Pauline Kael

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 835

Although [Conversation Piece] takes place entirely in the interior of a Roman house, one doesn't feel confined: Konrad and the Countess are such depraved beasties that when they start screaming insults at each other, who care about whether there's sun outdoors? (p. 35)

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The story mechanism is much like that of those old Kind Lady plays in which a gang of schemers moves in on a helpless person, but this troupe has no ulterior motive. These intruders simply use the Professor the way they use everybody, and he's more than willing to be used. It is the theme of Visconti's Death in Venice all over again…. It's a winning movie—Visconti has come back changed. When you laugh, you can't always be sure that you're meant to be laughing, but you feel certain that he wouldn't mind. He seems to have got past the point at which one minds being laughed at.

Visconti's pictures have often had an undercurrent of silliness (though the solemn pacing kept audiences respectful); this time, the silliness is so close to the surface that the Professor can ask Lietta, the Countess's daughter, if she sees him as a character in a comic opera. We do, because his situation is a joke. (pp. 35-6)

Yet Visconti (and his co-scenarists, Suso Cecchi D'Amico and Enrico Medioli) seem to see this drone as a noble and sympathetic figure. Opening with electrocardiagram tape spilling out under the titles, Conversation Piece has a special quality, rather like an apologia pro vita sua, and at times, particularly toward the end, the Professor stands in for the director. The Professor is like a somnambulist, powerless to alter anything; the interlopers—the family—go on doing whatever they feel like. Yet he presides over the movie, and Visconti places the camera so that the Professor is always looming up—not part of the action but above it all. It's almost as if his scenes were shot at a different time—as if he were in a movie house, standing near the screen observing the show. (pp. 37-8)

Visconti has often used "detached" figures (as far back as the movie director in Bellissima), and it may have been the theme of Meursault's detachment from his own life that attracted Visconti to The Stranger. But what an erratic development it is that he should combine a spinoff of Aschenbach with the idea of the detached observer. What it comes to is that the Professor doesn't need the sexual awakening we anticipate in the early part of the film—that he understands and accepts physical passion, even though he himself is a recluse….

However, the inadvertent comedy of Conversation Piece comes from Visconti's lack of detachment. Audiences don't generally ask of artists that they resolve their conflicts, but political ideologues demand it of them, and Visconti seems to feel the pressure acutely. He can't seem to accept the contradictions that have always plagued him; he's still trying to find a way to prove that his "decadent" tastes and his Marxist politics are not really contradictory, and Conversation Piece turns into a carnival of special pleading. When Visconti has ideas he wants to get across, he simply gives the explanation to anyone at hand. (p. 38)

There's grandeur in the silliness: one comes away with visions of Marxist dukes cruising the boys on the barricades. Fortunately, Visconti's control is so serenely relaxed that the picture seems part charade anyway—a seriously intended opera buffa, like Sartre on Genet (and much more fun). Somehow, the sloppiness—even the ungainly shift to a closeup almost every time an actor speaks—doesn't bother one…. The hollow ring of the dialogue contributes to the thinness of the film's sensibility; no one in it has any depth, and even the memory scenes, when the Professor recalls his mother and his long-ago bride, lack resonance….

It's idiosyncratic filmmaking, all right. The film's Audenesque argument is generous, but what's it doing here? Visconti sets up one of his howlingly decadent families and then claims sweet naturalness for the daughter and fiancé who are cavorting with the mother's lover. Maybe the film's flower-child rhetoric is meant to be double-edged, but more likely Visconti is so romantic that he wants to remove the stigma from whores like Konrad and to show that the men who fall in love with them aren't the ludicrous, deceived sugar daddies they're generally taken to be…. As for the victimization, Visconti seems a Marxist old dear to think that Konrad is a sensitive boy sacrificed to the lust of the industrialist class and that "society" is responsible. Konrad is too convincing a tart.

Visconti is an eccentric master who has earned the right to his follies, when he can make them as pleasurable as Conversation Piece…. (p. 39)

Pauline Kael, "Lazarus Laughs" (originally published in a different version in The New Yorker, Vol. LI, No. 32, September 29, 1975), in her When the Lights Go Down (copyright © 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980 by Pauline Kael; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers), Holt, 1980, pp. 35-40.

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