Bernardo Bertolucci

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Robert Burgoyne (review date fall 1986)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4676

SOURCE: Burgoyne, Robert. “The Somatization of History in Bertolucci's 1900.Film Quarterly 40, no. 1 (fall 1986): 7–14.

[In the following review, Burgoyne discusses how Bertolucci's 1900 portrays history from the perspective of both the individual and the peasant class as a whole.]

History in Bertolucci's 1900 is fashioned much like a gestalt drawing, with two highly antagonistic versions of time and events unfolding within the same narrative space. From one perspective, the film purports to analyze the “poetic awakening” of the Italian peasant class to their own historical significance; from another, it appears to concentrate on what psychoanalysis calls the destiny of the individual subject. As Bertolucci says, “everything that happens in this film on a personal level is thus relegated to have a larger, historical meaning.” (13) But in spite of this attempt to reconstruct the formation of individual subjectivity as an allegory of a broader history, these two narrative schemas—the imaginary history of the subject and the history of the construction of a revolutionary class—are largely contradictory. With the psychoanalytic subject installed at the center of the historical process, history acquires a predetermined outcome, conforming to a fixed pattern of positions and roles. Moreover, this type of narrative apparatus is capable of registering public events only where they impinge upon the individual character. Subordinating political history to the narrative telos of subjectivity, the film seems to willfully evade the material contingencies of historical transformations.

1900 thus appears to flout the Althusserian dictum that “History is a process without a telos or a subject.” (91) Somewhat scandalously, its mode of representation rests squarely on principles of narrative closure and human agency, with the individual subject explicitly foregrounded as historical agent. The novelty and potency of the peasants' claim upon history seems to be deflected into a standard, nineteenth-century plot design. The view of history it presents collapses the particularity of the peasant experience—a class which had arrived at the twentieth century, in Bertolucci's view, devoid of historical consciousness—to a metaphoric identity with the universalism of the Oedipal pattern. This is expressed in a concrete fashion in the film's climactic scene, which links the birth of historical consciousness in the peasant class to the symbolic execution of the Padrone—a moment which belongs equally to a political and a psychoanalytic scenario.

But a contrary and equally compelling argument is that it is precisely the narrative structuration of history in 1900 and its foregrounding of teleology that expresses its political message most fully. If we ignore, for the moment, the psychoanalytic content of the text, and concentrate simply on its overall narrative configuration, we find that its formal structure places it squarely within the Marxian tradition. Narrative form, and the teleological orientation intrinsic to it, may be seen as central elements, indispensable to a Marxian reading of history. As Hayden White observes: “Narrativity … represents a dream of how ideal community might be achieved … (It is) the narrativity of its structure that gives Marxian historiography its imaginative power.” (2) The ideal of totalization that White refers to inheres particularly in the telos of narrative form, for it is through this feature that the identity of the singular moment with the scattered time of history is established. Without a teleological destination, as White comments, “Marxism loses its power to inspire a visionary politics. Take the vision out of Marxism, and all you will have left is a timid historicism of the kind favored by liberals.” (5)

Now the specific target of Althusser's influential repudiation of narrative form in historiography is the traditional Marxist explanation of history as a...

(This entire section contains 4676 words.)

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sequence of modes of production, understood as a linear series extending from the primitive clan, through feudalism, and leading up to a final stage of world communism. In a more general sense, Althusser's statement is emblematic of the turn away from diachronic forms of analysis in current Marxian theory, which are seen as flawed by their reductive, “periodizing” hypotheses. But with the abandonment of the “stages” theory of history, the very theme which provides Marxian historiography with its momentum is lost. That theme is its utopian orientation. Marxist historiography is organized like a perspective drawing around a temporal vanishing point, with the lines of force thrown off by the historical event in the past reorganized in the field of the future. By denying this aspect of its doctrine, it sacrifices its most compelling dimension, the source of its imaginative power. What Fredric Jameson calls the fear of utopian thinking in current Marxism makes it impossible to imagine a radically different social formation of the future.

