eternal return of immanence
Joseph Losey's Don Giovanni
Set honor in
one eye and death i’ the other, and I will look on both indifferently.
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar.
Time is the
substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the
river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which
consumes me, but I am the fire.
Jorge Luis Borges(1)
In several respects Joseph Losey’s 1979 film of Mozart’s Don Giovanni constitutes his artistic Testament. It synthesizes many of the key themes from the director’s long career (thirty-two features in the thirty-six years between 1948 and 1984), specifically its mixture of theatricality and realism, its recapitulation of the master-servant relationship that structures such typical Losey films as The Gypsy and the Gentleman (1957) and The Servant (1963), the subtext of repressed homosexuality, as well as its ontological framing of a profusive, Dionysian desire as equal parts contagious impulse and hedonistic affirmation of death. In this case however, the primordial descends from above, in the form of the declining aristocracy, rather than emerging from Losey’s usual milieu of the ingratiating working class. As Ciment rightly asserts,
It seems that you
could not be offered an opera more suited to [Losey’s] preoccupations. Of all
Mozart’s operas it is the most ambiguous in the sense that Don Giovanni can
be seen from a negative point of view, as belonging to a class that is going
to die very soon but at the same time he offers positive values: he rejects
society, he enjoys every moment of life, he upholds individualism.(2)
Moreover, as the
quote from Antonio Gramsci’s State and Civil Society
that opens the film also avers : «The old is dying and the new cannot be
born ; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.»
It is within this spatio-temporal gap 'between' established sovereignties that
Losey does his most compelling work, for the aporetic stalling of the dialectic
allows libidinal desires to bubble to the surface and overflow both society’s
(and the films’) imperative boundaries.
Like the earlier Mr. Klein (1976), Losey’s unflinching depiction of French collaborationism and indifference during the German Occupation of World War II, Don Giovanni takes the form of a teleological fable. Both films realign Losey’s habitual Manichaeism with Hegelian historicism through a transformative becoming-toward-death. At the same time, by virtue of its ontological circularity, Don Giovanni also disseminates a radically proliferating time-image, which annihilates causal temporality in favor of a multiplicity of difference.
It’s perhaps no accident that the première of Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte’s dramma giocoso (amusing tragedy) took place in Prague on October 28, 1787, a mere three years after the publication of the Marquis de Sade’s Les 120 Journées de Sodome, and two years before the outbreak of the French Revolution. This places it historically as well as thematically between its two main driving forces: the transgressive and unrestrained libidinal impulse of the libertine, and the Enlightenment’s egalitarian belief in the universal properties of dialectical reason. Don Giovanni himself encapsulates the uneasy synthesis of these seemingly incompatible forces: he is at once pathological, driven by the unconscious desires of the flesh, yet also professes a fervent belief in the organizational and classificatory principles of the rational sciences. In a revealing passage from Molière’s Don Juan (1665), a key source for Da Ponte’s libretto, the Don’s servant Sganarelle (an early version of Leporello) discovers that his master is a committed atheist, refusing to believe in either Heaven or Hell, the Devil or the afterlife :
- What do you believe in ?
- I believe that two and two make four, Sganarelle, and four and four make eight.
- That’s a fine thing to believe! What fine articles of faith! Your religion then is nothing but arithmetic.(3)
This rational Enlightenment flame also burns brightly in that other famous libertine, the Marquis de Sade. Gilles Deleuze argues, for example, that «in Sade we discover... a naturalistic and mechanistic approach imbued with the mathematical spirit. This accounts for the endless repetitions, the reiterated quantitative process of multiplying illustrations and adding victim upon victim, again and again retracing the thousand circles of an irreducibly solitary argument.(4)» This parallels Don Giovanni’s own powers of libidinal demonstration through the use of cataloguing and description. The opera has little actual sex in it, but instead presents a constant tallying of exploits: mechanistic, imperative, repetitious. We see this brilliantly illustrated in Losey’s film with Leporello’s famous aria, Madamina, il catalogo e questo... After the jilted, vengeful Donna Elvira (Kiri te Kanawa) has berated the Don over his infidelities, Don Giovanni (Ruggero Raimondi) tells his servant to get rid of this nagging ' harpy ' by cruelly revealing the full measure of his lifetime of profligacy (5). Performed in D Major (Don Giovanni’s key), this entails a detailed recounting of every one of his conquests, diligently recorded in several ledgers that are unfurled across the grounds :
In Italy, 640. In Germany, 231. 100 in France, in Turkey, 91. But in Spain, now, 1003. Peasant girls, servant girls and town girls. Countesses, Baronesses, Marchionesses, princesses, women of every rank. Every shape, every age.(6)
This is the quantitative
index of Don Giovanni’s Body-without-Organs, a normally incommensurable qualitative
multiplicity that is not only translated into classifiable statistics, but also
into a visual representation of those statistics, expressed through the
baroque concertina fold «that unfurls all the way to infinity.»
