Beware the beautiful image: When the art of Venice meets the art of cinema

Beguiling yet treacherous, La Serenissima is the most cinematic of cities – and film-makers the world over have fallen for its story-telling power

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La Serenissima is the most romantic city in the world, famous for its carnival masks and a fount of inspiration for filmmakers in love with its dazzling, disorientating imagery.

The three are natural bedfellows, of course. Believing in a grander, more alluring version of life is what drives all romantics. While masks suggest such an exalted plane is within reach, disguising as they do the reality underneath and inviting our imaginations to soar.

Cinema is the natural extension of both impulses: the creation of fantasy in the mind of the viewer; the dance of people (the audience) watching other people (actors) wearing masks (characters) play out intricately constructed masquerades.

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Death in Venice (1973)

Yet the lesson Venice and cinema teach us is the perils of believing the idyllic, not the actual. This is the fate embalming Gustav Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) in Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice. The tale of a holiday romance that never was, we watch as Aschenbach becomes infatuated with the adolescent Tadzio (Bjorn Andresen), photographed by Visconti with all the loving attention of a Botticelli nude.

Aschenbach’s folly is to place the mask of the ideal on Tadzio and to retreat behind his own mask, watching until his perfect vision becomes a kind of apparition. Such is the thrill of movies and masks: you can watch passively, with the obscurity of a voyeur, fulfilment on show yet tantalisingly out of reach

Venice’s decline is continually disguised and deferred, cloaked under a mask of slick marketing, an ostentatious biennale and a grandiose film festival

Happiness is a mirage for James Bond too in Casino Royale. A burnt-out 007 (Daniel Craig) resigns from the secret service and escapes to Venice with Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). The bliss can’t last though (the franchise depends on it). So eventually Vesper removes her mask of treachery, their love crumbling into water like the building in the final action scene.

Imaginary obsession

Venice is sinking after all; year by year it slides deeper into the lagoon. There’s as much entropy in the city as there is beauty; time and the elements are eroding the baroque jewel from within, in the same way the knight’s corpse rots within the church catacombs of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Like Indy, it’s easy to become addicted to the pungent air of romance, which means Venice’s decline is continually disguised and deferred, cloaked under a mask of slick marketing, an ostentatious biennale and a grandiose film festival.

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Casino Royale (2006)

In Joseph Losey’s artsy melodrama Eve, Tyvian Jones (Stanley Baker) arrives at the film festival trapped by self-delusion. Pretending to have written a best-seller he didn’t (the mask he puts on himself), this swaggering male conquistador is swept away by the deceptive charms of Eve (Jeanne Moreau). But there is only hollowness behind her cold visage; the surface mask through which a fake man pursues an imaginary obsession, losing control until he drifts, haunted and destitute, through a ghostly, washed-out vision of the city.

Like great movies, there’s the thrill of the masquerade about Venice, the temptation to flesh things out with more substance than they can possibly bear

Ghosts await John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) as well in Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Escaping to Venice to restore a church, we soon realise their flight is simply a mask for grief, as they yearn to recover something else from the past.

The entire movie is a kind of death mask. The image of the couple’s dead daughter, calcified in time, forever haunts the present. And just as in a masquerade, Don’t Look Now’s suspense teases us with the promise of a reveal, just as Venice entices us into its dizzying labyrinth, the hint of bliss forever round the corner.

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Don’t Look Now (1973)

Divinely sad

That’s why the art of Venice is like the art of cinema: a vision of sumptuous unreality luring you away from more honest, grounded shores. Like great movies, there’s the thrill of the masquerade about the place, the temptation to flesh things out with more substance than they can possibly bear.

The city is divine, but divinely sad, suffused with the bittersweet knowledge that all things must end, whether it’s the perfect weekend, the unmasking at the end of the ball, or a paradise slipping into the sea.

Memory and imagination stay afloat, however; the only things we can really cling to. And the mask itself – that personification of emptiness, that facade with open eyes but which never really sees – still floats exquisitely, like the serenest debris, across the romantic waterways of our minds.

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The Links

Excerpt from Casino Royale, 2006, YouTube

Excerpt from Don’t Look Now, 1973, YouTube

Excerpt from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, 1989, YouTube

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