It has therefore fallen to the arts, according to White, to rediscover and cultivate this theme. 1900 is a striking case in point: it restores this repressed, “forgotten” theme of Marxism to the forefront, staging an openly wish-fulfilling, utopian resolution to the historical tribulation of the peasantry. Furthermore, its “dream of ideal community” flows directly from the narrative form of the work, which links past, present and future in a patterned unity. In a surprising reversal of expectation, however, the very “romance of the subject” which at first appeared to contradict the wider designs of an authentic class history, now appears to convey the utopian message. Far from deviating from the Marxian topic of the film, the destiny of the individual subject proves to be essential to its articulation, for it is through the Oedipal patterning of the text that history in 1900 becomes invested with desire—a precondition for the emergence of the theme of the utopian. This admixture of history and desire goes well beyond the simple fashioning of maternal and paternal correspondences to the historical process: the utopian register in the film emerges through the kind of somatic drama generally encountered under the rubric of the history of the subject, but here applied to the collective body of the peasantry. Moreso, I will argue that the articulation of a collective synthesis is dependent upon the kind of fictional patterning which produces and organizes the subject's individual desire. The “dream of totalization” desire affords on a personal level—“the identity of the one with the many”—is here translated into a model of the historical process. We might say, echoing Jameson, that an older, Oedipal structure in 1900 is emptied of its original content and subverted to the transmission of an entirely different, utopian message.

Desire in this expanded sense thus comprises the principal vector of historical events in 1900, determining their course. It constitutes what narratology would call a core semantic structure, unifying different narrative actions. Consequently, it not only operates in the service of the utopian theme, but also conveys the destructive, annihilatory forces of history. Both are generated from the same dynamic of plot. Counterposed to the clairvoyant history of the peasants, with its invisible yet structuring domain of the utopian, is the type of history associated with the Fascists, which is manifested in 1900 as sadistic spectacle. The persecutory figure of Attila, for example, the leader of the Fascists, whom Bertolucci calls the “summary concentrate of all the aggressive forces in the film,” (18) clearly represents the inversion of utopian values: yet his very destructiveness shares the features of the erotic which we have associated with the utopian aspect of the text. What emerges is a pairing familiar from psychoanalysis—a history turned by erotic and destructive forces. The film thus seems to demonstrate that the patterning of history obeys a deeper logic, a deeper classification system, that it is mediated by what Jameson calls the “codes and motifs … the pensée sauvage of the historical imagination.” (“Marxism and Historicism,” 45) The history of class antagonism and the imaginary history of the subject here interpenetrate, unfolding within the unity of a shared code an unconscious “master plot” of struggle, domination, and rebellion.

The initiatory events of the plot can be read in terms of this dual significance. Bertolucci describes the scene which opens (and closes) the film in the following fashion: “It's a day, the 25th of April, the Italian Day of Liberation, and it includes the whole century. We took it as a sort of symbolic day on which is unleashed, on which flowers this peasants' utopia. … This day of utopia contains the century … the premise of this day lies in the past, but the day also contains the future …” (16) What Bertolucci calls the “stratification of time elements,” the simultaneous projection of different temporal frames, is thus one of the signifiers of the utopian. Most importantly, this simultaneity condenses the historical and the psychoanalytic dimensions of the text. In the opening moments of the film, a partisan youth is shown breaking into the villa of the landowner and surprising the Padrone in his rooms, holding him captive with a rifle. When the Padrone asks him his name, the boy replies “Olmo,” adopting the mantle of the absent revolutionary hero. When asked if he knew who Olmo was, the boy partisan says simply, “He was the bravest.” The aging Padrone responds in a wry fashion, for he is here made to confront a kind of youthful incarnation of his boyhood friend, who was born the same day as he in 1900. The opening images of the film thus immediately intersect two moments in time, skewering the past to the present. The revolution, the text implies, has become young again, while the old regime of the landowners has faded. The corrosive effects of temporal processes seem to register only on the body of the Padrone, while the peasant class is seen as perpetually young, perpetually engaged in struggle. The confrontation of the Padrone and the youthful rebel, however, also carries a strong psychoanalytic connotation. Two messages are superimposed in this scene: it represents both the culmination of the historical process—the end of history—with all moments compressed into one, and a rehearsal of the psychoanalytic pattern of Oedipal repetition, the inevitable recycling of generational conflict.