The figure of the libertine is paradigmatic then of an innate aporia or impasse that lies at the heart of the Enlightenment episteme. It suggests that by pushing the mathematical and classificatory mechanism of reason to its logical conclusion, one risks at the same time a concomitant harnessing of the destructive and extremely dangerous libidinal forces that underlie it : in effect incarnating the repressed Dionysian impulse that always haunts the Orphic/Pythagorean mind that tries to tame and conceptualize it. In this sense, Mozart’s opera makes an ideal companion piece to Mr. Klein, for while the latter discloses the logical-yet-barbarous result of combining becoming-animal with becoming-machine (the twin powers of The Final Solution), Don Giovanni is an equally dire foreboding of a late eighteenth-century progenitor: Robespierre’s Terror. Just as the Don’s quest for pleasure and statistics ends in an allegorical hell, as a representative of the Enlightenment his fate also serves as an indictment of the intellectual and moral forces that produced and nurtured him. As the Mozart scholar Brigid Brophy has noted,
In spite of its intentions, the enlightenment did end in hell. It ended, in other words, in the Terror, which overwhelmed the benevolent social faith of the French Revolution, and which was hell let loose in the same very precise sense in which Don Giovanni is overwhelmed by the forces of hell at the end of the opera. Like Don Giovanni, the enlightenment was the victim of underworld forces in the sense of unconscious forces. The Terror was an eruption of all the anti-reason and anti-benevolence powers in the human mind, whose existence the enlightenment had continually denied and repressed.
This impasse between
immanence (impulse) and contradiction (rational dialectic) is obviously fertile
ground for Losey. This is in spite of the fact that although he adored Mozart’s
music he was never a passionate opera buff and, «to the general astonishment
of the cast of his film, he had never attended a staged performance of Don
His interest in the project was less opera per se than the character
of Don Giovanni himself and the seductive prospect of shooting on location in
Northern Italy. This initial excitement was sparked by the Swiss theater director,
Rolf Liebermann, who at that time was General Administrator of the Théâtre Nationale
Opéra de Paris, and had been a former manager of the Hamburg State Opera. Liebermann’s
original idea was for a filmed version of Don Giovanni,
using a pre-recorded score, that would be shot exclusively on location in and
around Vicenza, specifically in the villas, palaces, churches and theatres of
the Renaissance architect, Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) (8).
The Palladian context was particularly appealing to Losey because this had been
his original location plan for Galileo,
until budget restrictions forced him to shoot the entire play on a soundstage.(9)
In all, twelve settings were used from the Vicenza area, with added exteriors shot on the Venetian islands of Murano and Torcello, locations used to haunting effect in Eve. The city’s arcaded Basilica stood in for the Commendatore’s town house, while the old man’s fatal duel with Don Giovanni was staged in the central Piazza dei Signori, beneath the arches of the Loggia del Capitanio. Palladio’s stately summer villa, La Rotonda was used for Don Giovanni’s country house, and the nearby Villas at Valmanara and Caldogna became homes to Donna Elvira and Donna Anna respectively. Losey mixed and matched the architecture and locations in order to create a deliberately fictitious topography, so that, for example, the landlocked Rotonda now appears to be approachable by canal. Such artistic license does little damage to the classical purity of Palladio’s vision because most of the villas have already been stylistically bastardized by other hands.(10)
Moreover, this vulgar mis-match of styles is actually a perfect expression of the central dynamics of the opera itself. Palladio’s natural predilection for order, symmetry and equilibrium, where specific vistas are multiplied through a series of architectural doublings and mirror effects, acts as an overdetermined counterweight to the libidinal chaos and manic hysteria going on within. The characters are thus squarely framed in windows, doorways and arches, or precisely positioned in relation to the immaculate perspective of the surrounding landscape. On the other hand, Louis Dorigny’s painterly additions fill Don Giovanni’s villa with representations of pagan and Christian mythology, setting up a thematic conflict between Dionysian excess and Apollinian order, baroque vs. neo-classical, movement vs. stasis, as if Heinrich Wölfflin’s famous sylistic debate had been rendered as a form of representational and architectural battleground (11). Losey plays up this dialectic in his direction, «alternatively letting the characters run riot (in a series of lengthy, fluid tracking sequences) and trapping them in formal compositions that are either theatrical...or consciously painterly (the scenes of barges ferrying characters through the Venetian marshlands). » (12)
In addition to the villas, Losey shot two scenes on the stage of the Teatro Olimpico, which Palladio left unfinished at his death in 1580. The theater’s most unique feature however was added much later by the set designer, Vincenzo Scamozzi. It consists of a series of ' raked ' streets, flanked by arches, pillars and statuary, that fan out from the center foreground to the far rear wings of the stage, creating an extreme sense of spatial depth and vanishing point perspective. This allows characters to be isolated spatially while still being visible to the audience. Losey uses this setting for the opening of the Overture and the entire Act 2 sextet, where the disguised Leporello is chased by Don Giovanni’s vengeful pursuers. Indeed, this sextet is the only scene played theatrically as straight opera (as opposed to pure cinema) in the entire film.
