Italian cultural/political icon Gabriele D’Annunzio is better remembered for his affairs with actresses Sarah Bernhardt & Eleanora Duse than for his own over-heated writing. And his two famous mistresses might well have faced off as the rivals in this novel that became Luchino Visconti’s last film. Apparently, D’Annunzio had ANNA KARENINA in mind writing the novel, but it’s Ibsen’s HEDDA GABLER that hovers over the story. Giancarlo Giannini plays a rich aristo who ignores his quiet wife for more passionate partners. But when a fashionable writer briefly takes up with the missus, the husband's interest returns with a vengeance; now complicated by her pregnancy. The delicate, beautifully bosomed Laura Antonelli plays the wren-like wife (the Duse role) while Jennifer O’Neill gets Bernhardt’s putative role as the sophisticated, free-loving mistress. But it's Giancarlo, in a gender reversal, whose part follows and/or reflects the lines of Ibsen’s anti-heroine: stuffy, mismatched marriage; literary lover; unwanted pregnancy; near-comic reversals in the third act; even a climactic suicide by hand gun. The parallels are striking. But could D’Annuzio have even been aware of a play just two years old? Already a famous playwright at the time, writing for Bernhardt (his affair with Duse came later), perhaps he read the Ibsen in translation. Or just read about it. We’ll never know. And we’ll never know if this film could have been improved since Visconti died before post-production. Yet the film is, if anything, more vital than his other late works, with the expected beautiful finish waiting to be broken. It’s a strange, uncomfortable film (and a strange, uncomfortable story), cruel & vicious, a tragic comedy of manners. And while Visconti no longer evinces his former control, it’s a film no one else could have made.
DOUBLE-BILL: Martin Scorsese’s THE AGE OF INNOCENCE/’93 shows how you can get all the exteriors right on these things, and still miss the target.