It is through this double narrative telos of subjectivity and history, which crystallizes around the image of the body and its subjugation or renewal, that the text projects an alternative history, in which the course of empirical events is transformed into the “possible world” of the utopian. History is in effect “somatized” in 1900, embodied and represented in a way that recalls Marx's observation that even the senses have become theoreticians. (352) At the film's dénouement, for example, Olmo's daughter Anita stands atop a haywagon and proclaims that she can see, off in the distance, the routing of all oppression and the restoration of a harmonious world. The libidinal and erotic aspect of the utopian is explicitly rendered here, as the character puts her hands between her widespread legs as she looks off into the distance and joyfully describes the advent of a new age, conspicuously associating desire with a transfigured world. The erotic connotations of the utopian are rendered in an equally explicit fashion in an earlier scene. As Olmo and his pregnant wife make love, the camera focuses on a primitive drawing on the wall behind them featuring a red banner being carried aloft to a rising yellow sun. This lamination of images associates revolution with the natural processes of conception and birth, a notion which is reinforced by the fact that the child here in the womb will grow into the adolescent girl who stands atop the haywagon at the end of the film, legs wide in a gesture of fecund pleasure.

The erotic overtone is not restricted, however, to the lyrical moments in the film. It also surfaces during scenes of political and sexual persecution. In a sequence that parallels the carnal encounter described above, the aristocratic couple, Ada and Alfredo (the future Padrone) are shown making love in the rough, “jocular” style of the peasants as it has been traditionally imaged: tumbling in the hay, with his aggression answered by her laughter. Meanwhile, through a series of intercuts, we witness the burning of the peasant meeting hall. Over the shots of the fire, Bertolucci superimposes the faces of the three peasant elders who have just perished in the conflagration. The conventional association of passion with flames is here given a diabolical twist, as the sense of agency communicated by this intercutting is unmistakable. While the Fascists may have lit the blaze, it is the self-absorption of the aristocracy that permits it. Underscoring this point is the sound of a fiddle being idly played by a child in the background.

The historical compact of the Fascists and the aristocracy is rendered in sexual terms as well. As the new Padrone, Alfredo's first act is to empower Attila to be his “watchdog.” It is a contract which is immediately acted upon. At the wedding of Alfredo and Ada, soon after their session in the hay, the two arch-villains, Regina and Attila, stage their own, parallel wedding, consummating it with the sex murder of a young boy. They emphasize the mimetic aspect of this ritual by calling the young victim, a child of the aristocracy, their “best man.” The crime is then blamed on Olmo, the communist leader of the peasants, who is promptly set upon by the Blackshirts. Alfredo is witness to this brutal beating, and although he is now in a position of power, he allows his friend to be used as a scapegoat. A kind of blood bond is here established between Attila, Regina and Alfredo. In a sense, the “marriage” that has taken place has occurred between the aristocracy and the Fascist party, a union which is literalized in the bestial coupling of Regina, the aristocratic cousin of the Padrone, and Attila, leader of the Fascists. Throughout the film, the historical role of the Fascists will be associated with criminal acts of sexual aggression.

Desire in these scenes is thus immediately translated into a kind of historical force. These three moments of erotic exchange, between three different couples, all communicate a message about history, providing a carnal enactment of historical causes. The utopian and the malignant undercurrents of the historical process are made visible through this motif; moreso, libido here appears as the driving and motivating basis of historical events, the mainspring of collective change and class oppression.

