Group Portrait: Luchino Visconti’s Conversation Piece (1974) – Blu-ray review
A drawing-room comedy transformed into an ambitious, if cold, vision of moral inertia. It’s very Visconti, but perhaps could have done with more Bunuel.
(Luchino Visconti, 1974)
Conversation Piece is proof that art-house cinema isn’t all that different to mainstream Hollywood. You could boil this film down to one simple, graspable premise – Bad Tenants – and with minimal structural rewrites, you’d have a rambunctious comedy. This, however, is Visconti, so there’s a bit more to it than that.
This is a typically Italian study of politics and class, La Dolce Vita reimagined as a droll Bunuelian chamber drama in which the jet-set’s crass manners and didactic proselyting are poured into a single household to do battle with old-school manners and intellectualism. It’s a remarkably ornate, refined piece of screen theatre, where Visconti’s camera encircles the bling of the set design and traps the characters until they (all) reveal their hollowness.
At its heart, it’s the story of a misanthropic professor (Burt Lancaster, cast perfectly between his brusque leading man years and the more lachrymose, elegiac figure of later gems like Atlantic City) who’d rather stay in with dead paintings – the title refers to his favoured style of British group portraits – than get involved in the tumultuous post-1968 world.
When a vain woman, wife of an unseen Fascist, arrives to place her toyboy lover – a revolutionary leftist, of course – in the flat above the Professor’s, it’s an intrusion that makes him wonder what he’s missing, with all the sex, drugs and crimes being teased in front of him. It’s a funny set-up, and Lancaster’s seething irritation is a delight, but Visconti isn’t especially bothered to draw out the absurdity.
Instead, as the film goes on, it settles for lecturing us on the failings of both left and right, one full of narcissistic martyrdom and the other inclined towards crime, even as Visconti rails against the Professor’s polite denunciation of anything. Screw the ‘conversation pieces’ and their genteel chat; this is a film where the characters get passionate, swear and fight.
It’s commendably blunt, but for all that his characters tell us, they don’t show an awful lot to back up their convictions. There’s still the lingering sense that the director is fighting against his own tasteful style. Perhaps that’s because Visconti (who was recovering from a stroke) is still, after making Death In Venice, obsessed with mortality. That lends a crepuscular solemnity to the film that deepens its metaphorical vision of a society’s last gleaming… but also ultimately robs the film of the satirical sting it promised.