Thursday, 16 September 2013 - by Kyl Chatwaal
Boy meets girl. Boy is lonely. Girl is lonely. Boy falls in love. Girl loves another man.
Story ends with girl in other man’s arms. Roll credits.
Such is the basic outline of a tale that, probably old as humanity, has certainly been popular in 20th century cinema. The seed is the novella by Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, White Nights,
published in 1848. But in 1957, over a century after the novella first appeared, Italian film director Luchino Visconti famously relocated the story from St. Petersburg to some unidentified Italian city. The product? The now seminal film Le Notti Bianche. Since Visconti’s film, there have been at least eight copycat versions, set in India, Iran, France—the most recent being Hollywood’s 2008 take on the tale, Two Lovers, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joaquin Phoenix.
Visconti’s film follows Dostoyevsky’s story closely, with a few key differences. The unnamed narrator of the novella is a self-confessed “dreamer,” what he defines as “not a human being, but a creature of an intermediate sort.” He is an outcast because he lives in his head, and though he does not realize it, is terrified of human intimacy.
Enter Nastenka, who genuinely seems eager for his friendship. But on the condition that he “does not fall in love with her.” Nastenka is already in love, waiting for a man who has promised to come back and marry her. But the time limit he’s given is up, and he has not returned.
In the end Nastenka’s lover does return, and the narrator is left as alone and forlorn as in the beginning. Still, he is grateful for the “moment of bliss” Nastenka has offered him. “Isn’t such a moment,” he wonders at story’s end, “sufficient for the whole of a man’s life?”
Pathetic? Maybe a little. Visconti’s hero, Mario—portrayed by the Italian film legend Marcello Mastroianni—is also an outcast, but not just because he’s a hopeless dreamer. He’s also new to town. Enter Natalia, whose backstory is the same as Nastenka’s.
The climax of both film and novella is when, convinced she’s been forsaken, Natalia/Nastenka happens to run into her lover on the street. And just like that, she vanishes from Mario’s/Narrator’s life.
So what attracted a man like Luchino Visconti to a tale of such emotional need, such loneliness in the first place? A count by birth, Visconti grew up around, and later befriended, all sorts of famous and well-connected people, from the composer Puccini to the fashion designer Coco Chanel. How could a man like this possibly feel sympathy with the friendless characters of his film?
The answer may lay in the fact that Visconti was openly gay—at a time when homosexuality wasn’t exactly widely accepted. He took as lovers many of the leading men from his movies: Alain Delon, Helmut Berger.
Was Luchino Visconti a lonely man? Did his brash refusal to hide his sexuality, in the repressive 1940s and 50s, mask instead an innate sensitivity? As a gay man did he feel—like Dostoyevsky’s Narrator—community-less?
Below is the great climactic scene of Le Notti Bianche, when Mario is left by Natalia (Maria Schell) for her anonymous lover on the bridge (the brooding, inimitable Jean Marais):
Luchino Visconti was one of the 7 children of the Grand Duke of Modrone and his wife Carla. On the land of Visconti di Modrone today we play golf at Golf dei Laghi http://www.golfdeilaghi.it/en/ The club house was built by completely renovating the old stables of the Visconti di Modrone.