and a synthesizer. Unfortunately, Refn’s insistence on inserting multiple push-ins on a statue of a man fighting is as annoying as the statue is irrelevant.

While the images may suggest artifice, the characters are even worse, with barely a hint of an arc between them. Julian is calm and silent (Gosling has fewer than 10 lines of dialogue in the entire film), even though he is supposed to be an important figure in the drug trade. Crystal could potentially be a source of great amusement, as she verbally decimates an unsuspecting hotel receptionist upon her arrival in Bangkok, but she ultimately doesn’t push back against the dark lord of the narrative, police officer Chang.

Chang seems to be a villain of steel, who dodges bullets and fights like a god. He is simply invincible, and despite the single scene of him and his young, tender wife, we get absolutely no sense of his thinking and have no idea what drives him.

Refn’s visual creativity is not consistent, however, as is made obvious when some menacing characters, killers for hire, arrive on the scene in slow motion — which apparently somehow should accentuate their wickedness.

Only God Forgives tries to seem artistic by composing beautiful images and an interesting soundtrack that at times calls to mind the work of Ligeti, but its story verges on being one-dimensional, and it is difficult to care about any of the characters. It seems to enjoy the scenes of its own brutality, including when a long metal spike is pushed right through someone’s ear drum, but the film has no interest in presenting a story worthy of our attention.

 

This is a slightly modified version of the writer’s review that first appeared in The Prague Post.

Noy (2010)

The Philippines

2*
Directors:
Dondon Santos
Coco Martin
Screenwriter:
Shugo Praico
Director of Photography:
Tim Jimenez
Running time: 105 minutes

Noy sounds like an interesting film, made under circumstances that are tough, and in some ways it might even bring back memories of Medium Cool, that Haskell Wexler film of which some parts were staged during the notorious 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. This Filipino film was shot during the 2010 presidential campaign, with Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino at the centre of all the attention, and he even generously (and politically, this was a clever call, bringing to mind the work done by Robert Drew on Primary) participated in the production, always available for questions and answers with the average Filipino.

All of that sounds like a good idea in theory. But the film is filled to the hilt with a directionless narrative that only moves when the worst possible situations are thrust onto the characters, done in the worst possible way. Noy even contains a wholly gratuitous sex scene, shot in a way that may easily be shown to a toddler, so devoid it is of any kind of sexual energy, and after all, the use of slow motion and soft focus has never enhanced these kinds of scenes; on the contrary, it only makes them look more toned down.

The young Manolo “Noy” Agapito wants to improve his life. He lives with his mother, younger sister and cripple older brother in a Manileño house on the water that can only be reached by raft. I hadn’t known about these kinds of living conditions in Filipino society, and this window onto the daily lives of the country’s inhabitants was very informative.

Noy has faked going to university, but his friends have managed to put together a fake demo CD of his supposed work and a certificate to match. In this way, he joined a television network and is immediately put in charge of directing a documentary on presidential candidate Noynoy, whose name he nearly shares. If this quick climb up the ladder surprises you, wait until you hear what’s coming next.

Noy starts filming and the footage is obviously junk. He doesn’t ask questions, or asks questions irrelevant to the campaign, but somehow his editor and producer have faith that he will find his voice. The scenes with the editor Caloy, played by Baron Geisler, are some of the more interesting ones, but every time we see footage of the campaign events edited together at a pace of sometimes two or three shots per second, everything feels rushed, disconnected and chaotic. It doesn’t help the film that the opening credits sequence consists of this material, as it immediately reveals the film as an amateur project. Actor Coco Martin, who stars as the lead character Noy, was in charge of this documentary unit of the film, but should have remained in front of the camera, where he looks good and acts equally well.

There are many moments in the film that seem fake, in particular an ending that doesn’t just push the characters into the worst possible circumstances, a bit like an Alejandro González Iñárritu film, but pushes the knife in firmly (in slow motion, again, and with constant cuts back and forth between an action and a reaction shot) before suddenly wrapping up the film in almost utopian fashion. This paradise at the end cannot be interpreted as anything other than the work of that politician who is followed throughout and who ended up winning the presidency: “Noy” Aquino.

Though Aquino clearly has the common touch, easily conversing with people wherever he goes and easily generating excitement, he is shown in a positive light from beginning to end. One single remark about the Aquino family’s responsibility for the deaths of workers on their Hacienda Luisita sugar plantation in 2004 is not pursued and this moment stands alone amid the sunshine presentation of the candidate, whose opponents are never even mentioned. Were it not for a few posters here and there, we could be forgiven for thinking he is running for the presidency unopposed.

As is often the case in foreign-language films, the casting of the English-language actors falls short, and here too an American who is on the prowl for Filipino prostitutes and mistakes Noy’s mother for one (though Noy himself doesn’t mind the misunderstanding — a rather shocking detail that is all but ignored by the screenwriter), is absolutely terrible in his representation of this shady figure. The actor simply doesn’t deliver his lines in a way that is credible by any stretch of the imagination.

While serving as pro-Aquino propaganda, without a doubt, Noy doesn’t link the poverty and the struggles of the lower class with the campaign and fails to deliver a coherent film that would illuminate the future of the nation — something one would obviously expect from this kind of film.

Its use of documentary footage, the involvement of Aquino and the acting talent of Coco Martin notwithstanding, this film’s amateurish use of material, its ghastly editing and its lack of a clear direction all make this a great disappointment. Considering how far the Aquino family has come and what its significance in the country is, it is sad to see how little insight the film offers into the life or ambitions of the man, and his link with the title character is tenuous at best.