This overly dramatic component - with its connotation of the simulacrum and overwraught emotional dissimulation - is a crucial element in Losey’s reading of the opera. He uses it, as we shall see, to underline the innate theatricality of Don Giovanni’s licentious excesses, forging a pact between the image of a staged, psychological theater and an unrepresentable libidinal profusion that transgresses and ultimately usurps the more transparent mimetic codes of the other protagonists. According to Foucault, this is a typical gambit of the libertine, for although he is in excess of Law on many levels, he is careful to foreground and announce his excesses through the meticulous ordering of discursive representations:
The libertine is he who, while yielding to all the fantasies of desire and to each of its furies, can, but also must, illumine their slightest movement with a lucid and deliberately elucidated representation...every representation must be immediately endowed with life in the living body of desire, every desire must be expressed in the pure light of a representative discourse. Hence that rigid sequence of scenes (the scene, in Sade, is profligacy subjected to the order of representation) and, within scenes, the meticulous balance beween the conjugation of bodies and the concatenation of reasons.(13)
Nietzschean pact between licentiousness and theatrical representation what makes
Losey’s Don Giovanni a specifically baroque
drama. Its innate opacity produces many of the structural and thematic parameters
that we discussed in relation to the Benjaminian trauerspiel.
These include labyrinthine plotting, the dizzying vertigo of the spectacle produced
by the machinations of the intriguer, the concomitant lack of clear sovereignty,
the slowing down and ultimate dissolution of measureable time, and finally,
an earthly fall from grace followed by a subsequent desire for a unifying spiritual
sovereignty through a call to the higher powers of God (or, failing divine
intervention, further theatrical artifice).
This historical connection with the baroque shouldn’t surprise us, for although Da Ponte (1749-1838) clearly drew on Molière (the original creator of Donna Elvira), as well as a 1787 libretto by Giovanni Bertati (for Giuseppe Gazzaniga’s Don Giovanni Tenorio), the character of the Don owes its true origins to a late baroque drama, Tirso De Molina’s El burlador de Seville, y convivado de piedra (The Rogue of Seville, 1630) (14). Tirso was a pseudonym of the friar Gabriel Téllez - c1583-1648 -, who subscribed to Lope de Vega’s influential ideas on theater, which emphasized overt theatricality, as well an entertaining and dynamic mix of tragedy with comedy.
The most important element in De Molina’s play that survives virtually intact in Da Ponte’s libretto and Losey’s film is the Don’s willful intrigues against patriarchal sovereignty. We have already noted the important role of the plotter - der Intrigant - in relation to the baroque plot (die Intrige), particularly the servant’s usurpation of the master’s supremacy, but one should also point out that the role of the intriguer doesn’t have to be designated specifically by his inferior class status. By the late baroque, the conniving servant had in any case degenerated from an inscrutable and savvy destroyer of sovereignty (typified in Losey by The Servant’s Barrett) to a conformist buffoon more suitable for comic relief than effective Realpolitik... This is as true of De Molina’s Catalinon as it is of Molière’s Sganarelle and Da Ponte’s Leporello. As Leporello sings in the opening scene of Don Giovanni, «I want to be the gentleman. I no longer want to serve,» suggesting that by wanting to become the master he still believes in and respects his authority (15). Far from being the dialectical ' opposite ' of Don Giovanni, Leporello and his master are complementary. It is the pair in tandem who provide the impulse for action, and create the catalyst for the (re)actions of others.
In the case of Don Giovanni, a plotter par excellence, the intriguer happens to be from the upper classes: his original father, Don Diego Tenorio, is Chamberlain to the King of Castile. Don Giovanni’s licentious crime lies not in his attempt to usurp the ' literal ' power of the King, but his transgression of the legal right of property and its corollary, marriage, which is directly connected with the propagation of the ruling class. By eschewing marriage in favor of raping and deflowering women of all classes - he is as much attracted to peasant girls like Aminta (the equivalent of Zerlina) and Tisbea as he is to aristocratic cousins - Don Giovanni not only crosses the clearly demarkated lines of class privilege but, more importantly, corrupts their future genealogy in terms of producing a legitimate (i.e. non-bastard) line of inheritance. «To seduce a virgin is therefore to steal a daughter and violate a father’s privileges,» argues Brigid Brophy. «It is the father who is offended, and who challenges - and, in Don Giovanni, punishes - the seducer.»(16)
As in The Go-Between, the contagious infection of genealogy lies at the heart of a Losey film, for as the servant says, «Master, as far as women are concerned, you are like a plague of locusts,(17)» equating the Don’s libido to a form of pestilence. For Foucault,
underneath the great violator of the rules of marriage - stealer of wives, seducer of virgins, the shame of families, and an insult to husbands and fathers - another personage can be glimpsed: the individual driven, in spite of himself, by the somber madness of sex. Underneath the libertine, the pervert. He deliberately breaks the law, but at the same time, something like a nature gone awry transports him far from all nature; his death is the moment when the supernatural return of the crime and its retribution thwarts the flight into counternature. There were two great systems conceived by the West for governing sex: the law of marriage and the order of desires - and the life of Don Juan overturned them both (18).
Failing any human
authority to punish the Don’s excesses, God, in the spectral form of the vengeful
statue of the Commendatore (in effect, the deus ex machina of Benjamin’s
Messianic intervention), thus becomes the transcendental restorer of order.
With Don Giovanni engulfed in flames and dispatched to hell, lawful genealogy
is put back in its rightful place and Tirso’s original play ends with the celebration
of a series of legitimate marriages, each confined within its rightful class
: Isabella/Donna Anna ultimately marrying her aristocratic betrothed, Don Ottavio.
