Senso (or The Wanton Countess) has the vibe of being both very complex and very simple: complex in the sense that it’s a laboriously detailed re-creation of Italy in the mid-nineteenth century, during a war between Prussia and Austria. The Seven Weeks’ War, it’s called. I’d never heard of it. I’ve been doing a little reading and it’s complicated as hell. Something to do with a dispute over land. I’m sure the movie’s got a nuanced handling of the war material that went completely over my head.
She’s real simple at the same time, though, in that it’s a story of forbidden love between an Italian countess (Italy was allied with Prussia) and an Austrain soldier. She’s older. The scorned Austrian soldier’s a slim boyish twentysomething.
And the movie…kinda fucked me up.
I was surprised to be so engaged with it because the one sub-genre I uniformly dread is the period-piece romance: Queen Christina, Peter Ibbetson, The Man in Grey—there’s been a bunch, and I’ve pretty much disliked all of them except for The Heiress, with Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift, which is a lot like Senso in that the romance is bullshit. The younger dude is exploiting the older woman for her money and taking advantage of her loneliness (as well as, if I can be so presumptuous, an insecurity about fading desirability).
What’s particularly beautiful and tragic and galvanizing about Sneso is the way that its hero, our countess (played with such contagious anguish by Alida Valli), is actively surrendering her dignity to this torrid affair. It isn’t like the whole movie is some slow build up to a moral choice at the end and she makes the wrong one: the whole movie is about how she chips away at her identity, her integrity, in hopes of clinging desperately to this unnameable sense of purpose and validation that comes from her affair with this parasitic young fuck.
She talks at one point about hating him for having made her forget her decency. She describes their affair as “illicit.” She’s being shredded by this thing that really is torrid and he just keeps doing shit to string her out farther and farther, to make her hate herself more and more, and even though I was watching this while still safely coddled in the affair I was having with Rosie, well along into its second year, I felt this visceral resonance with the idea of trading your dignity for love, of looking back on how you behaved while gripped with some kind of turbulent desire and just…hating yourself. Remembering so distinctly how painful everything was. The crying jags. The faith that things will work out if you can just hang on long enough; and, of course, the despair fo seeing that your interest isnt’ matched by the other person, the humiliation of feeling like an option.
I said the movie doesn’t build slowly up to one formative moral choice—it kinda does, actually, and the ramifications of that choice manifest as a kind of devastation I could barely process, so depleted was I from everything that had unfolded prior. What I mean is that the movie isn’t about that choice in the way that it might have been in a Hollywood movie of a previous generation. Something like Ninotchka or The Palm Beach story or even a melodrama like Stella Dallas.
There is an interesting 1930s precedent, though: it’s William Wyler’s Jezebel, in which Bette Davis has this fucked-up tactic of trying to endear men by challenging them, provoking them, calling their bluffs and turning them against each other—which with Mae West, in She Done Him Wrong, was funny and sly and progressive. Wyler, however, has it blow up in Davis’s face. We watch her languish under the weight of her actions’ consequences, the reckless shit she did because he wanted to be loved. It’s painfully relatable and, like Senso, one of the only 19th century romances I’ve enjoyed. That movie, too, ends with a defining moral choice, but it only rounds out the arc we’ve seen playing out so clearly. (Something also worth mentioning is that, even though what I’m relating with in Jezebel is Davis’s own shame at having ended up burning a romantic bridge as a result of some misguided effort to strengthen it, I realize that it exercises what Roger Ebert says was the thing that made Gone with the Wind‘s Scarlett O’Hara palatable for a 1930s audience: the punishment of feminine agency and sexual preference.)
With Senso, everything’s been razed by the time we reach that decision. Redemption is impossible.
Senso is a gorgeous, occasionally tedious, emotionally gutting movie. Watch it if you love movies more than yourself.