I don’t normally like what I call secondary films, that is to say films based on novels, plays, operas or biographies. I prefer the film to be a product of the film-maker’s own imagination, a film in which the conception and execution of the film have emerged together and not as an adaptation from some other medium. However, I do make exceptions - for instance, Visconti’s film of Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice, which I think is cinematically wonderful, and Joseph Losey’s film of Mozart’s Don Giovanni which, now that it has been digitally remastered and remixed, is really quite extraordinary. Like Death In Venice, one could almost call it “total film” in the way one might speak of “total theatre”. This is not only due to the music by Mozart, the libretto by Da Ponte, the quality of production, singing and acting, the Palladio settings, the emphasis on style and ritual as opposed to realism in the performance, but also somehow the almost eerie impression created by the Black Valet whose role, although he doesn’t utter a word, is clearly crucial to what Losey wants to say in this film. The Black Valet is like a sardonically silent master of ceremonies hovering in the background at all the film’s crucial moments. He doesn’t sing; he doesn’t speak. He is just there as a kind of beautiful and stylish androgynous comment on what’s going on. Ruggero Raimondi, as Don Giovanni, creates an almost vampiric impression at times, and his Dracula-like presence seems to be reinforced whenever his emotionless, black-clad valet (played by Eric Adjani) appears on screen to assist him.
Mozart’s opera is one of those rare works of art which seem to appear at turning points in the history of a civilisation. It was written just before the French Revolution. I do not see it in the simple moralistic terms of an aristocratic libertine receiving his come-uppance and being dragged down to Hell for his crimes. It is also an allegory of the fate of a class that seemed to have no future left and was therefore going to make the best of the rest of its time while it could. Losey’s interpretation of this aspect of Don Giovanni is a Marxist one. Indeed, before the the Overture begins, the film is prefaced by a quote from Gramsci: “The old dies and the new cannot manage to see day. In the interim, a large diversity of morbid symptoms surges forth.” This was a mistake, I believe. Gramsci may well be right, but in relation to Don Giovanni himself, the quote is a touch moralistic. The production is also Marxist in the way it foregrounds the peasantry in a threatening way in some of the scenes, the same peasantry who, with the sans-culottes in the towns, would be the leading force in the revolution to come. It’s as if Losey was saying, “These are the people who will eventually bring you and your class down, Don Giovanni.” And, of course, in this he was right.
One must also not forget the Freudian interpretation of the Son’s Oedipal rebellion against the Father - Il Commendatore - and the ensuing guilt-complex which culminates in Don Giovanni’s being dragged down to Hell. From a Freudian point of view, revolutions are fuelled by such complexes. However, it is hard to see Don Giovanni as a revolutionary. More like a reactionary who recalls his class to its true nature, which it seems to have abandoned to accommodate itself to the bourgeois mores of the age. I disagree with those who say that Don Giovanni was rebelling against the mores of his own class. Superficially, that may appear to be so. But from a metahistorical perspective, that is far from what’s going on. Indeed, what Don Giovanni really seems to be rebelling against are the mores of a class which had sold out and adopted alien mores. His own class was a fundamentally predatory, not to say misogynistic, one, and Don Giovanni himself was an atavistic throwback to the true barbarous nature of that class, as opposed to its more decadent contemporary variant, represented by Don Attavio. You hear a lot of talk about the bourgeoisification of the proletariat these days, but the aristocracy got there first. They became bourgeois the moment they opted to become respectable in their behaviour and choose accomodation with their bourgeois rivals, who were now in the ascendancy.
Don Giovanni is a predator, just like his remotest ancestors, and what he preys upon is women. And he doesn’t seem to want them for themselves so much as the fact that each one of them adds to the tally of his conquests, which, according to the list enumerated by his servant Leporello to one of his victims, Donna Elvira, seems to run into the thousands. In Spain alone, there are “mil e tre”. He seems to collect these ‘conquests’ in the way ‘Injuns’ in a wild west movie collect scalps as proof of their prowess as warriors. He undoubtedly takes pride in this list. It doesn’t matter if the conquest is beautiful or ugly, fat or slender, old or young, plebian or aristocratic. The important thing is that they are his conquests and therefore redound to his glory.
To understand this aspect of his behaviour, we need to go back a few millenia, to the misty ‘dawn of Civilisation’, that is to say the first wave of barbarian invasions. Imagine yourself at this time as a peasant, someone who lives and works in the country. You work your land communally with other peasants; you live with them in a village and are probably related to them, though you also might trade and be on good terms with other villages. You have no government, no state to regulate your life, but you do have elders or chiefs who meet regularly in council and keep your collective life ticking over. Women play a central and honoured part in your lives and you probably worship the Great Mother Goddess as a symbol of the fertility of the land. You may very well have a militia to protect you from thieves and marauders bent on stealing some of the products of your labour, but you don’t have standing armies and militarism is not a way of life with you. You are peaceful, mind your own business and want others to leave you alone so that you can provide for yourself and those who depend on you. This is your life. Not very exciting but you know how to live it up during your many bacchanalian festivals and rites. You are not living in the mythical Golden Age, but you are perhaps living in the Silver Age, and I think you are largely content with your lot.