Da Ponte and Mozart stick fairly closely to this scenario, with the slight variation that Donna Anna, debilitated by grief for her slain father, forces Don Ottavio to wait a year before she will marry him. In addition, Don Giovanni has now become a mezzo carattere, as much comic as serious (19). Losey however makes three important changes in character, mise-en-scène and narrative that are neither in the libretto nor suggested in Mozart’s music. These changes radically alter the ontological tenor of the work. Firstly, as played by Ruggero Raimondi, Don Giovanni is a much more serious character, moving toward the parti serie that includes Donna Anna, Donna Elvira and Don Ottavio. For Losey, «The key to Don Giovanni lies in Leporello’s description of him as a man incapable of enjoying anything (20). With his chalky white make-up and deep-set, praying mantis-like eyes,» Losey’s cavalier is not a heroic rebel against stifling tradition, nor a lighthearted hedonist, a celebrant of the body and the sun, but a sexual neurotic caught by his own inner compulsions. The character’s sexuality is joyless, his endless conquests less a matter of choice, a daring invocation of freedom, than an addiction (21). «Even the Don’s normally joyous buffo» Champagne Aria, “Fin ch’han dal vino”, where he exorts the audience to get the assembled wedding guests drinking and dancing at the end of Act I, smacks of desperation, as if there were no pleasure in this quest born of necessity. Raimondi, who has played the character countless times on stage, seemed to sense this bitterness in Losey’s Don. He accurately described his performance here as «brutto !»
Secondly, Losey introduces a new character into the proceedings, and an additional servant to boot. This is the black-clad Valet (played by Isabelle Adjani’s younger brother, Eric (22)), a non-speaking role introduced at the suggestion of costume designer and co-scenarist, Frantz Salieri to play as «a kind of ' deus ex machina ' in solving some theatrical devices and tricks that otherwise might have been pretty heavy-handed. (23)» On the other hand, the Valet has a defining, albeit underhand role in the proceedings, suggesting that he is something more than a useful device to create smooth transitions between scenes. According to Losey, the Valet is «without doubt the illegitimate son of Don Giovanni, and there is probably a great tension and a lot of animosity between he and Leporello. He is better born and more elegant. (24)» Moreover, continues Losey, «the Black Valet should be terrifying, bitter, cold, heavy with sexuality, but never effeminate, never smug. What is most important is that he is the Observer... so may represent my point of view on the piece.(25)» Although the valet’s presence also adds a hint of repressed homosexuality to the Don’s overdetermined womanizing, his status as illegitimate son would make his sexual role far more ambiguous, suggesting that he may represent (because he is also the product of) transgressive libidinal drives as such (26). Moreover, because his role is essentially stylistic and theatrical - «He opens the first door at the villa. He closes the last door (27)» - this takes on added import for we have already argued that this very theatricality (the overt representation of profligacy) is crucial to understanding the transgressive, contagious import of Don Giovanni’s dissimulation. The Black Valet would therefore appear to be less a supplemental theatrical device than an enveloping power or force (potentia) directing and controlling the master narrative (for as Derrida warns us, supplements invariably end up ' supplanting ' the text they are supposed to support).
The script refers to him as «the guardian - in metaphysical terms - of Don Giovanni’s doomed soul,» but if this is so Adjani plays him with a eunuch’s calm serenity, both all-knowing and ubiquitous. In terms of the master-servant relationship, he is begrudgingly deferent, but only when required by polite convention. Towards the end of the film, as the Don is about to take his seat for the statue’s banquet, he finds the Valet already occupying his chair, as if the two men’s fates were effectively intertwined in much the same way as the two Robert Kleins. However, only the Black Valet stands calm and uncowed by the dramatic appearance of the stone Commendatore, and watches without emotion as his ' master ' is engulfed by hell’s ravaging flames.
One possible reading is to view the Black Valet as Don Giovanni’s equivalent of Barrett, a conniving usurper appropriating and destroying the position of his class bettors. If this is true, then Losey would be returning the servant’s role in Don Giovanni from the conformist buffoonery of Leporello to its original potency within the best tradition of the baroque trauerspiel. Another interpretation is that he manifests ' what’s in the air ', an innate knowledge of what is to come, from Don Giovanni’s fated come-uppance to the incipient Revolution. Indeed, Losey admitted to Roland Gelatt that « I strongly believe that at certain times in history things are in the air all over the world. In 1787, when Mozart wrote Don Giovanni, the French Revolution was only two years off. I see the opera as a piece of rebellion, a drama of social class. (28)» In this sense the Valet would be a symbol of class dialectic, a revenant that would ultimately overcome the stalled dialectic of the interregnum and reincarnate itself as the renewed spirit of the Third Estate.
But this raises another question : would the Black Valet therefore re-present the symbol of an inevitable historical materialism, suddenly back on track after the aristocracy’s libidinal excesses, or of Robespierre’s barbaric blood letting ? If the latter, the Valet would be more accurately seen as the Don’s impulsive blood brother than his class nemesis. A more auteurist explanation, feeding off the themes implicit in Losey’s other films, is that he is Don Giovanni’s eternal double, a corporeal manifestation of the Don’s immanent creative appetite, the figure of the primordial. In this sense he counteracts and supersedes the negative import of the Don’s more popularly acknowledged spectral double - the vengeful Commendatore. While the wrath of God may send Don Giovanni to the ovens, the continued presence of the Black Valet suggests that while his body may die, his immanent, substantive life force continues, returning as incommensurable difference.
