The Man Without Desire

watching the film in the mediatheque

Last week, I went to try out the new mediatheque at the National Media Museum.  The film I watched made a huge impact on me.  It was a silent film from 1923 starring Ivor Novello, called The Man Without Desire. It reminded me of Oscar Wilde's fairy tales, so it was interesting that the director, Adrian Brunel, based the story on an idea from an Irish playwright, Monckton Hoffe.  It also seems to draw inspiration from a poem of Robert Browning's,  "A Toccata of Galuppi's", a stanza of which is quoted in the film:

As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop,
Here on earth they bore the fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop:
What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?  (1)

Like a true fairy tale, The Man Without Desire can be read many ways, but as it contains themes especially dear to me, those are the ones I will concentrate on in my review.

The plot

An Englishman called Robert Mawdesley finds he has been left a sum of money and a letter by his ancestor, Simon.  The letter tells of Count Vittorio Dandolo (Ivor Novello), who lives in 18th-century Venice.  Vittorio is in love with Leonora, Countess Almoro, whose husband is a violent libertine.  He tries to woo her and be a friend to her, eventually promising that he will help her escape her cruel husband.  But the plan goes wrong, as it gets mixed in with a plan of revenge by a newspaper editor whose fingers Almoro has had crushed for writing about his sex scandals.  Almoro thinks it is his wife who is planning to posion him, and makes her drink the drugged wine.  When Vittorio arrives too late to save Leonora, he is incensed and strangles Almoro.  He then runs to his friend, the weird scientist Simon Mawdesley, begging for a way out of his misery.  Mawdesley says the only way is to submit to his greatest experiment - suspended animation.  Vittorio gets into a coffin and is put into a charmed sleep.  But he is given some poison to take as a last resort if things don't work out for him.

Fast forward to 1923.  Robert Mawdesley and a doctor friend awaken Vittorio from his sleep.  There are now ancestors of some of the original characters (played by the same actors) who are their "doubles".  Leonora becomes Genevra Almoro.  Count Almoro becomes Gardi-Almoro, her cousin and suitor.  And, obviously, Simon becomes Robert.  Vittorio initially finds this very confusing, but then becomes friends with Genevra.  But there is a catch.  As a result of the experiment, he has lost all desire.  He has no savour for modern life and no sexual desire for Genevra.  He thinks he can restore his lost life and love by marrying Genevra, but this does not happen, and she turns to Gardi-Almoro.  When Vittorio finds out, he tries to strangle Gardi-Almoro, but is stopped by Genevra and gives up.  Feeling the futility of his life, he takes Mawdesley's poison, putting on his old, 18th-century clothes to die in.  When Genevra sees him dying, love is awakened in her and she kisses him.  This kiss re-awakens Vittorio's passion and he returns it as he dies. 

watching the film in the mediatheque

The Glass Coffin and The Ensorceled Prince

I was immediately struck by the similarity to these two tales, which I wrote about in my essay, The Glass Coffin and The Ensorceled Prince: An Asexual Reading.    When Mawdesley and the doctor find Vittorio in his coffin, there is a window in the lid.  They wipe off the dust and there is Vittorio, as young and beautiful as he was before.  The film lingers for some time on Vittorio waking from his charmed sleep.  His experience of rushing home to find the world changed is very much the experience of a fairytale character being returned from Beyond the Fields We Know.  He is like Sleeping Beauty, like Snow White.  Only he is a man.  (He does have androgynous beauty; I will return to that later).  Unlike Sleeping Beauty, however, he is not awakened by a kiss, not until he is dying for real.  And unlike Snow White, his charmed sleep is not caused by poison.  He poisons himself when he realises the life he has been returned to is hollow.

