So, anyway, perhaps you’ve heard that there’s this little film festival going on in France right about now. I’m not there, but that will (hopefully) not keep me from commenting on some of the goings on, especially since most of my favorite filmmakers currently working appear to be in the spotlight. Malick, Von Trier, Sorrentino, Winding Refn, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Bertolucci…Seriously, a well-placed bomb on the Croisette could basically destroy all my cinematic hope for the next decade or so.
As anybody who’s read more than one thing I’ve written can tell, I’m particularly happy that one Bernardo Bertolucci is getting an honorary Palme this year (he's never gotten an actual Palme), in the wake of an international touring retrospective of his work and winning the prestigious BBC Four World Cinema Achievement Award last year. And, oh yeah, the Blu-ray release of Last Tango in Paris a couple of months ago. All this activity around Bertolucci is probably why I found myself in a debate the other day about the relative merits of one Bertolucci film that likely did not factor into the honorary Palme decision, which also ironically happens to be the last film he actually had in Competition: Stealing Beauty, one of those movies people like to trot out whenever they want to argue that Bertolucci has lost a step, or two, since his '70s heyday. On one level it’s hard to argue that Stealing Beauty is in any way the equivalent of masterpieces like The Conformist or 1900, so it’d be foolish to try. Nevertheless, I love it dearly, madly, tragically, and perhaps I should say something here.
I defended Stealing Beauty as one of Bertolucci’s most generous films in my Senses of Cinema piece on him many moons ago. What struck me as particularly poignant was that the film in many ways echoes the great Spider’s Stratagem (1970) – with its mysterious search for a father figure – but does so very much from the perspective of an aging man: “Whereas the young Bertolucci filmed Tara as an ossified, otherworldly place full of Kafkaesque dysfunction,” I wrote, “the older Bertolucci allows the adult characters of Beauty their reasons for escaping the world. References, some of them brief, to the destruction of the environment, the Balkan wars, the lost idealism of the ’60s, and AIDS, suggest that this escape is not entirely unjustified…[I]ts characters reveal something significant about the director’s own political disillusion.”
This last point is kind of key, I feel. Bertolucci’s films are always interconnected and always, always deeply, desperately personal. Even when he’s been given a project by outside sources, he finds a way into it on his own terms; The Last Emperor is probably the greatest example of that. There are many who look to the films of the '70s, then look to Stealing Beauty, and can’t help but feel a kind of disappointment that the guy who made the fire-breathing socialist epic of 1900 is making soft-focus coming-of-age films about Liv Tyler trying to lose her virginity. But this disappointment is part of the narrative of the film – Bertolucci is too much of a sensualist, I think, to continue to engage his disappointment on the level of politics, like Marco Bellocchio. When the world falls apart around him, like so many of his characters he takes his marbles and goes home. But this is the essence of his cinema, and it has always been so: The question of whether to engage or to not engage. His protagonists are always on the outside looking in. (Even in 1900, whose real protagonist is Robert De Niro’s Alfredo; Gerard Depardieu’s Olmo is really just an idealized self.) The lack of political engagement, the “softness”, of Stealing Beauty is really a comment on itself.
That, of course, doesn’t necessarily make it a good movie. Why I love Stealing Beauty is not for its conceptual design, but for its somewhat unique plastic virtues. Bertolucci tends to be a director who indulges, closes in, dwells on moments and scenes. But here, he's glancing, always glancing -- just touching on things before they disappear. I love the way he aestheticizes onscreen text to give us brief, ephemeral fragments of Lucy’s poems, which she burns as soon as she writes. (Let's not forget that Bertolucci started his career as a poet in his 20s.) There's also the way we only ever see little glimpses into the other characters’ relationships, just enough to make us wonder but not enough to provide any answers. (This, I suspect, came courtesy of co-screenwriter Susan Minot, who nailed children's fascination with the mysterious world of adults in books like Monkeys.) The whole movie is full of these fleeting moments, as if its very style has absorbed the transitory nature of its lead character's youth.
I also love the way the film creates a palpable sense of outside and inside, highlighting its theme of isolation and withdrawal: Witness Donal McCann’s (who, btw, bears a remarkable physical similarity to Bertolucci) night sculpting session with Lucy, where the opening of the windows behind her creates a mixture of profound menace and exaltation, and even a strange, unsure eroticism. Or the powerful feeling of possibility that runs through that final, surreal night festival/performance, which again manages to convey both freedom and danger. It's an aging man's dark dream of what youth and liberty might look like. But it's also a scene whose tone transforms every time I watch it. That ever-shifting quality to the work has always been the most compelling aspect of Bertolucci’s cinema for me, and what keeps drawing me into it. Stealing Beauty is far from his best film, but it is the one that seems to change the most. And that makes it essential.