The body itself thus becomes the principal site of the historical conflicts focused by the work, the junction of the utopian and the repressive tendencies implicit in its unfolding. The somatization of history in the film is concretely expressed not only in scenes of erotic interaction, but also in the foregrounding of the body as a figure of collectivity. This takes the form of the psychoanalytic drama of the whole body versus the body in bits and pieces. On the one hand, a sort of phantasmatic circulation of lost objects, part objects, runs through the film: a missing ear, an absent father, a runaway wife, a stolen pistol. … On the other, a sense of a collective body, infinitely extensible, emerges from the utopian message of the text. The conflation of the individual body and the collective body in the domain of the peasantry provides a positive reworking of the somatic crises typically enacted within an Oedipal framework. It's a history, like Finnegan's Wake, in which the individual body becomes the projective ground for the unfolding of a national history.

One passage illustrates this opposition quite clearly, commingling the images of the continuous body and the body disaggregate. It begins with Olmo and Alfredo as boys, waiting out a storm in a loft where they cultivate silkworms (a scene reminiscent in setting and imagery of the “silken kimono” sequence in The Conformist). Olmo takes off his wet clothes, and the two boys compare penises—Alfredo is circumcized, while Olmo is not, and they remark upon a penis's similarity to the silkworms. When the storm breaks, a radiant city is suddenly made visible on the horizon. As Olmo describes the unfamiliar steeples and smokestacks in terms of ships' masts and tall trees, with Alfredo correcting him, a strong sense of wonder and possibility arises. The scene as a whole suggests a kind of prelapsarian existence, with the individual body, the natural world, and a kind of utopian landscape woven into the same configuration.

This mood is dramatically altered, however, in the ensuing scene. As the two boys run into the fields to tell of their vision of the city, they encounter the Padrone, berating the peasants for the damage the storm has caused. Estimating that half the crop has been destroyed, the Padrone decides to cut the peasants' share in half. In a gesture of defiance, one of the peasants—a minstrel—takes his knife and cuts off one of his own ears, handing it to the Padrone. The Padrone strides away with the ear firmly clenched in his hand.

This gesture of self-mutilation inscribes the body directly into political discourse. The oppression of an entire class is signified by the maiming of a single body. It is the definitive reversal of the sense of somatic unity established earlier. Olmo's point-of-view is again emphasized, as his grandfather expressly tries to keep him from witnessing the act, to no avail. Again, the figure of the Padrone explicitly condenses the notions of the punitive father and the class tyrant.

The severed ear in the possession of the Padrone may be said to signify the captivity of an entire class. The somatic level at which this class discord is expressed, however, is described by Bertolucci as a prepolitical moment: “It's a very individualistic protest gesture, still, which synthesizes, however, the desperation, the misery of a whole group of peasants, and which in the next scene is immediately carried further as I show how the idea of the strike is born.” (16) The body thus inaugurates a trajectory which leads to the peasants' full embracing of the historical process. The body in pieces becomes an analogue for the enslaved social body, while the aggregate body of the strikers becomes a figure for an ever widening kind of unity.

Directly after this pre-political moment of self-mutilation, however, the film invokes the utopian theme which, we have found, subtends and precedes the overtly political actions of the peasantry. It is signified here by the production of music, which will prove to be the emblematic expression of the utopian throughout the film. After returning to his family, minus an ear and nearly bereft of food for the day, the peasant begins to play a tune on his ocarina. The soothing music seems to be addressed to the missing ear, and beyond that, to the peasants' condition of servitude and loss in general. The association of music with the recovery of a lost plenitude is indicated here, and made explicit at the end of the film, when various peasants demand that the Padrone make restitution for their missing fingers, husbands and teeth. These demands are all followed by musical interludes, as if the peasants were invoking a domain in which injury and deprivation did not exist.