Is he more like the Ensorceled Prince, then?  Like the prince, he suffers great torment.  Like the prince, he goes into his charmed state (and his ultimate death) after attacking a rival man.  Most obviously, he seems to have become asexual when he awakes, echoing the tale of the prince who becomes marble from the waist down.  However, Vittorio's story could be said to be the reverse of the Ensorceled Prince.  For him, it is after his enchantment that he becomes the husband unable to satisfy his wife, ineffectively lashing out at her lover.  His fate echoes that of the newspaper editor, who was told that seeing his fingers crushed and useless will be a greater punishment than having them chopped off.  For Vittorio, being in the world with the image of his beloved Leonora, but being unable to fully engage with either, becomes a fate worse than death. 

Androgynous Men and Inviolate Women

As I said, Vittorio has androgynous beauty.  This is partly due to the casting of Ivor Novello, partly due to his 18th-century apparel.  For me, one of the saddest scenes is when he has to submit to early 20th-century clothing and a short haircut.  It is a physical stripping away of his allure and romance, and makes the viewer feel the same disillusion with the modern world as Vittorio feels.  In the final scene, the caption reads, "The sight of Vittorio's human suffering re-awakens Genevra's love."  But I can't help feeling that the sight of his 18th-century shirt is what does it for the viewer.  Ironically, the more "manly" clothes of the 1920s contribute to Vittorio's unmanning.

Leonora, when we first see her, looks like a Botticelli Madonna.  This seems to fit her role as a chaste wife and mother.  It is only reluctantly that she allows Vittorio to woo her.  At first she tells him, "It's not a lover I want, but a friend."  "Let me be your friend," says Vittorio, and kisses her hand.  Their relationship is romantic and spiritual - a contrast with the overtly sexual relationship between Almoro and his paramour, La Foscolina.  There is one beautiful scene in which Vittorio and Leonora kiss, and it looks as if light comes from their lips.  Leonora's descendant Genevra is different, however.  We are told, "And as Vittorio's acquaintance with Genevra improved, so did his knowledge of the modern girl."  Genevra does not look like the Madonna, and she wants more than a kiss on the hand.  When Vittorio confronts her over Gardi-Almoro, she says: "I never loved him... although your coldness nearly drove me into his arms.  I have been cheated - cheated."  It seems Genevra was prepared to go for loveless sex rather than live with sexless love.

watching the film in the mediatheque

A Soulless Age?

Vittorio is warned by Mawdesley: "Life may seem so different as to be almost colourless.  You may even awake to find yourself utterly without desire of any kind."  This is where I return to the quotation from Browning: "What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?"  In Browning's poem, a toccata by Galuppi conjures up for the poet visions of a lost Venice  - a place of pleasure, beauty and passion - whose people are now "dust and ashes".  One can imagine how much more resonance such a poem would have just after the First World War.  The modern world had come for good; the old romance was gone.  Did any soul remain?  It's still a real question 90 years later.  One of the captions in the film reads, "The old-time spirit of Romance still haunts the canals of Venice today."  This seems at odds with Vittorio's story.  Unless he himself is the spirit of Romance, literally haunting his old home.  When he wakes from his sleep, he looks ill, a wraith of his former self.  When he is forced into 20th-century clothes, he becomes even more of a shadow.  He says, "I find life to-day so... savourless."  Vittorio speaks for many of us who feel we are simply living in the wrong era, longing for a land with more romance and soul.  (Which I would say is, in fact, a healthy, godly longing).  But then perhaps the pleasure-loving flappers of the Jazz Age were not so different from the fan-fluttering Venetians of the 18th century.  They were both, "only born to bloom and die."  Perhaps there is also a lesson in Vittorio's story that we should not seek to cheat death and live beyond our natural span.  Such a life would be both soulless and savourless.  

(1) Robert Browning, "A Toccata of Galuppi's", The Norton Anthology of English Literature ed. M H Abrams (New York: Norton, 1993)

Quotations and pictures from The Man Without Desire, directed by Adrain Brunel, from an idea by Monckton Hoffe. Rights held by Moving Image.


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