Giancarlo Giannini is Tullio, a wealthy and arrogant aristocrat openly having an affair with another woman (Jennifer O'Neill's Teresa Raffo), thus driving his wife (Laura Antonelli's Giuliana) to start her own affair with a writer Filipo D'Arborio (Marc Porel) that leads to a pregnancy and baby. Giannini is magnificent in a role that instills in the viewer zero sympathy and outright hostility. The film heads into what can only be described as one of the most memorably tragic conclusions since Shakespeare, and is also one of the most beautifully filmed and costumed movies ever (Antonelli with that veil across her face...), with sumptuous costumes, rooms and sets. Surprising nudity too - male as well as female as Guiliana is undressed a few times, and Tulio glares at the naked D'Arborio in the shower. One can see how this lush, opulent film stately directed by Visconti with slow zooms and tracking shots must have influenced Scorsese's AGE OF INNOCENCE, played out as it is in stately drawing rooms for piano recitals, fencing classes, summer villas and mansions at dawn, in that "fin de siecle" era.
Jennifer O'Neill (dubbed in Italian - did Luchino need an American name in the cast?) is devastatingly beautiful and seductive as the self-assured, selfish, spoiled, ambitious, self-seeking lover, as much as Laura Antonelli is the opposite side of the coin but in a lower key, as the humble and insecure, betrayed, embittered, resentful wife, but also devastatingly gorgeous. (Below: Visconti on set).
The drama increases as Guiliana becomes pregant as her husband desires her all over again and wants her back, D'Arborio having died of a tropical disease, but he does not want the baby, the innocent of the title (we never see the wife and lover together, that affair is played out offstage). She pretends not to care for the baby to keep it safe but Tullio is too jealous of it, leading to ultimate tragedy. Then after a final confrontation with the glacial Teresa .... there is that great last shot of her leaving in that chilly dawn. The novel is by the great Gabriele D'Annnunzio, and script co-authored by Visconti regular Suso Cecchi D'Amico (who died last year aged 96), photography by Pasqualino De Santis. The costumes are ravishing and the cast including Rina Morelli, Didier Haudepin, Massimo Girotti, ideally cast even to the smallest part. It's a lasting pleasure and Visconti's farewell to the class and way of life he knew. Giannini was also ideal in those Lina Wertmuller films like SEVEN BEAUTIES.