Music is associated throughout the film with moments of political significance. Its function in 1900 can be compared to Jacques Attali's idea of music as a herald of social change, presaging a new social formation in a “prophetic and annunciatory way.” In Attali's view, change manifests itself in music before it is reflected in social institutions. Music may thus be interpreted as a prefiguration of future social formations. This is borne out in 1900. The convulsive transformations of the social order in the twentieth century are literally announced by the death of Verdi, an announcement which introduces the body of the film beginning in 1900. The music of Verdi rises ominously on the sound track, together with the lament of the jester Rigoletto that “Verdi is dead!” as a bridge between the overture and the main part of the work, coupling the ringing statement of the boy partisan in 1945, “There are no more masters!” with the first cries of the newborn Olmo in the year 1900.

An even more powerful sense of music as a herald of social transformation emerges in the domain of the peasants. Peasant music in 1900 represents not only the collective channeling of misery into a form of festival, it also signifies the imminence of political change. The two peasants' strikes, for example, are strongly marked by music. In the strike of 1908, there is a lone accordionist who follows the departing train which carries Olmo and the other peasant boys off to school, a train which is decked out in the red banners of the striking peasants. The martial component of the music is escalated in the second strike of 1918, as a full-scale chorus issues from the massed strikers. Music is played at the climax of the film as well, especially during the trial of Attila and the Padrone, which takes place in a graveyard (as Attila intones: “I am that cruel time …”) and which is literally organized around its musical interludes. And in the film's final sequence, an epilogue featuring Olmo and Alfredo on the day of their deaths, a lone musician is again heard as the film shifts into a new temporal mode of simultaneity, in which past, present and future are compressed into one. In this visualization of the unity of separate instants of time, music comes to replace speech, as if the utopian offered a different mode of communication as well as a different order of time.

One could analyze the “sedimentation” of musical styles in the film—the peasant sonorities, the Verdi passages, the minimalist abstractions of Ennio Morricone—as representative of specific social formations co-present in the film. But the only significant diegetic music originates with the peasantry. Music in this context is directly related to the theme we have been elaborating here—the individual body as an image of the social body. It serves as an agent of transformation in the film, fulfilling the promise of a social utopia. It thus recodes the agony of the body, which is so prominent a feature of peasant life, into an instrument of political expression.

Functioning almost as a musical extension of the film itself—like the closing ballet of Renaissance comedy—the ending of the film represents an explicit staging of the utopian dimension. Here the two antagonists, the now elderly Olmo and Alfredo, are transformed into youthful versions of themselves, as the film cuts between their past and present manifestations. Here too, the characters have aged so as to become virtual doubles of the grandfathers. Many of the features we have associated with the utopian—the multiplication of temporal frames, the renewal of the body, the presence of music—are manifested in this lyrical coda. The cancelling of the negative effects of temporal processes, a theme which had been encoded in the music, emerges here directly.

But there is an inconsistency here as well, which I believe can be resolved only by returning to our original problematic of desire and history. The utopian theme has been associated throughout the film with the peasants. The division between the peasant world, with its structuring domain of the utopian, and the quotidian world of the aristocracy has been so pronounced—distinguished expressly by the absence of temporal and physical decay in the peasant world—that we may speak of the narrative universe of 1900 as a split narrative world, with very different “systems of regularities” governing each world.1 Nevertheless, Alfredo, the Padrone who presides over the persecution of the peasantry, is part of the utopian resolution of the text. Bertolucci, indeed, speaks of the two principal characters of 1900 as if they were equivalent: “In the end, I find that these people are the reverse faces of the same personality, that each represents one part of a complex character. Thus they are not only representatives of a dialectic of a social nature, but they can sort of help us to peep into the inner structures of the century.” (15)