The evidence for this reading lies in Losey’s third change (or in this case, supplement) to the Da Ponte libretto : the addition of a thematic signature to underpin Frantz Salieri’s elaborate opening credits, as well as a key expository sequence to accompany Mozart’s six minute overture. The film opens with an etching depicting Gramsci’s famous line concerning the interregnum, scrawled on the wall of an empty jail cell, suggesting that this will be a Marxist-Hegelian reading of Don Giovanni as a stalled class dialectic. This is supplemented however by the thematic signature, the sound of waves lapping and breaking against the shore, which continues throughout the credits until the opening measures of the Overture. Water is the film’s Spinozist current, an incommensurable flow that dissolves all boundaries of time and space. The ocean, with its libidinal, life-giving properties (one thinks, for example, of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus), has always been associated with the character of Don Giovanni. This dates back to Tirso’s original play when, following a shipwreck, the servant carries his master through the breaking waves to the sea shore where, feigning death, the Don ' wakes up ' in the arms of the fisherwoman Tisbea and proceeds to seduce her. Salieri underlines this aquatic/libidinal connection with his title card for the film, which features stylized waves, allegorically associating the opera with movement and flow.
The Overture then begins on the frons scenae (central main stage) of the Teatro Olimpico, where we first meet Don Giovanni (in white) and Donna Anna (Edda Moser, in mourning black) as they emerge separately with their retinues from two of the Teatro’s five narrow raked streets. Donna Anna’s black-clad presence is highly provocative, alluding perhaps to a premonition of her father’s forthcoming death, but also, more importantly, confirming that she is already in Don Giovanni’s ' camp ' long before the ostensible ' rape ' of Da Ponte’s opening scene. One of Losey’s more daring innovations then is to suggest that far from being the ravaged virgin, a victim of Don Giovanni’s evil designs, Donna Anna is already his willing lover. Moreover, by setting this introduction on a theatrical stage, Losey links the couple within the representational snare of sexual profligacy as a whole, while at the same time underlining the overt theatricality of their duplicity: nothing they say or do can be taken at mimetic face value. Moreover, this theatrical union is forged against the Overture’s D Minor andante introduction, which turns out to be the Commendatore’s governing key and leitmotif. We hear this music again at film’s end with the cataclysmic appearance of his statue, thereby folding this illicit union into the revenant’s vengeful haunting. The D Minor opening thus establishes one half of the work’s primary musical syntax : that of an extra-human power, a divine retributive force associated inexorably with the negation of the transgressive libido.
However, this musical motif is only part of the argument, because Losey then inserts two shots of waves breaking against the shore, challenging the fateful presence of the Commendatore with a reassertion of Don Giovanni’s connection with the life force. This is quickly taken up by Mozart’s music, for we suddenly switch to a molto allegro in Don Giovanni’s key of D Major as the Don and his retinue approach the camera on a large barge as it pulls up alongside a Murano glass foundry. The foundry’s iron gates are opened by the Black Valet and the guests (including Donna Anna) file in and take their places around the large cauldron to watch the glass blowers at work.
This cauldron - which will eventually engulf Don Giovanni in flames at the end of the film - acts as a dividing space between Don Giovanni and Donna Anna. For Losey, «she is at a certain distance but with an exchange of glances so that one knows that’s the woman he is interested in now and that she is in love with him.(29)» However, Losey shoots their seductive eye contact not as a simple shot-reverse shot dialogue, but as a three-way, triangular «ménage» that includes the Black Valet at the fulcrum of the triangle, as if he were the immanent libidinal force controlling the unconscious drives of these «mere » mortals. Significantly, this is not a three-way exchange of " gazes," for while the Black Valet alternates his look from one to the other, as if willing their union into being, the Don and his lover are oblivious to his power: they have eyes only for each other. This ménage thus links the active, life-affirming libidinal qualities of the D Major key - the life-affirming, sensual half of the film’s musical syntax - to the Black Valet ' in addition to ' Don Giovanni, thereby embracing his substantive presence as a form of Spinozan potentia. This view is shared by Michael Steinberg, for «the opposition that inhabits the drama from the opening bars of the overture is not so much that between spirit and sensuality as that between otherworldly negativity and worldly affirmation, (30)» a dialectic between the destructive, ultimately transcendental force of the Commendatore and the immanently earthbound trio of Don Giovanni, the Black Valet and Donna Anna.
By locking Don Giovanni and Donna Anna together in this libidinal contract during the Overture, Losey radically rewrites the import of Da Ponte’s opening scene. Instead of a violating rape, with Donna Anna painted as vengeful innocent, «she is an aristocrat who demeaned herself, cannot admit it and provokes the death of her father and ultimately Don Giovanni. »(31) Donna Anna’s screams as she chases Don Giovanni down the Basilica steps are now heavy with double entendre : «Don’t hope, unless you kill me, I’ll never let you go. » Don Giovanni’s reply - «Vain cries :who I am you’ll never know» - thus becomes an obvious theatrical deceit, a continuation of the public «drama» that has been underway since the opening shots in the Teatro Olimpico. Donna Anna knows full well who he is, so that her cries of «Traitor» and «Evil» and subsequent revelation that Don Giovanni was her ravisher are clearly disingenuous, a little piece of melodrama (what Foucault calls a representation or profligate scene) for the unwitting eyes of Don Ottavio.
