After watching Visconti’s film, Senso (1954), I just had to read the original story (1882) by Camillo Boito. (It seems there is only one translation.) Boito was a major figure in the development of modern architectural restoration practice, as well as the designer of several buildings, and his brother was a major figure in opera, being Verdi’s librettist for twenty years. From Wikipedia we learn that
The word “senso” is Italian for “sense,” “feeling,” or “sentiment.” The title refers to the delight Livia experiences while reflecting on her affair with a handsome lieutenant. The novella is typical of Scapigliatura literature…
“Scapigliatura” is Italian for “unkempt” or “disheveled,” and it was a major literary movement, heavily influenced by German Romanticism, Poe, Baudelaire, and the French Decadents. In Boito’s stories that I have read so far, the macabre and grotesque, mixed with madly passionate attachments seems the norm.
Senso, however, is the tale of a cold, thoroughly narcissistic young woman who starts a torrid love affair shortly after her marriage to a boring older gentleman. She is Venetian, and that city, as well as much of northern Italy, is under the rule of the Austrian Empire. The story takes place near the end of the Risorgimento (Resurgence), that was the Italian movement to expel the foreign rulers and unite as one modern nation. The politics of the era, however, are hardly relevant to the story, although they are central to Visconti’s adaptation of it.
In fact, nothing is very relevant to Countess Livia, except for her own self-regard, and the longing and admiration she inspires in others. When she is jilted by her lover, what really stings is:
That blonde minx brazenly boasts of being more beautiful than me, and (this was the supreme insult that really rankled) he himself proclaims her more beautiful!
In the film, Alida Valli portrays a mature woman, but Boito’s character is barely past twenty, already thoroughly corrupt. She revels in the cowardice, dishonesty, and selfishness of her lover, who is an Austrian officer – it seems to increase his erotic charge:
Perfect virtue would have seemed dull and worthless compared with his vices. To me, his infidelity, dishonesty, wantonness and lack of restraint constituted a mysterious but powerful strength to which I was happy, and proud, to enslave myself. The more depraved his heart appeared, the more wonderfully handsome his body.
She does have reservations once in a while: his unwillingness to get his uniform wet to save a boy who has fallen into a canal strikes her as a bit much.
The story is told through the device of Livia re-reading her diary years after the affair has ended, before she intends to burn it. Although now middle-aged, she still thrills to the story as when she was young, and the sensuality is quite graphic. Here she recounts finding her lover lodging with a local prostitute, leading to the last straw in their relationship. I love the bit about tickling her armpit.
I could already feel the arms of my lover – the man for whom I would unhesitatingly have given everything I owned, including my life – crushing me to his broad chest. I could feel his teeth biting into my skin, and I was overwhelmed in anticipation with ineffable bliss. I felt weak with relief, and had to sit down on a chair in the hall. Hearing and seeing as if in a deep dream, I had lost all sense of reality. But someone nearby was laughing and laughing: it was a woman’s laughter, shrill, coarse and boisterous, and it gradually roused me. I listened, rising from my seat, and, holding my breath, approached a door that stood wide open, through which I could see into a huge, brightly lit room. I was standing in shadow, out of sight. Oh, why did God not strike me blind at that moment? There was a table with the remains of a meal on it. Beyond the table was a big green sofa: there lay Remigio, playfully tickling a girl’s armpit. She was hooting and shrieking with laughter, wriggling and writhing…
Remigio didn’t know he had met his match for amorality. He avoided combat by bribing some doctors to give him a medical deferment using money given him by Livia. (In the film, the money was intended to support the Risorgimento troops, making her an adulterer and a traitor.) The Countess has a letter from Remegio in which he thanks her for the cash, and details to her his current pleasant arrangements, hoping to see her soon of course. She shows the letter to the local Austrian commander, telling him she wishes to be a “loyal citizen”. No, she’s not German, but her family was always on good terms with the rulers, and in fact, her husband is rather wary of the Italian nationalists.
The commander reads the letter and understands the situation instantly: a jilted lover wishes to revenge herself by having the man shot for desertion. “Despicable!” he tells her, but she replies, “Do your duty!” He does, and Remigio is arrested: Livia receives an invitation to the execution, which, of course, she attends:
What happened next, I do not know. Something was read out, I think. Then there was a deafening noise and I saw the dark young man [one of the doctors] fall to the ground, and in the same instant I noticed that Remigio was stripped to the waist, and I was blinded by those arms, shoulders, neck, and limbs that I had so loved. Into my mind flashed a picture of my lover, full of ardour and joy, when he held me for the first time in his steely embrace, in Venice at the Sirena. I was startled by a second burst of sound. On his chest that still quivered, whiter than marble, a blonde woman had thrown herself, and was spattered with spurting blood. At the sight of that shameless hussy all my anger and resentment returned to me, and with them came dignity and strength. I had acted within my rights, and I turned to leave, serene in the self-respect that came from having fulfilled a difficult duty.
There’s a fatal woman for you! But in Visconti’s telling, she is driven mad by her passion, and in the end, wanders the streets of occupied Verona shouting the name of her lover.
Visconti’s Senso is a luxuriant depiction of the society, mostly its upper crust, a world that is changing fast and so to crumble – a favorite topic of his by his own admission. Farley Granger plays the lover, now called Franz, and seems appropriately vulgar and creepy under his beautiful uniform. Here he meets Livia, and admires the view…of the opera stage.
Here, Visconti cleverly represents the past, the present, and the decay of the ruling class society he depicts in the film.
Things move pretty quickly, Franz and Livia become lovers, despite Livia’s misgivings. Her cinema incarnation is tortured by her concerns about her reputation and propriety (unlike her literary version), but she always gives into passion.
Long vista shots, often involving doors within doors, are a frequent image in the film. In the one below, Livia is nearly lost in the palatial architecture, trapped in rooms within rooms, deceits within deceits…
A tense moment when she fears Franz will be discovered in his hiding place in the granary:
The shots of Venice are gloomy and magnificent!
Even the countryside provides no spiritual solace for Countess Livia.
Visconti was legendary for his preoccupation with ‘realism’ as he thought of it. The decor is lush, each object reinforcing the evocation of the time and place. Yet, the entire film has a very “stagey” appearance, deliberately so: we are clued-in to this because it all begins at an opera performance! Even the military operations, unromantic and confusing, like the opening scenes in The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal, look like faithful reproductions of artists’ drawings and paintings of the events, works which Visconti studied carefully.
The costumes and sets are magnificent – veils are a frequent element in their erotic encounters. Visconti related how as a child, his mother always wore them, lifting them to kiss him goodnight in his bedroom. (Visconti and Granger were both gay men in the 1950s, long before it was ‘acceptable’, though Visconti was open about it. I suppose you could write an entire analysis of the film from that angle.)
The stunning beauty, Marcella Mariani, only 18 or 19 years old, plays the prostitute who drives Livia around the bend. (Nice armpits!) She had won the Miss Italy pageant, and was breaking into acting, but died in a plane crash after the film was completed.
The lovers in happy times, and at the end of it all.