Berlin’s Arsenal cinema is currently hosting a programme of architecture-related works by German artist/filmmaker Heinz Emigholz. One of them, screening tomorrow night, deals with Gabriele d’Annunzio‘s extraordinary compound of self-glorification, La Vittoriale degli italiani. You may recall we visited this singular site but we barely touched on the interior of d’Annunzio’s residence, the Villa Cargnacco, which is the focus of Emigholz’s 2005 film, D’Annunzio’s Cave.
I’ve already laid out my own highly equivocal feelings about d’Annunzio’s troubling life and legacy, but Emigholz is very, very keen for the viewer to know that he hates the writer and his house and everything he and it stand for. The film moves through one room after another, empty of people but crowded with sculptures, paintings, knick-knacks – everything from kitsch to high art. The hand-held camera makes constant scything motions as if trying to slash through the pomposity, pausing every now and then to leer in contemptuous close-up, offering up some decorative detail for mockery. Sure, d’Annunzio’s interiors are a little busy, but so what? We’re invited to see intimations of fascistic tendencies in every classical sculpture, morbid decay in every over-fussy cluster of bibelots. But honestly, a lot of it looks pretty good to me.
Rather than pay location fees for multiple days, Emigholz used four different camera teams on one day, including one led by Elfi Mikesch, who directed Mondo Lux. But the teams’ approaches are indistinguishable. A more enlightened filmmaker might have set up differing viewpoints so that some kind of dialogue emerges, but instead everyone on board shares the director’s peevish derision. The result is a horrible, passive-aggressive type of filmmaking which says “I don’t like this and I won’t let you like it either.” Never does the camera simply depict a room in a way which allows viewers to read it for themselves. So why dwell on it at all? Like a homophobe expressing disgust at gay sex acts while describing them in great detail, you have to wonder if Emigholz isn’t in fact a little turned on.
The sound design, meanwhile, is an exasperating collision of elements. At times jarring electronic jabs of noise slash through the soundtrack, but it is a cacophony of computer-generated voices which dominates. They recite a tour guide’s spiel, a stream of obscenities, extracts from d’Annunzio’s own work, and the authors chosen by the filmmaker in “opposition” to d’Annunzio, including Joseph Roth. Also in the mix are two songs from Brian Eno and David Byrne’s 1981 album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, a dazzlingly inventive aural collage whose originality and expansiveness merely cast the film’s poverty of sonic means into sharper relief. The last five minutes are taken up with “The Jezebel Spirit”, whose vocal track is a recording of an actual exorcism. This film presumably intends to exorcise d’Annunzio from…well, what? Where exactly are the acolytes who genuflect unreflectively at the d’Annunzian sepulchre? To whom does this film preach if not to the bien pensant converted? What, ultimately, is the point?
If there is something to be said for D’Annunzio’s Cave (and as you may guess, I’m struggling here) it is that it doesn’t even make a pretence of objectivity. Nor should we, and in that spirit I can say that this is a terrible film to be avoided at all costs.