Architecture on Film: Unguided Tour (aka Letter From Venice), introduced by Brian Dillon

In writer Susan Sontag’s final film, Venice becomes stage and subject, in dialogue with a lovers’ weekend. Dancer Lucinda Childs stars as a tourist of melancholy, memory and fading romance.


07:00pm, Tuesday, 12 July 2022


08:45pm, Tuesday, 12 July 2022


Cinema 1
Barbican Centre, Level -2
Silk St, London, EC2Y 8DS



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This is a past event


This screening will be introduced by writer Brian Dillon, author of Suppose a Sentence (2020), Essayism (2017) and In the Dark Room (2005), Director of Creative Writing, Queen Mary, University of London. Dillon's forthcoming book, Affinities, a book about art and fascination, will be published in spring 2023.

Unguided Tour aka Letter From Venice [Giro Turistico Senza Guida]

Susan Sontag
’s adaption of her own short story for the screen creates cinema at the the intersection of Venice and the narrative, as her protagonist drifts through the end of an affair and ‘a city that even the Italians visit as if they were a foreigner’.

 The languid, deliberate steps of dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs – the film’s anchor in the Venetian lagoon – set the film’s pace, as on screen dialogue and offscreen conversation blur present and future.

A city inhabited by buildings.
Buildings threatened with extinction.
A city that will disappear one day.
Our Titanic in slow motion.
– Susan Sontag, from Unguided Tour

Against the backdrop of a vacation in the floating city and its lingering past unfolds a relationship that will similarly soon be history, as a cipher for Sontag’s contemplation of seduction, melancholy and time. A tourism of both place and the mind, during a stroll through the landscapes of both Venice and memory.

(Susan Sontag, Italy 1983, 71 mins)

With thanks to Rai 

The Colour of Time
Programme Notes by Brian Dillon

I am not sure I’ve seen a film so full (if that’s the word) of aimless drift or wandering. An ecstasy of scenic skulking. Unguided Tour (1983), Susan Sontag’s fourth and last film as director, opens with the dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs pacing out the sharp turns of a wall in Venice – she is stately, spectral, a sunlit Nosferatu wearing a Walkman. Soon we will see this nameless protagonist haunting the church of San Sebastiano, where she contemplates (and mirrors) the frescoes by Veronese. Then laying a wreath at the tomb of Sergei Diaghilev, and reading from an inscription on the palazzo where Richard Wagner died. And slowly disengaging from her lover, who is played by Claudio Cassinelli. During certain rare moments of onscreen dialogue, their relationship comes into precise, urgent focus. But mostly they drift.

Sontag based Unguided Tour on her short story of the same title, which she wrote in 1974 and published in The New Yorker in 1977. ‘Unguided Tour’ was in part her effort to emulate the erudite, antic fiction of Donald Barthelme; when she had finished it she confided to her diary that she had ‘written a better story than Barthelme’. You can hear his ironic influence in the opening lines, which Sontag inserts later in the film adaptation:

I took a trip to see the beautiful things. Change of scenery. Change of heart. And do you know?
They’re still there.
Ah, but they won’t be for long.
I know. That’s why I went. To say goodbye. When I travel, it’s always to say goodbye.

As frequently happens in Sontag’s fiction, this story is also an essay of sorts: about history, tourism, nature, the city – and images. Also about the ways experience may be overcome by cliché, and the cliché of trying to reassert authenticity, in private life or public space.

The film, also known as Letter From Venice, was financed and broadcast by the Italian television company RAI, the relationship with Sontag being brokered by film producer Giovannella Zannoni. Where Sontag’s essays on cinema eagerly position her between the European and American avant-gardes, here she is more obviously in love with Europe, or an idea of Europe. (In love too with Lucinda Childs, who had been recommended for the part by experimental stage director Robert Wilson.) As a depiction of Venice, the film has obvious things in common with other cinematic renderings of the city. A certain attraction to decay, and to the touristic display that accompanies it: bridges, gondolas, the seasonal ephemera of outdoor cafés and stalls selling hats and maps. Unguided Tour gets lost among the streets and canals in some of the same ways the camera does in Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971) or Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). It shares odd acoustic qualities with these films: the sounds of the city – lapping water, voices, sirens – often have no obvious source on screen. The city is all echoes and lures.

In a review of Unguided Tour for Artforum in 1983, Gary Indiana wrote: ‘Venice’s genius consists of its manipulation of mass tourism, in pandering its nuances in order to remain inaccessible.’ Sontag’s city, no matter how picturesque or doleful, bristles with reminders of its mediation for tourists. It is, says Cassinelli in voiceover, a place even Italians visit as if it were a foreign city. A British Airways plane on the tarmac, a Diners Club sticker in the window at a café, an impatient English tourist on the phone to a hotel: these details alternate with crumbling statuary, shaded gardens, fading signs and graffiti. But it is 1983, and the banal critique of tourism is already centuries old. Sontag has a subtly different target in mind, one with which she greatly over-identifies: not the tourist but the self-consciously melancholy traveller.

Venice, Sontag says in both the story and the film, is ‘the capital of melancholy’ – in the way that for Walter Benjamin Paris was ‘the capital of the nineteenth century’. A city that will soon disappear, a Titanic in slow motion, the scene of a genuine melancholy, historical and personal, but also the place one goes to pose as melancholy. A near contemporary of Unguided Tour is the 1981 Granada TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited: as their gilded life falls to pieces, Charles and Sebastian strike etiolated attitudes against golden-hour Venice locations. (A year earlier: Sophie Calle’s Suite Vénitienne, in which the French artist follows a stranger to Venice and photographs him surreptitiously.) With Sontag’s most striking images, it’s hard to decide if we should take them as sincere expressions of a decaying sensibility, or knowing inflections of high touristic cliché. It’s the season of rising tides, and in a flooded café the waiters go about in wellington boots. In the Piazza San Marco, the camera spends fully three minutes fixated on the chaotic movements of pigeons. Childs and Cassinelli stare past each other in fits of angst and boredom. In an archway, this graffito: ‘But we are here.’

‘Gold is the colour of time’, says Rex Harrison in the Venice-set 1967 film The Honey Pot. But in Unguided Tour time is rainswept and grey. Sontag’s biographer, Benjamin Moser: ‘The film could have benefitted from a less heavy-handed deployment of Venetian morbidity.’ He is also not the first to notice its total lack of humour. The morbidity and melancholy in this film are heavily ironised, however. Unlike the short story the film is genuinely sentimental, signalling Sontag’s regrettable turn away from the avant-garde towards all the good old things and values. But it’s also lacerating about this very self-seriousness, about the metaphysically minded taste for relics and ruins. And about the fetishising of memory and reflective solitude that comes with it. A few years earlier, Sontag’s friend Elizabeth Hardwick had written: ‘When you travel your first discovery is that you do not exist.’