This dissimulation folds the drama back into Tirso’s original structure, for it is clear that the sheer excess of Donna Anna and Don Giovanni’s libidinal coupling is transgressing the patriarchal code. Straying from a structurally ' safe ' Oedipal love for her father and its traditional displacement into marriage to Don Ottavio (which would reinforce the Commendatore’s genealogical sovereignty by marrying his daughter into a far richer bloodline), Donna Anna’s obsession with Don Giovanni becomes an antinomous fourth element, breaking the hegemony of the Oedipal triangle through resort to a transgressive, ' four '-sided figure. This passage from three to four is the structural illogic of dissemination itself, displacing the triangular foundation of Western thought - Dialectical, Trinitarian, Oedipal - into a true multiplicity. (32)
As we have seen in earlier Losey films, the negative flip-side to this multiplicity is a botched Body-Without-Organs. Unable to contain her jealousy, Donna Anna becomes an impulsive fury (accentuated by the grey ' fright wig ' that she and Donna Elvira wear throughout the film) whose quest for revenge turns her into a driven automaton: a fusion of becoming-animal and becoming-machine which ties her to more pathological Losey forces such as the child murderer in M or the vengeful mob in The Lawless. Donna Anna thus becomes a parallel narrative force to Donna Elvira, who is also seeking revenge. For Hirsch, «both characters, as sexually tainted and as obsessive as the Don, seem to fester in morbid anxiety, bewailing their fate in displays of voluptuous masochism.»(33) Yet there are also differences, for at least Donna Elvira refuses to hide behind the hypocritical alibi of avenging her father. Instead she is perfectly honest about grounding her objections to her lover’s profligate ways in a deeply sincere emotional love for the Don. In this respect, Donna Anna represents Nietzsche’s “ressentiment , while Donna Elvira cloaks her wrath in the Christian mantle of a more mitigating ' bad conscience '.(34)
Losey undercuts the righteousness of Donna Anna and Don Ottavio’s cause through mise-en-scène, portraying their vehemence as equal parts hypocrisy and empty rhetoric. When, in the scene just prior to the final banquet, Don Ottavio (Kenneth Riegel) makes his final pitch for Donna Anna’s hand, she opts to delay their wedding with yet another resort to her debilitating emotional anguish : « I regret all too much turning you away from a happiness our souls have long desired. But the world, oh God! Do not tempt the constancy of my sensitive heart. It speaks enough to me of love.» Given what has passed before, we are left wondering if this ' love ' is harbored for the Commendatore or for Don Giovanni. This doubt is hardly mitigated by the Losey’s staging of the Rondo that follows - Donna Anna’s “Non mi dir, bell’idol mio” :
Don’t tell me my love that I am cruel with you. You know well how much I have loved you. You know my faith. Calm your torment, or with sorrow you will make me die.
emotional outpouring, Losey shoots both Donna Anna and Don Ottavio in a mirror,
suggesting that the words are simply duplicitous, reverberating back to the
equally theatrical mise-en-scène of her initial association with Don
Giovanni in the Teatro Olimpico. Like Robert Klein, Donna Anna can represent
her desire only as an endlessly reflecting mirror, i.e. an equally self-deluding
fiction. Similarly, at film’s end, when Donna Anna comes to exact her revenge
at La Rotonda (too late, as it turns out) her words, «Only seeing him bound
in chains can my pain be calmed,» again take on a double meaning: the '
chains ' may equally be the ' shackles ' of marriage as prisoner’s irons.
Don Ottavio fares little better. Riegel plays him as a pompous buffoon, forever ready with words of undying vengeance but clearly lacking the impulsive wherewithal to carry them out. In both of his featured arias, Losey undercuts the sentiment of his words with a deliberately deflating mise-en-scène. In “Dalla sua pace”, for example, where Don Ottavio declares his emotional bond with his beloved, Losey shoots Riegel standing upright in a barge against the originary world of the Tortello fens and marshlands, effectively enveloping the conviction of his words within the immanent, watery motif associated directly with Don Giovanni. Don Ottavio receives similar dismissive treatment in “I mio tesoro intanto ”. As Riegel bravely exhorts us to tell Donna Anna «that her wrongs to avenge I go, that I will only return to announce carnage and death,» Losey shoots him against the vast spaces of La Rotonda’s surrounding park, so that his words effectively dissipate into thin air, his only audience a smattering of drunken peasants who lie supine on the grass sleeping off the excesses of the night before.
If the aristocratic threat to Don Giovanni is framed as equal parts tyrannical vengeance (The Commendatore), hypocritical vanity (Donna Anna and Don Ottavio) or Christian piety (Donna Elvira) what of the role of the lower orders in this supposedly class-bound opera? The opening Gramsci quote tips us off immediately that Losey sees little hope of viable collective action during this libidinal interregnum. The drama’s representative peasants, Masetto (Malcolm King) and Zerlina (Teresa Berganza), are woefully ineffectual as viable political forces. Firstly, both are interpellated within the drama’s overall ideological schema of genealogical marriage. Until Don Giovanni’s seduction of Zerlina, the couple are avid proselytizers for the joys of wedding nuptuals :
- Girls, as you make love, don’t let your youth go by. If your hearts are burning, the remedy you can see here.
