On the last day of shooting Death in Venice in August 1970, Luchino Visconti offered to buy lunch for Dirk Bogarde in the little village pensione in the mountains outside Bolzano. They had been up since 2am trying to catch the light of dawn for a key shot: Bogarde was in his linen suit sitting in a plum orchard pretending to be still on the Lido in Venice. Bogarde declined the meal but in their parting conversation, as the 64 year-old Italian director daintily peeled the fatty skin from a sausage, he mentioned to Bogarde that he was keen to start work on a cherished project. ‘I am thinking to make the Proust La Recherche,’ he ventured in his thickly accented English. ‘You must think of Swann perhaps, yes?’
It was the movie had always wanted to make and he very quickly found an enthusiastic producer in Nicole Stéphane (a Rothschild by birth, she had also been an actress in Melvilles Enfants Terribles and starred as Madame Curie in Franju’s biopic). For over six years Stéphane had been trying to hire just such a director, despite haughty dismissals from the likes of Francois Truffaut (‘I wrote to the woman producer that no real film-maker would allow himself to squeeze the madaleine as though it were a lemon’). But the fiasco that followed ended in a series of lawsuits, bitter recriminations and a bizarre feud with Harold Pinter that Pinter refuses to discuss to this day.
Stéphane had acquired the rights to A la Recherche some years earlier and like Visconti she felt intensely possessive about Proust (born in 1923, she too came from a privileged background). Stéphane had been hanging on to the hope that Rene Clement would make the film with her, but it only took lunch at the lavish Principe di Savoia in Milan to persuade her to go with the glamorous Italian Count. Helpless against the full force of Visconti’s charm she cried ‘you are saying all I wanted to hear!’ and ‘I must kiss you!’ at the end of the meal, agreeing at once to give him permission and to produce the movie.
What was it that Visconti said that so convinced her? He identified strongly with Proust. ‘Every page could have been a description of his own life,’ notes Visconti’s biographer Gaia Servadio. The Milan of his youth was gone ‘yet it remained a luminous memory to him as Combray was to the narrator of A La Recherche, as the lilacs of Meseglise and the river at Guermantes’, notes his other biographer Laurence Stefano.
Visconti was raised in a grand Milanese manner little changed from the days of Stendahl and alive with fading belle époque inflections. He was the son of a Duke. The family palace at Via Cerva was run by a host of flunkies smartly dressed in black and yellow livery. The social rounds were understood from an early age, and set in stone, as the great and the good visited the proper salons in a strict rotation; it was the Gallarati-Scottis on Monday, the Viscontis on Wednesdays, the Borromeos on Thursdays and on Friday the Ricordis. Proust would have completely understood such a world.
Visconti adored his mother Donna Carla. Every evening, like the narrator in A La Recherche, he waited for the sound of his mother’s footsteps coming to kiss him goodnight, the swish of her gown on the grand staircase and the instant when she’d stoop over him, swathed in tulle and exuding the subtle scent of Chavalier D’Orsay. In fact no other director has proved so consistently Proustian in his personal sense of recall on a loved and vanished world and the pathology of his own sexuality, whether in evocations of Milan in Films like Rocco and his Brothers or White Nights or directly linked to his own personality in films like The Leopard. It is his own wizened and liver-spotted hand turning the pages of a D’Annunzio novel in his last film The Intruder.
So the project was set. Eight months was spent writing the script, then six weeks on scouting for locations. La Ferriere, the belle-époque chateau belonging to Guy de Rothschild was selected, thanks to Stéphane’s connections, along with sites in Combray, Trouville, Doncieres, Cabourg, Paris and Venice. Some actors received contracts. Silvana Magnano was to be Oriane de Guermantes and Alain Delon Marcel the narrator. Brando was approached to be Charlus, but the producers favoured Laurence Olivier. Helmut Berger was pencilled in as Morel and Brigitte Bardot asked for a role, and was given one, as the ageing Odette de Crecy. Charlotte Rampling was to be Albertine.