One day, however, something cataclysmic happens. You find yourself overpowered by another who leaves you standing when it comes to cultivating the warrior-virtues. You have no answer to his aggressive, dominating behaviour towards you; you just have to submit to his ferocity and prowess. He has been schooled in completely different conditions to yourself and this shows in his tough, aggressive demeanour towards you. He despises you for your ‘feminine’ relationship with the soil, as he also despises manual work, which he believes should only be done by women and slaves. He has been a nomadic herder and warrior who has developed his militarily capabilities on the hoof, as it were, probably by raiding the cattle and horses of other tribes just like his own and having to defend his own lifestock from similar attacks. He is male in the extreme, because that is what his warrior-culture has made him and his women are 100% under his thumb, his property to dispose of just as he chooses. He practices female circumcision, infibulation and suttee just to keep them in line and he worships male sky-gods with warrior-profiles. He is the polar opposite of yourself and vastly superior from a military point of view. And he will not only conquer you and make you work the land for him, he will do what he wants with your women. Like you, he has no government or state, but his society is nevertheless very hierarchical; and he tends to make slaves of those he has conquered.
However, he is not going to make you his slave. He knows he’s on to a good thing by letting you work the land for yourself and providing him with part of what you produce for ‘protection’ against predators just like himself. He will live off the fat of the land, while you will sweat and groan under his ‘protective’ yoke. If you do not comply, he’ll just plunder and loot what he can, rape your women and move on, so you don’t have much of a choice. In time, he will become a member of a warrior-aristocracy and you will provide him with the means of doing so. He will lord it over ‘his’ peasants while assuming seignorial rights over their daughters and wives. Don Giovanni is a throwback to this ‘gentleman’ and therefore the only true aristocrat in the whole of the opera, that is to say, the only barbarian.
The point I am trying to make here is that the aristocracy is not in essence the class of effete snobs it is often portrayed as. It is rather a class of macho conquerers who take pride in their warrior-status and prowess. Where it has degenerated from this, it is only due to the fact that it has become decadent over the millenia. It it has either become soft from easy living or has assimilated some of the values of those it once conquered which, once the dust of conquest has settled, will begin to reassert themselves. During Don Giovanni’s time this will include the values of the rising bourgeoisie, especially the values of respectability and sexual restraint. In both cases, a loss of vitality has been the result. In both cases also there has been a certain feminisation. In Don Giovanni, it is the rather sappy Don Ottavio who represents the respectable feminised aristocrat, ruled by the wishes of his female other half, Donna Anna, who herself undoubtedly finds the sexual vitality of Don Giovanni - despite all her protestations to the contrary - much more arousing than the love and respect offered by her ‘legitimate’ spouse. Don Giovanni is much more possessed by the true spirit of his class, which, as I have said, is a macho and predatory one, and this is what makes him attractive to women. As for Donna Elvira, her situation is genuinely poignant, because she is truly in love with Don Giovanni and as a consequence, pities him and wants to save him from himself and the fate she seems to intuit. Her love, however, is tragically doomed to remain unrequited because Don Giovanni will always disdain genuine love. As a throwback to the time when his class could take women completely for granted, he is not into women as they are, only into what they represent for his masculine ego. He is too one-sidedly male to allow himself to submit in that way.
Yet this one-sided macho development is achieved and maintained at the price of a great deal of repressed femininity and homosexuality. And this is where the androgynous Black Valet comes into the picture. The second to last scene in which Don Giovanni is shown eating and drinking and generally living it up before he is dragged down into Hell, is presented by Losey as a ‘gay’ orgy, with men - one of whom is in drag - lounging around together, erotically disposed towards one another. (Look closely and you will see that the 'lady' sports a 5 o'clock shadow!) Don Giovanni himself doesn’t engage in the activities of the orgiasts - though one is free to imagine what he does with the Black Valet behind closed doors. At one point during the revel a female version of the Black Valet appears and stands the opposite side of Don Giovanni while he is eating. But she very soon departs from the scene. The ambiguous silent presence of the Black Valet lends the scene a disturbing homoerotic interest which is never brought out and therefore remains just the under the surface as a suggestion, the merest hint of what Don Giovanni’s fixation on womanising and conquests is really about. Losey, of course, will not be the first to make this connection between the Don Juan type and repressed homosexuality, but the way he makes it is something only an artist of the highest calibre could so successfully accomplish.
In Losey’s film, The Servant, the relationship between master and servant has definite homoerotic undertones, but on the surface heterosexuality rules as part of the power-play between the two male characters. Heterosexuality is the rule in Don Giovanni as well. But Losey has his own agenda and the way that agenda is established clearly shows him to be an absolute master of cinematic innuendo. The scene which leads up to Don Giovanni’s descent into Hell is one of the most intense and ambiguous scenes I think I have ever seen on film.
What I’m doing, of course, is reading between the lines and looking at the film as a ‘metahistorical document’. The narrative itself is fairly banal. And its message is a moral one in which Don Giovanni gets his ‘just desserts’ as a fornicating libertine. The very last scene makes this quite obvious. I don’t know to what extent either Da Ponte or Mozart subscribed to such a message. Somehow, I don’t think that, as serious artists, they could have. They were just writing within the conventions of a certain genre. But that hardly matters. What matters is what is simmering under the surface. And in terms of this particular production, what also matters is Losey’s masterful display of cinematic innuendo, using the Black Valet to add his own perspective to the original in a way that is completely transcendent.