- Young men, light of head, don’t keep going here and there. The mad feast lasts briefly, but for me it hasn’t begun.
The message in both
cases is, «Get married as soon as possible.» As in the case of Donna
Anna, this is the very sentiment that Don Giovanni’s immanent force both transgresses
and annihilates. Signicantly, Losey closes the wedding preparations scene
with an angle up on the Black Valet as he observes the proceedings from a bridge.
He drops a missive down to the passing Don, informing him that Zerlina is ripe
for the picking.
Secondly, like young Leo in The Go-Between, Masetto fails to adequately decode the outward signs of the ruling class’s semiological dissimulation. Thus he is easily taken in by theatrical (mis)representation when he mistakes the disguised Don for Leporello and ends up getting a beating for his pains. Similarly, he fails to see that Zerlina is less the innocent and chaste virgin than a willing participant in Don Giovanni’s seductive wiles. Indeed, Zerlina is quite the clever intriguer in her own right, encouraging the Don’s advances while hedging her bets by soothing away Masetto’s jealous concerns. For Losey, «Zerlina is surely an opportunist. It’s nice to sleep with the master, to be inside the big house not as a servant. But at the same time she is a victim, she knows she will ultimately be thrown out, so she does not want to lose Masetto. »(35)
Although Losey suggests that Don Giovanni is «a piece of rebellion, a drama of social class,» (36) there is little hint that the promised Revolution is either ' in the air,' or gestating underground, for that matter. The defining scene is at the very end of Act I, when the wedding party for Masetto and Zerlina is about to break up into an utter shambles as the Don plots to rape the bride. The highlight of the banquet consists of a rousing rendition of «Long live liberty !» However, far from stimulating the assembled peasants and retainers to join in, the song is sung only by the aristocrats and Leporello (a would-be noble). Just as the masses make a tentative advance toward La Rotonda, their movements are intercepted by a cordoning line of valets, so that, in Losey’s words, «the underlings stand at feeble attention like a lot of whipped, middle-class English, standing at attention for the National Anthem at the Haymarket Theatre.»(37) Similarly, after Zerlina’s abortive abduction, when Don Ottavio, Donna Anna and Donna Elvira lead the outraged guests against the sanctity of Don Giovanni’s domain (to the strains of apocalyptic thunder and lightning), Losey diffuses the import of their rebellion by cutting to an extreme long shot. This shrinks and dissipates the dynamic flux of this teeming mass of bodies, and also compresses the peasants spatially between the aristocrats on La Rotonda’s front steps and the Black Valet in the immediate foreground, effectively foreclosing and hypostasizing their rebellion between the privilege of class and the specter of impulse.
However, Losey does suggest a possible way out of the impasse of interregnum with his symbolic use of the glass foundry (the signifier of burgeoning industrial development) in the film’s opening and closing scenes. According to Losey, during the Palladio period
moving inland where they had summer places and farms. This in turn developed
into an embryonic industrial society - particularly glass. The factories were
very often attached to the houses and so were the farms. So I thought: to connect
Venice and the vast flat fields, to show a society that was expanding from trade
to industry, from water to land, why not make Don Giovanni’s source of wealth
a glass factory ?(38)
Thus we meet the
Don in the place where his wealth was born (linked inextricably to the sexual
conquest of Donna Anna), but also where he will die, for it will be the same
foundry cauldron that will envelop his body at film’s end, as the vengeful punishment
by Donna Anna’s spectral father. In this sense, incipient industrial capital
becomes the Don’s ill-fated hell, represented on one front by the economic spectre
of exchange value, and on the other by its future return as revenant: the ghost
of the Commendatore. It’s one of the film’s more telling ironies that this vengeful
patriarchal spectre thus avenges the perceived despoiling of his aristocrat
daughter by condemning the licentious, decadent canker of his own class into
the hellish furnace of a bourgeois mode of production.
Far from renewing his own declining class, or giving birth to a new bourgeois class sovereignty, the Commendatore’s Messianic intervention - accompanied by a crashing D Minor chord and three trombones (39) - ultimately fails because it cannot be reincarnated in an affective (or effective) body. As Derrida reminds us, Marx wanted to have done with ghosts, to get rid of the virtual as a returning specter by incarnating it in the actual body of the industrial proletariat. Alas, once again in Losey, the people are still missing. While the real body of the Don becomes, in death, spectral, there is no concomitant reincarnation or transformation of the Commendatore. He remains a phantom, an empty shell inside a statue’s body. Moreover, the spectral is an asymmetrical image, fracturing the normal mutual exchange of looks and producing what Derrida calls the “visor effect”: we cannot see who looks at us.
This ultimately plays directly into Don Giovanni’s profligate hands, for it becomes yet another melodramatic scene in a whole panoply of theatrical representations, on a par with the dramatic reappearance of Hamlet’s father. We are met with still another simulacrum, an automaton that mimics the living. Moreover, because Don Giovanni in a sense survives somatically in the form of the Black Valet, we end up with two specters (the Don and The Commendatore) who haunt each other, as well as the entire operatic proceedings. How can we possibly put an end to the specter when everything is forever mirrored many times over in its crystalline gaze ?