In all the film was to last four hours and cost an astronomical five billion lire, but when Stéphane baulked at the price and asked to be given more time to raise the finance, Visconti huffily started pre-production on his subsequent film Ludwig, informing Stéphane of his decision at the 1971 Cannes Festival. It seemed to unravel with extraordinary rapidity, the Visconti dream project. Visconti genuinely intended to return to A La Recherche, but nonetheless Stéphane felt wounded and betrayed by his behaviour, and turned to Josef Losey to make the film she wanted (who then commissioned a Pinter script). She sued Visconti. Visconti counter-sued. There was stalemate.
Clement and later Volker Schlondorff would concentrate on the Swanns Way section of the book. It’s not surprising that Visconti chose to specialise on the decadent aspects of Sodom and Gomorrah. His A La Recherche script opens in a Venice Hotel that would certainly have been Hotel de Bains once more (the one he uses in Death in Venice), where the Marcel-like protagonist goes to stay with his mother after the death of Albertine. The 363 page script ends with an orgy in a homosexual brothel and Marcel later mingling with frightened Parisians seeking shelter from the German bombardment of 1918. It couldn’t be more different than the chaste Pinter script (a staged adaptation of it appeared at the Cottesloe Theatre in 2000) which was to begin and end with a close-up of a patch of yellow wall (a detail from Vermeer’s View of Delft) and the sound of a bell ringing.
‘I think you can safely say the Visconti A La Recherche would have had wonderful costumes and sets, and would have been very beautiful and nostalgic,’ says Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, whose book of Visconti remains the only serious critical mainstream work to have been published on the director in decades. ‘I think it would have been all about the loss of childhood, but would also have been very overwrought and decadent, and full of lesbians’.
Pinter described that year working on Proust in 1972 as the greatest working year of his life and his script has become the stuff of legend (though not everyone is convinced by its brilliance – Roger Shattuck in Proust’s Way complaining that Pinter presents ‘Marcel as a precarious and somewhat forlorn heterosexual in the midst of a sea of homosexuals of both sexes’) Unlike Visconti, he considered Proust a ‘merciless satirist’. Perhaps mindful of Truffaut's earlier analysis he also drops the Madeleine scene because it was ‘impossible to represent it without it becoming a cliché’.
In the end neither film was made. Stéphane angrily complained that Pinter’s script was ‘unproducable’ and would be ‘four times more expensive than Visconti’s’. In a curious coda to the whole affair, Visconti enacted what appears to be a revenge on Pinter by staging his play Old Times in Rome in 1973 and completely sabotaging it. By now quite ill, he directed the play from his Rolls Royce, which he had driven into the auditorium of the Theatre Argentina. The staging was a fiasco – he introduced new elements such as nudity, lesbian sex and masturbation. Pinter’s agent tried to get the production closed down, and eventually Pinter himself flew to Rome and was reduced to fly-posting his protests to the glass doors of the theatre. Visconti’s line was that Pinter was a mere ‘radio playwright’ and that his work needed ‘fleshing out’. For good measure he refused a direct approach from Stéphane to sign away his rights to Proust, haughtily allowing her representative to visit the theatre to see him doing the Pinter play and then refusing to acknowledge Stéphane’s letter in his hand.
It was a bitter conclusion to a glittering project, though its clear that in the end Visconti was secretly relieved not to have made A La Recherche. He’d had the conviction that he would die as soon as he had finished making it, and he was always unshakeable in his superstitious beliefs. The film would be so autobiographical there would have been nothing left for him to say. Still, elements of Visconti’s Proust turned up in later films of the same subject. Volker Schlondorff hired Alan Delon for Swann’s Way in 1983 (produced by Stéphane – at last she got her film) and Raul Ruiz copies a scene from Death in Venice in Time Regained in 1999.
Visconti went on to make Conversation Piece and The Intruder, where once again he dressed the lead actress (this time Laura Antonelli) as his mother. ‘My mother wore veils just like these,’ he told his long-suffering costume designer. ‘She was swathed in veils in 1910 when she went to La Scala followed by a valet’. He died very shortly afterwards, in 1976.
Here is a website devoted to to Dirk