On Ludwig

18Dec08

In which The Gay Recluse loves Luchino Visconti best.

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In Ludwig, Luchino Visconti’s four-hour treatment of the 19th-century King of Bavaria, we are introduced to the king as a young man, but learn almost immediately — in what feels like a flash-forward — that he will eventually be dethroned by the state legislature for maybe being insane. So with the question of what happens effectively taken off the table — as it should be in all biopics — this gives Visconti the opportunity to explore exactly how this earnest young monarch slips away.

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Helmut Berger, both handsome and delicate, plays Ludwig with a brittle yet manic elegance that showcases both his beauty and optimism in the early part of the movie and a grotesque deterioration — including his horribly rotting teeth — with which it is gradually replaced. Throughout he possesses a nervous intensity that makes his descent into madness — or disillusionment? — completely convincing. That Berger was also Visconti’s off-screen lover makes sense; at a certain point the movie is less about the historical character — i.e., the tormented homosexual, the builder of castles, the financier of Richard Wagner — and more about Visconti’s obsession with Berger. As we watch, we become similarly entranced by Visconti’s depiction of a world that aches with fragile and untenable beauty, so that as the music — from Tristan and Tannhauser — repeats over and over, we are immersed into something close to a feverish dream state, in which even the smallest shift of our eyes away from the screen threatens to induce a searing pain.

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The bright colors of the royal uniforms, the damask wallpapers and gilt interiors are contrasted throughout with barren, wintry landscapes; yet both are equally dream-like here. Visconti likes nothing more than to slowly pan across a landscape, often leaving the foreground blurry as we slowly fix our gaze on what may or may not appear in the distance. Eventually someone appears, we somehow understand that in the middle of this decadence they are doomed; that much of the cast — and particularly Romy Schneider as Ludwig’s cousin, the Empress of Austria — are exquisitely, almost painfully beautiful, both doleful and sensual, makes us forget the film’s more obvious and superficial flaws, i.e., its many loose ends, abrupt edits and pointless conversations. Once we succumb to Visconti’s vision — his “music,” so to speak — we understand that we are watching an opera, where language — at least in its most literal form — becomes secondary, and perhaps even irrelevant, to the piece as a whole.

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It is for this reason that we are not bothered by the somewhat ridiculous dubbing of the actors’ words into Italian; just as Ludwig himself preferred the artificial beauty of his exotic interiors to anything in the real world, the film is an exercise in artifice; at no point do we lose sight of the fact that we are watching.

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There is no “escape” watching Visconti; rather we are presented with the certainty that even the greatest and most sumptuous works of art — the ones that kings have literally died for — will like icebergs eventually melt into the sea and be lost to us forever.

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3 Responses to “On Ludwig”

  1. Even though I didn’t get nearly as carried away as you by the “beauty” on display in Ludwig, I loved your own photos in the post. Gorgeous and golden! Were you trying to give Luchino a run for his money? If so, you came damn close — and in an infinitely shorter time span. (But, heck: where are the rottng teeth?!)

  2. Even though I didn’t get nearly as carried away as you by the “beauty” on display in Ludwig, I loved your own photos in the post. Gorgeous and golden! Were you trying to give Luchino a run for his money? If so, you came damn close — and in an infinitely shorter time span. (But, heck: where are the rotting teeth?!) I[m not posting too quickly; I am correcting a typo here….

    • Hey Jim — yes, I know you’re not as enamored of Visconti as I am, and I’m the first to admit that my love for him isn’t exactly rooted in a defensible logic! As for the photos, I think the flowers were meant to represent the rotting teeth, n’est-ce pas?


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