Quartet for the End of Time (1983)

Mexico

2*
Director:
Alfonso Cuarón
Screenwriter:
Alfonso Cuarón
Director of Photography:
Ariel Velázquez
Running time: 27 minutes

Original title: Cuarteto para el Fin del Tiempo

Alfonso Cuarón handles comedy much better than drama and as he would show with many of his greatest achievements, he is in total control when he has free reign to do both. But his student film, Quartet for the End of Time, about a guy who lives alone in an apartment and never speaks to anyone, provides no entertainment and left me as bored as the tortoise that serves as the only thing the main character speaks to.

“Quartet for the End of Time” is the title of a famous composition by the twentieth-century French composer Olivier Messiaen, and indeed the main character plays a few chords from the piece’s third movement, “Abyss of the Birds”, on his clarinet. According to Messiaen: “The Abyss is Time, with all its sadness, its weariness. Birds are the opposite of time; it’s our desire for light, stars, rainbows and jubilant vocals.” Such sadness and weariness are certainly well conveyed by this particular short film, but beyond an expression of such dismal tedium, there is little else of note.

The cinematography is also a let-down. Besides the very few tracking shots, all of which reveal some bit of information, the staging is quite simple and the visuals simply lack imagination.

The very first scene shows some promise: lying in the bathtub, while a very small pet tortoise, hidden in its shell, balances on the edge, the main character reads out loud about tortoises. The protection that the shell offers to the little animal is not an uninteresting point, and its potential for meaning is hinted at by the subsequent dedication in the opening credits: Mariana and her belly. At the time, director Alfonso Cuarón (here billed as Alfonso Cuarón Orozco) was married to Mariana Elizondo, whose belly, we can surmise, was the protective shell to their child, Jonás, born in 1981. But the film does nothing to develop this idea in any shape or form.

Instead, we get a loose assortment of scenes, mostly taking place inside the apartment. Fortunately, with one or two exceptions, we are spared the prospect of listening to explanatory interior monologues, but watching the main character sit at his window (with a sticker for the “Paiste 2002” brand of cymbals) is far from exciting, nor does it substantially contribute to our impression of him as someone completely isolated – what the reasons for this isolations are, however, remain a mystery.

The apartment is clearly his shell, the space in which he feels comfortable and protected, and when he does leave the apartment – even though some of these excursions seem to be illusory – we can breathe a momentary sigh of relief. When a film takes place in one setting, our attention needs to be focused, as the Cuarón-produced Duck Season so admirably managed to accomplish.

At the time he made the film, Cuarón had little filmmaking experience and this lack of understanding the form shows very well in his failure to properly direct his main actor (we get a comically amateurish scene in which this character fries a sausage in ten seconds) and the sound effects are completely atrocious. I could easily have ignored these points, were it not for the film’s unwillingness to provide some kind of plot. Granted, we see some transformation from beginning to end, but the reasons for this transformation are never even suggested. A mass of balloons that the character releases from his window might have something to do with it, but such symbolism obscures the plot even more.

It would take Cuarón eight years, and some experience in the field of television, before he undertook another film project, the delightful Love in the Time of Hysteria, and he needed that time to mature, for this student film is an uninteresting, tiresome disgrace that doesn’t even look good.

Death in Venice (1971)

Italy
2*

Director:
Luchino Visconti

Screenwriters:
Luchino Visconti
Nicola Badalucco

Director of Photography:
Pasqualino De Santis

Running time: 130 minutes

Some films don’t age well. It’s usually not a question of the film’s content but rather of its presentation. Death in Venice, in which an artist spends all his time and energy stalking a young boy whom he considers to be the embodiment of beauty, lacks the content to sustain its more than two-hour running time and uses an excessive amount of zooms to animate the content that is deteriorating as steadily as its decrepit central character.

Dirk Bogarde plays Gustav von Aschenbach (allegedly, this character is loosely based on Gustav Mahler), a musician who goes to Venice in order to recuperate after a fainting spell. At the Grand Hôtel des Bains, where he stays for the duration of his trip, he notices a young Polish boy, Tadzio, played by the Swedish actor Björn Andrésen. Tadzio is enigmatic and stands out from the crowd not because of his looks, but because the director chooses to bathe him in light wherever he goes.

I thought the androgynous Tadzio was rather bland, and his ridiculous haircut is an embarrassment. This teenager notices Aschenbach’s gaze and delights in the attention, often meeting his gaze and holding it, smiling quizzically at the older man who is always hovering around him but too reserved to introduce himself. Aschenbach chooses to keep his distance, but I found his passivity very frustrating: Ultimately, the character seems to choose inaction over action. He chooses to drool and does not interact with young Tadzio. Empathy becomes more and more difficult, if not impossible, because the character is so pathetic.

Aschenbach’s interest in Tadzio is not unwanted by the young boy. This point could have been made with some subtlety and developed in an interesting way, but the film contains scene after scene in which Aschenbach leers at Tadzio while Tadzio smiles back in silence. Not much else happens. Oh, right, there is the cholera epidemic, which slowly grabs hold of the city and squeezes the life out of its victims, in the same way that all my interest in Aschenbach’s lovelorn existence is squeezed dry. But by that stage, we have long stopped caring.

Almost every scene contains a zoom, and this kind of filmmaking, in spite of Visconti’s pedigree, seems more like a childish fascination with the zoom than a director who has a firm grasp on the medium. Mahler’s music is used sparingly (the only music on the soundtrack), and some scenes, like the two boys wrestling on the beach while Aschenbach watches in horror is presented without any sound – a very prudent move.

However, the film itself is plodding, to say the least, and Aschenbach’s character might as well have been a zombie. The flashbacks are even worse than the scenes set in the present: Abstract discussions of art and beauty pepper the storyline in the past and provide a very theoretical framework for the character. The setting, pre-WWI Venice, is admirably recreated, and the final shot of Tadzio on the beach is magnificent, but for the most part Death in Venice is underdeveloped and completely overrated.