Follow my gaze, the specter seems to say with the imperturbable authority and the rock hardness of a Commandatore. Let us follow this gaze. Right away we lose sight of it: disappeared the departed, in the hall of mirrors where it multiplies. There is not only one spirit watching You. Since this spirit 'is’ everywhere, since it comes from everywhere, it proliferates a priori, it puts in place, while depriving them of any place, a mob of specters to which one can no longer even assign a ' point of view ' ; they invade all of space.(40)
Indeed they do.
However, while Don Giovanni clearly fails
as a dialectical tract, it succeeds triumpantly as a Spinozist affirmation.
Impotent within the aporia of a stalled dialectic, the spectre instead
comes to represent a rampant non-linear time, a virus of the libido as a form
of death drive, represented not by the Commendatore’s searing fire, but quenched
by the water motif that is the Don’s immanent movement. In his worldly death,
Don Giovanni takes on the mantle of the spectral role himself, replacing the
Commendatore - the symbol of Oedipus, revenge, class hierarchy, the family -
with a fluid nomadism, a deterritorialized rhizome, a flow that transforms time
This metamorphosis is symbolized in the film’s closing sequence, which takes the form of an establishing shot of the surviving protagonists floating on the Venetian waters in separate barges (the two couples are paired off, while Leporello and Donna Elvira stand alone). They sing the opera’s presto finale, a Manichaeist paean to Christian guilt and patriarchal order: «Sinners end as they begin. All who scorn the life eternal their eternal death shall win.»(41) Within the film’s immanent domain, these are of course hollow words. The Don cannot repent because he has no guilt - he was/is an abundant Dionysian force that precludes the Christian pieties of self-abnegation and remorse. It is here that both Mozart and Losey undercut the traditions of baroque drama, for in light of the opera’s profusive theatrical as well as libidinal excesses, a transcendental deus ex machina becomes as superfluous as Don Giovanni’s other profligate devices.
Mozart seemed to sense this problem for he writes the finale not as an affirmation of Christian redemption but as a wicked, licentious parody. According to David Wyn Jones, «Over a hundred years later Verdi was to end his opera Falstaff with a fully-fledged fugue on the words «Tutto nel mondo e burla» ( Everything in the world is a joke ). The alternation of forte and piano and the retreat into piano two-part writing before the final forte suggest that similar sentiments were not far from Mozart’s mind.»(42) This musical puncturing of the narrative’s sanctimonious balloon is reinforced by Losey’s mise-en-scène, for by separating the characters onto isolated boats, statically resisting the laterally flowing waters with seemingly nowhere to go, they become manifestations of a stalled dialectic, hovering impotently, separated from themselves and from a wider community. As at the close of Mr. Klein, we see Derrida’s three aporias neatly condensed into a single image, for there is no longer any limit, no possibility of passage, and each and every one of them is haunted by the specter of one man, Don Giovanni.
In many ways, Don Giovanni is already a modernist work, eating and destroying itself through its own excess of form. Debilitated by the disappearance of its charismatic protagonist at the end, the opera is effectively spent and exhausted, like the interregnum itself. By showing the group’s aimless futures, the final sextet undercuts closure and symmetry, and indeed representation as a whole, for the film ends not with an image of water, but of its sound... As the Black Valet closes the doors on the action for one last time, the closing credits roll over the same sound of lapping water that we heard before the Overture, bringing us full circle to Don Giovanni’s life-affirming enveloping presence.
However, it is important to close our analysis with the warning that there is no place for transcendence in Losey. Don Giovanni ends, just like his other films, with a reassertion of a material, substantive immanence, as concrete as the plastic qualities of the film we have just viewed and the brilliant sounds we have just heard. What is left is in, and of the world, produced and fashioned by material powers. It is the stuff of the world that moves in duration, which makes life move on and create anew, which fashions it into art. «There is no more time,» utters the Commendatore as he sends the Don into the flames, suggesting not only that the libertine’s personal and historical time is up, but also that time has slowed to a standstill, that the measurement and segmenting of quantifiable time has been replaced by a more immanent, qualitative time-image: the “chronosign”, where time ceases to be subordinate to movement and appears for itself. We see the appearance of this time in what actually moves in Losey’s final image : the water. The Don’s immanent motif that quenches the Commendatore’s flames continues, like Heraclitus’s river, to flow forth, just as the surviving characters remain static. By killing Don Giovanni, the Commendatore has resurrected him not as a transcendent being but as the life force itself. The impulse-and time-images have become sovereign in and of themselves, as flow and becoming, in short, as a liberating Spinozan dystopia.
at the intersection of film and art theory, Colin Gardner earned his Ph.D.
in Cinema Studies at U.C.L.A. before becoming an Assistant Professor in the Art Studio and Film Studies departments at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of a recently published essay on Bob Rafelsonâs Five Easy Pieces for Creation Booksâ Jack Nicholson : Movie Top Ten (Mikita Brottman, Indi ana Univ ed.), as well as a theoretical study of Diana Thaterâs video installations in Space, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art (Erika Suderberg, ed.) for the University of Minnesota Press. He has just completed a critical study of the films of Joseph Losey entitled Time Without Pity: Immanence and Contradiction in the films of Joseph Losey. His current projects include Disappointment and Resignation, which focuses on the affirmative effects of spatio-temporal limbo in film and the visual arts; and a forthcoming exhibition : Diabolical Beautyä (co-curated with Jane Callister) at the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum.
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