Pauline Kael

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 910

Ludwig II of Bavaria, the supreme childish fantasist among kings—and one of the most harmless of all kings—is such an obviously magical, gaudy subject for the movies that many people may look forward with glee to Visconti's Ludwig. But it's well to bear in mind that though Ludwig is remembered because of the pleasures his candied-rococo follies give us, Visconti's follies are grimly humorless. Of the major filmmakers, Luchino Visconti is certainly the most estranged from the audience. Sometimes, in his films, the vital connection between the material on the screen and us disappears, and Visconti doesn't seem to notice or to care—he just goes on without us, heavily treading water. This happens for almost the entire duration of Ludwig, which is two hours and fifty-three minutes long. The subject is so juicy and frivolous that bravura pageantry on its own, without much drama, might be enough, but, incredibly, this movie about the king's obsession with a mock-heroic fairy-tale mode of life has no style.

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The translated, partly dubbed dialogue is neither formal and elegant nor colloquial; it's like an earnest translation of a dowdy libretto, and it makes the actors sound like the talking dead. The early portions of the film are shot in badly lighted compositions resembling those wide-canvas nineteenth-century academic Russian paintings of a convocation of stiff, important people. The continuity is a splatter of choppy, confused scenes; there are constant amputations, so we don't find out why we have been watching a sequence but simply move on to something else, and the arbitrary compositions and abrupt closeups destroy the sense of what's going on. Visconti has been able to photograph Ludwig's actual castles and to reproduce interiors he couldn't shoot in, and yet we don't have a chance just to rove around and luxuriate in them. We always seem to be driving up to the carriage entrance; then we're stuck in a room without finding out how we got there. The film gets better-looking, and every now and then there's a great shot, which goes by infuriatingly fast. The rhythmless, disruptive cutting does the movie in, even more than Visconti's usual failing—his lack of dramatic drive.

Typically, his allegorical melodramas, such as Rocco and His Brothers and The Damned, are pushed to such heights that they turn into epics—witless but passionate and strangely self-absorbed. There can be a grandeur in their hollow heaviness and languid monotony; they have generally had style, even when we couldn't be sure of anything else about them. Visconti's first epic, the lyrical yet austere and socially conscious La Terra Trema, is beautifully proportioned; I think it's one of the best boring movies ever made…. Rocco suggested an operatic spectacle with a libretto by Dostoevski based on the Warner Brothers social-protest films of the thirties; Visconti gave us not characters but highly theatrical, reminiscent images—Annie Girardot's scrawny, glamorous prostitute was like a young Bankhead, her murder out of Wozzeck. The Damned was a mixture of Wagner and Thomas Mann and the classical Greek crazies. Elements got slammed together that didn't quite make sense together, but they made thunder, and a flowing style can connect a lot. When the Visconti style collapses, you look for the links; they're still buried in the director's mind—in his Jacobean nostalgia. (pp. 144-45)

It seems characteristic of the private nature of Visconti's fantasies that the only sequence in [Ludwig] that has any kind of visual integrity is, at the end, the torchlight search for Ludwig's body, when a lake is dragged at night. Visconti is more carried away by the possibilities of operatic splendor in Ludwig's death than by the opéra bouffe of his life. (p. 146)

A disaster on the scale of Ludwig is a prodigy. I long to see the outtakes; and I'd love to know if there was any greater visual or dramatic logic in what Visconti shot than in what he wound up with. By ordinary dramatic standards, Visconti isn't a writer; his scripts (written in collaboration) seem to be blueprints for the big scenes he visualizes—obsessive scenes with overtones of other theatrical works—which are just loosely strung together…. Visconti's sense of length—that is, of the running time of his movies—may relate to opera; like the popular arias in dull operas, his overwrought, garish scenes (and a few funny scenes here) rouse us from apathy. My guess about why the continuity is so jumpy is that he rather magisterially goes on shooting scenes that fascinate him, and later finds he has no place for them. (pp. 146-47)

[If] Ludwig proves to be Visconti's last film—his swan song—this visual gibberish will appear to be the chaos he was always heading toward. Maybe the subject of Ludwig the dream king is just too close for a big moviemaker-dreamer to handle…. Could Griffith have tackled Ludwig, or could von Sternberg or von Stroheim or Gance or Welles or Fellini, without wallowing, and sinking in the wallow? An enigma like Ludwig, a king who disappears inside his fantasies of greater kings, might be a safe subject for a director of modest gifts, but it could be the ultimate dangerous subject for a movie king. (pp. 148-49)

Pauline Kael, "Kings" (originally published in The New Yorker, Vol. XLIX, No. 5, March 24, 1973), in her Reeling (copyright © 1973 by Pauline Kael; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company in association with Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1976, pp. 144-50.∗

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