“Why do you torture yourself?” is asked of the main character halfway through Luchino Visconti’s L’Innocente (1976), now on Blu-ray from Film Movement Classics. At least one answer to that question is that if he didn’t torture himself, viewers wouldn’t be able to enjoy themselves by luxuriating in such voluptuous and elegant melodramas.
Old-school movies based on novels often announced the fact by showing the alleged book behind the opening credits, sometimes opening to the first page. This movie’s credits reach back to that tradition by showing an aged right hand (Visconti’s?) paging through a ragged copy against a bright red velvet cloth. The opening shot of the story presents light fixtures poised under a ceiling as the camera pulls back to reveal that the clacking sounds belong to a dueling club of men practicing with rapiers, their faces covered in mesh, their left hands in the air. This is how they dance with each other.
These first moments announce Visconti’s technique of dropping us sensuously into the details of a scene, in this case a scene of both elegance (like every other scene in the movie) and of violence, no matter how stylized or ritualized according to the tenets of polite society. This dueling club, to which we’ll return later for a scene of shower nudity and intense hostile gazes, is the L’Innocente‘s only strictly masculine environment.
Tullio (Giancarlo Giannini) is among the duelists. Then he’s escorting his wife, Giuliana (Laura Antonelli), at the musical salon of a Princess (Marie Dubois), where talented women play Chopin on the piano or sing Gluck arias. The guests wander in and out, seeing and being seen, gossiping over the fact that Tullio is carrying on an affair with a free-spirited, iron-willed divorcee, Teresa Raffo (Jennifer O’Neill), who has shown up at the same event to inconvenience him.
Amid the stupefying red design of the salon and most of the women’s dresses, the viewer might receive an impression somewhere between an inferno and a bordello. As critic Ivo Blom points out in a brief extra, some of the carefully draped society women could have been lifted out of paintings by John Singer Sargent. For that matter, there are paintings and sculptures and bits of bric-a-brac in virtually every scene, sometimes subtly commenting on the characters. Visconti’s period movies are nothing if not essays in High Art and Culture.
At home, Tullio has a calculatedly frank discussion with meek Giuliana, who’s in the position of having to accept her husband’s infidelities quietly. As though opening his heart, he admits what she already knows of the affair with Teresa Raffo and calls her the only woman who’s ever seduced him, whereas he loves Giuliana “like a sister”. At one point he’ll call himself a sick man, and she’ll reply that he’s a sick man in love with his malady.
The wealthy, spoiled, entitled, monstrously egotistical Tullio spends the whole film in various states of suffering, often sweating profusely and sometimes with eyes puffy and tear-stained. In other words, he’s playing the role that, in a typical “woman’s melodrama”, would be played by the female star as the heroine goes through agonized choices and punishments created by love, a Greta Garbo, a Norma Shearer, or since this is Italian, a Sophia Loren or Anna Magnani. It’s a bit startling to see a man in this position, and such an unsympathetic man who creates his own problems for himself and all around him. Anna Karenina he ain’t.
Towards the end, he comments with irony that he finds himself in a “cheap novel” before he performs the final stroke of melodrama. Until then, he’s dragged us through his tortures of jealousy, resentment and hatred, as well as his hypocritical pretense that his wife is as “free” as himself (as long as nobody knows or talks about it), and his Nietzschean assertion of atheism in favor of controlling his own life.
That last quality is revealing because it partakes of Gabriele D’Annunzio, the author of the 1892 novel here “freely adapted” by Visconti and his regular collaborators Suso Cecchi d’Amico (probably the most important screenwriter in postwar Italian cinema) and Enrico Medioli. The author makes a disguised and ironic appearance in the film as the celebrated author Filippo d’Arborio (Marc Porel), whose novel The Flame (an actual D’Annunzio title) is the talk of the salons and whose elevated romantic style has set female admirers aflutter. Tullio finds his prose overblown. In the film, the writer’s fate resembles that of Arthur Rimbaud.
The extent to which this figure appears in the story as the protagonist’s rival implies that Tullio really struggles against himself and his own ideas. This possibility is underlined by the many scenes of characters looking in mirrors, especially the crucial scene of Tullio examining himself in a full-length mirror with a cradle and a picture of Christ. You can be sure Blom comments on that as well.
We don’t really want to discuss what happens in this carefully yet inevitably paced film of escalating emotional intensity and moral quagmire. It’s about how far this man will go in his attempt to manufacture his “happiness” and eliminate what troubles him, and the answer is all the way to the bitter end. While the point of women’s melodramas is usually to find redemption and salvation in suffering, no such affirmation awaits Tullio.
Visconti’s gorgeously bleak final film, released posthumously, is also the last of his recreations of 19th Century aristocratic splendor after Senso (1954), The Leopard (Il Gattopardo, 1963) and Ludwig (1973). Like those films, L’Innocente has an eye for the exquisite, the impeccable, the lavish, even the stifling.
One reason to watch such films is to escape into the fantasy of wealth while savoring the idea that rich people suffer. The extent to which this suffering has a dimension of social and political commentary may be in the eye of the beholder, but Visconti clearly offers a critique of a certain type of privileged, careless, self-centered man and the society that creates him, as based on a novel by a famous proto-fascist who was also an aesthetic dandy and serial lover.
The film’s Wikipedia entry claims that Visconti wanted Alain Delon to play the coldly seductive egotist, and that makes sense, though Giannini’s eyes bring a wounded soulfulness to a character we cannot like. Considering the often unconventional sexuality that runs like a thread through Visconti’s work, we might argue that Tullio’s tragedy doesn’t lie in sexual transgressions but in his conventionality about them, his failure to live up to the declaration that he’s above petty rules and standard ideas. We should add that this movie has a few very sexy scenes.
One early incident has Tullio challenging a rival to a duel, and although we know the event takes place, we never learn what happened because such trifling details are merely part of the social background of the story, like the extravagant wall fabrics or the Chopin music at the salon, where it’s vaguely possible if unlikely that one or two of the attendees actually care to hear it.
The title has an ambiguity, because at first the viewer will wonder who is innocent. Initially it would seem to be the wifely doormat, who’s advised by the Princess never to show that she’s bothered by her husband’s adventures. The film will identify a specific character for its title, and that character will be the focus and emblem of the most elaborate and cruel emotional maneuvers.
Visconti’s other crucial collaborations are the seductive photography of Pasqualino De Santis; the lush and sometimes “psychological” music of Franco Mannino, whose score won a Donatello (Italy’s equivalent of the Oscar); the editing rhythms of Ruggero Mastroianni, both languid and stringent; and the frankly fabulous design of Mario Garbuglia with set decorator Carlo Gervasi and costumer Piero Tosi. Watching this Blu-ray, we couldn’t decide if certain scenes have a slight blur in some details and if this might be intentional, as though shot in a mirror.
Visconti was among the pioneers of neorealism, although even his debut Ossessione (1942) glories in how this style may be applied to melodrama and the aesthetics of the image. (As film critic Dan Callahan’s notes point out, Ossessione‘s star Massimo Girotti has a brief role in L’Innocente.) By the 1950s, Visconti acquired budgets and the ambition to spend them on the heightened world of “white telephone” melodramas, even when set in a period before telephones.
Visconti’s films are important and protean, yet many remain inaccessible in Region 1. Some have never even been on VHS. That sad situation is healing too slowly, and here’s one more stitch in the gap.