The language of voyeurism which Bertolucci here employs suggests that history, focalized through these two class representatives, has something in common with erotic display. The music which accompanies the utopian reunification of the two antagonists at the close of the film reinforces this interpretation. As Attali writes: “Music, directly transacted by desire and drives, has always had but one subject—the body, which it offers a complete journey through pleasure, with a beginning and an end. A great musical work is always a model of amorous relations, a model of relations with the other, of eternally recommendable exaltation and appeasement, an exceptional figure of represented or repeated sexual relations. … Any noise, when two people decide to invest their imaginary and their desire in it, becomes a potential relationship, future order.” (143) The “codes and motifs” of the historical imaginary are thus placed on open display in 1900. The history of the twentieth century is seen to result from a kind of traumatic splitting, as in psychoanalysis, of an original unity. Thus the somatic expression of history in the film receives its final figuration in an image reminiscent of Plato's androgyne: an emblem of sexual unity and division translated into class terms.


  1. Briefly, the idea of the narrative domain proceeds from the observation that the narrative world projected by typical texts is not singular or unified, but that it contains different and contradictory semantic features, which partition the text into separate “domains.” These semantic domains operate under totally different “systems of regularities.” As Thomas Pavel writes: “plot-based texts do not necessarily describe homogeneous (imaginary) worlds. It rather appears as if each narrative structure is divided into several domains centered around one or several main characters. These domains may display a great variety of properties. Notably, the domains of a single literary work need not be governed by the same regularities.” (Pavel 105)

    Taking the idea of narrative domains one step further, Lubomir Dolezel posits the category of the invisible narrative world. Using Kafka's The Trial as his principal example, Dolezel argues that an invisible narrative domain structures the universe of Kafka's fiction, a domain which operates according to a rather strict partition from the world of quotidian narrative reality. The world of Josef K, for example, is strictly partitioned from the invisible bureaucratic machinery of the courts in The Trial. This difference can be described in terms of four propositions. Epistemologically, very little can be known about the courts, with even the lawyers who litigate cases ignorant of its workings. The courts remain shrouded in mystery. Ontologically, the invisible domain of the courts operates under a very different set of presuppositions, in which even the dimensions of space and time (the infinite spaces and temporal randomness of the courts) appear to be markedly differentiated from the world inhabited by Josef K. Axiologically, too, the world of the courts is a world of topsy-turvydom, with the values of good and bad, better and worse, seemingly capriciously and whimsically assigned. Finally, the action propositions which obtain between the two worlds in Kafka are strikingly asymmetrical—the invisible world can effect changes and advance actions in the visible world, but not vice versa: the visible world has no access to and no possible impact on the invisible domain.

    In a narratological reading of 1900, we could extend the concept of the invisible world to the notion of the utopian—seen as a kind of invisible force-field, a structuring yet inaccessible domain. Like the invisible world in Kafka, it can be signified only indirectly. It is inaccessible to direct vision, yet there are characters who seem to have partial access to it.


Althusser, Louis. “Reply to John Lewis.” Essays on Ideology. London: Verso, 1984.

Attali, Jacques. Noise. Tr. by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

Bertolucci, Bernardo, “Films Are Animal Events.” Interview with Gideon Bachmann. Film Quarterly, Autumn 1975: 11–19.

Dolezel, Lubomir. “Intensional Function, Invisible Worlds, and Franz Kafka.” Style 17, 2 (Spring 1983): 120–141.

Jameson, Fredric. “Marxism and Historicism.” New Literary History 11 (Autumn 1979): 41–73.

———. “Interview.” Diacritics 12, 3 (Fall 1982) 72–91.

Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Second Manuscript, “Private Property and Communism,” Section 4, in Early Writings, tr. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton. London: Penguin/NLB, 1975: 352. Cited in Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981: 62.

Pavel, Thomas. “Narrative Domains.” Poetics Today 1, 4 (Summer 1980): 105–114.

White, Hayden. “Getting Out of History.” Diacritics 12, 3 (Fall 1982): 2–13.


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Bernardo Bertolucci 1940-

Italian director, screenwriter, poet, and autobiographer.

The following entry presents an overview of Bertolucci's career through 1999. For more information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 16.

