Some people might say that the ending is contrived or anticlimactic, but I really enjoy it. Kubrick is the antithesis of Shyamalan; his endings are understated rather than exaggerated. When David sits in the submarine for 2000 years he is acting out what William Hurt's character described to the viewer before: hope. It is the everlasting motivation for life. The fact that he can hold this wish for 2000 years as he wastes away under water reminds us that he is not human. We must keep this in mind, the fact that Joe and David are not 'real' brings questions to the viewer's mind and forces us to confront the question of 'what is real?'. To any viewer that has not seen the film I suggest finding a comfortable couch, on a Sunday afternoon, and sitting down to experience it.
It would be easy to describe this as a beautiful film; early on we see the extravagance of the parlor, and we are treated to a perfect summarization of turn-of-the century upper class life, all captured on film perfectly by cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis. But Visconti does not indulge in the picturesque aspects of Venice. Instead, the glorious and sensuous artistic achievements of the past are based on materialism and sensuous beauty, and these things are relegated to the past. The city we know to be of incomparable beauty and uniqueness is nothing more than a leisure resort with a nosy hotel staff. The streets become exhausting labyrinths filled with disgusting filth and rot, the city decays in step with the protagonist. Only through the flashbacks are we allowed a glimpse of why this famous composer is a frail and innocuous man. The death of his daughter, and presumably his wife, along with the failure of his music allow us to understand why he is destroying himself.
Alfred, with whom Aschenbach has in depth conversations on the meaning of beauty and who can create it; but Alfred is more than a friend, he is Aschenbach's alter-ego, and what Alfred says articulates the composer's own doubts and fears. The scene in which Aschenbach decides to leave Venice is immediately followed by a clip of Alfred telling him that he is weak, alienated and lacks feelings. In the end we might be able to conclude that these flashbacks are not reality at all. It is a decay of memory, rather than objective renderings of the past, these flashbacks become distorted memories. We can say that these are decayed memories because even Aschenbach alludes to it, he declares, "reality distracts and degrades us;" and, following the scene in the travel agent's office we see Aschenbach confront Tadzio and his family and warn them - leave Venice, but directly after the encounter we see him sitting with the clerk again and realize it was all in his imagination, he employs long scenes without dialogue that are framed by the poignant music of Gustav Mahler. He allows the viewer's mind to wander as we watch Aschenbach's life and respectability decay with the beauty around him.
Slowly the viewer realizes that our hero is overwhelmed by exhaustion that is mixed with a growing awareness that the town is suffocating in filth. The crumbling city sets the stage for the middle aged man's attraction to Tadzio, it is romantic longing for something so idealized and ambiguous that it can never be consumed, even in fantasy. The beauty of this Polish boy kindles a fire in him that, at first, makes him glow, then consumes him. The film concludes with von Aschenbach sitting feebly in a beach chair watching Tadzio fight with his friend, we see the black dye from his hair running down on his cheek and it looks like rotten blood, it is a vision of his life's expiring moments, though before his last breath. The final decay has happened, all around him the city is soiled, and with it he has become what he detests. As Aschenbach dies he has the same painted face as the old man on the ferry at the beginning of the film, a man that had disturbed him. It was the pursuit of beauty that initiated his decay, in the pursuit of artistic beauty he could not sense his own demise, and that of the city around him; his sensuality is indulged in, while constantly kept in check by the presence of death and decay. It is these three themes that tie The Damned and Death in Venice together, beauty, death, and decay, these themes are Visconti's art, the beauty of his work is in the decay of beauty itself.
In this film we are treated to the deliquescence of one great man. We see the honored composer Gustav von Aschenbach in the pursuit of true and pure beauty, and it is in the pursuit of this trait that it decays all around him and leads him to a miserable, lonely death watching the target of his affection. I believe that through these movies Visconti is trying to tell us that what is beautiful cannot last. Decay is intrinsic in the world around us, and when we become distracted, it can destroy the splendor. In Death in Venice, it is because of culture and through the pursuit of beauty that all is deleted. Beauty and deliquescence are woven together like thorns in Visconti's works, at once beautiful and destructive, it is these themes that define his art.