UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN
*/**** Image A Sound A Extras C+
starring Diane Lane, Sandra Oh, Lindsay Duncan, Raoul Bova
screenplay by Audrey Wells, based on the book by Frances Mayes
directed by Audrey Wells
DEATH IN VENICE
**/**** Image A Sound B Extras D+
starring Dirk Bogarde, Mark Burns, Björn Andrésen, Silvana Mangano
screenplay by Luchino Visconti, Nicola Badalucco, based on the novel by Thomas Mann
directed by Luchino Visconti
by Bill Chambers Can't afford that trip to Italy? Consider the next best thing: a jaunt to your local video store, where you can pick up the diametrically opposed but concurrently-released travelogues Under the Tuscan Sun and Death in Venice. I confess I'm only covering them together because it struck me as funny to do so--it's doubtful there's a lot of overlap between the pictures' fanbases, though I'd sooner recommend Under the Tuscan Sun to a Death in Venice admirer than vice-versa: in my experience, devotees of so-called "chick flicks" are notoriously unadventurous moviegoers, while it should go without saying that anyone high on Death in Venice lives by the benefit of the doubt. Both vastly overrated by their supporters, they at least beat watching somebody's vacation slides.
Professional phoenix Diane Lane rises again to star in Under the Tuscan Sun as Frances, a creative-writing teacher and literary critic informed of her husband's infidelity by a novelist she once panned. Twelve months later, lesbian couple Patti (Sandra Oh) and Grace (Kate Walsh) gift their newly single friend Frances with a ticket for a gay tour of Italy, and after a few whiffs of the Tuscan countryside, the accidental tourist finds herself impulse-buying a tattered villa that serves, natch, as a symbol for the shambles her life has become, just as its rejuvenation comes to signify Frances's determination to reclaim lost time.
It's worth noting that Audrey Wells, the hyphenate behind the camera, seems to relish the revenge of the novelist (i.e., spurned artist) at the beginning of the picture more than she does any of Frances's mini-triumphs thereafter. I couldn't shake this nagging feeling that Wells's attraction to the film's source material, a memoir by Frances Mayes, was the opportunity to assume the role of her martyrer; take a penetrating look through the Oprah glaze of the film and it ceases to resemble a positive take on feminine empowerment. When Frances first arrives in Tuscany, one of the gay travellers asks her to write a postcard he'll send to his mother, then egregiously dismisses the finished product as pretentious hogwash (the phrase "the grapes taste purple" really sets him off), tossing it back in her face.
It's only the first of countless humiliations that greet our heroine, each of them white-washed with hygiene-commercial imagery. (Given that Wells was the screenwriter of the vile The Truth About Cats & Dogs, a movie in which Uma Thurman's sweet Noelle is castigated for her comeliness, the casting of the pulchritudinous Lane is probably a pretty good indicator of what she thinks of Frances.) Having not read Mayes's autobiography (I gather it's a retirement fable), I'm a little thrown by Wells's "screen story by" credit: the movie is chaotically plotted, never settling on a love interest for Frances and full of the sort of wrinkles you'd expect to get ironed out by the politics of studio filmmaking. If this is a substantially revised take on the text, it throws Wells's vindictiveness into that much sharper relief.
Under the Tuscan Sun isn't quite detestable, since Lane is the very embodiment of a gracious loser, and Wells has a couple of charming visual touches up her sleeve that hark back to Jane Campion's work in short films, such as when Frances winks with one eye and then the other and the reverse angle shows a wine bottle jumping from screen left to screen right. Still, despite exhibiting fits of unconventionality, Wells rather tellingly mentions only one Italian director by name within the piece, he with the household name (Federico Fellini): Although the picture was shot on location, you won't learn anything about Italian culture that hasn't already reverberated throughout the West, filtered through the perception of better filmmakers. Even Lane's swarthy co-stars bear the kind of presence that transports you to a Euro-themed Hollywood backlot--nothing about them feels truly foreign or exotic. The movie is pseudo all the way.
Luchino Visconti's austere Death in Venice also revolves around an artist type who's gone to Italy to decompress. Composer Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde, who replaced Alec Guinness) is staying alone at a Venetian seaside resort when twin obsessions hijack his waking thoughts: the threat of cholera, and the "beauty" of a pubescent boy named Tadzio (Björn Andrésen). Though there are dissertations on the subject of Visconti's decision to bestow the lead character with the mantle of namesake Gustav Mahler (author Thomas Mann identifies Gustav as a writer in the 1911 novella on which the film is based), whose third and fifth symphonies constitute the picture's score, Visconti's motives for making this connection--the childlike restlessness of Mahler's work, perhaps, or his tormented stoicism from living in fear of exposure, as Mahler converted from Judaism to Roman Catholicism in order to hold a post with the notoriously anti-Semitic Vienna Opera--are arcane enough that most would presume he's just being scandalous. (Actor Tom Courtenay famously lamented that the movie needed Guinness since you don't buy Bogarde as a renowned composer.) In that sense, Death in Venice lacks a certain tact, although the first and perhaps more immediately valid charge usually levelled at the film is that it's almost absurdly soporific. Still, those final images of Bogarde melting in the sun like ice cream, dying of a broken heart, are as indelible as they are odd.
Touchstone releases Under the Tuscan Sun on DVD in competing widescreen and fullscreen editions. The former, which we received for review, boasts of a luminous and filmlike 1.85:1 anamorphic video transfer, as well as a genuinely enveloping Dolby Digital 5.1 soundmix. Wells indicts herself with a feature-length commentary wherein she says she's "always looking for ways to beat up [her] characters"--'nuff said, really. Some of what she reveals about the mechanics of the production is admittedly intriguing, however. It would never have occurred to me, for instance, that the San Francisco section of the film was shot mainly in Italy (Rome, to be precise) like the rest of it. Three deleted scenes of an overly cutesy mien, a worthless 9-minute making-of ("Tuscany 101"), and trailers for Hidalgo, Calendar Girls, My Boss's Daughter, Under the Tuscan Sun, and the "Soap Network" round out the disc.
Warner's Death in Venice platter presents the film in a pleasing 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. I noticed no overexaggerated grain or other age-related defects, unless one counts an occasional flickering of the image that could well be a shortcoming of the negative. The Dolby Digital centre-channel audio on offer here is fine but a tad inexplicable (disappointingly so), given that Death in Venice, like A Clockwork Orange (another music-heavy movie from the same year (and distributor)), played at least some theatrical venues in four-channel stereo. Maybe those original sound stems are lost; it happens. Extras include: a deferential 16mm featurette called "Visconti's Venice" (9 mins.); a gallery of on-set black-and-white stills; and the film's original theatrical trailer.
- Under the Tuscan Sun
113 minutes; PG-13; 1.85:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 5.1, French DD 5.1; CC; Spanish subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Touchstone
- Death in Venice
131 minutes; PG; 2.35:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 1.0; CC; English, French, Spanish subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Warner