Bertolucci is a widely acclaimed filmmaker who is known for the exploration of sexual and political themes in his films. His works are infused with his personal beliefs about Marxism and Freudian psychoanalytic theory, but rather than create political treatises with his films, Bertolucci strives to entertain and to engage his audiences. Bertolucci began his artistic career as a poet, and his filmmaking has been noted for its lyrical sense. He is best known for the controversial Ultimo tango a Parigi (1972; Last Tango in Paris), which stars Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, and the Chinese historical epic The Last Emperor (1987). Despite a number of critics who have questioned the content of Bertolucci's films, most reviewers regard the cinematography and artistic direction of his films as skillful and visually stunning.

Biographical Information

Bertolucci was born in Parma, Italy, on March 16, 1940, to an upper-middle-class family. His father, Attilio Bertolucci, was a renowned poet and film critic. Bertolucci often accompanied his father to the theater and developed a love for the cinema at a very young age. He began making 16-mm films when he was sixteen years old, but he was also interested in composing poetry like his father. Bertolucci's collection of poems, In cerca del mistero (1962; In Search of Mystery), won the Prix Viareggio award in 1962. In 1961 Bertolucci worked as an assistant on Pier Paolo Pasolini's film Accatone! and soon decided to pursue a career in cinema. When Bertolucci was twenty, he directed his first feature, La commare secca (1962; The Grim Reaper). By the time Bertolucci was in his early thirties, he was considered one of Italy's most promising young directors. While making La strategia del ragno (1970; The Spider's Stratagem) Bertolucci began psychoanalytic therapy, and thereafter, the works of Sigmund Freud became a strong influence on his films. The controversial Last Tango in Paris garnered Bertolucci worldwide attention and won him an Academy Award nomination for best director. The film was viewed as pornographic by the Italian government and Bertolucci was charged with promoting obscenity. Bertolucci lost his right to vote for five years and chose to leave his native Italy. Following Last Tango in Paris, Bertolucci directed a string of less successful films before approaching the Chinese government about two projects—a film based on French novelist André Malraux's Man's Fate, which was denied, and a film about the life of Pu Yi, China's last emperor. The Chinese government not only sanctioned the latter project—The Last Emperor—but they supported Bertolucci with unprecedented access to China's Forbidden City, as well as supplying him with thousands of extras and authentic period costumes. The film won nine Academy Awards, including best picture and best director, and revitalized Bertolucci's career.

Major Works

Bertolucci's oeuvre has ranged from intimate, personal dramas to large-scale, historical epics. One of his favored themes revolves around his generation's struggle with appreciating their bourgeois lifestyle and simultaneously wanting to destroy it. In his early films, Bertolucci was heavily influenced by filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. However, beginning with Il conformista (1970; The Conformist), Bertolucci worked to consciously reject what he considered to be Godard's somewhat sadistic attitude toward his audiences. Bertolucci instead chose to engage his audience in a dialogue, and many of his films thereafter are considered to work in stylistic opposition to Godard's work. The Conformist is based on a novel by Alberto Moravia, set in 1930s Italy. Marcello is haunted by an incident from his childhood in which a male chauffeur tried to molest him. Marcello is convinced that he murdered the chauffeur, and in an attempt to escape the horror of this memory, he immerses himself in conformity and normality. He becomes a fascist agent and is ordered to murder his former professor, who acted as a father figure to him. In an ironic touch, the professor's phone number is the same as Godard's, signalling Bertolucci's metaphorical break from his own father figure. Last Tango in Paris focuses on Paul and Jeanne, who meet while looking at an apartment in Paris and begin an anonymous affair. Paul's wife has recently committed suicide, and he uses Jeanne to act out a series of violent sexual scenes in an effort to exorcise his grief over his wife's death. After the couple leaves the apartment for the last time, with both of them intending to go their separate ways, Paul follows Jeanne to her home and tells her his name. Feeling betrayed that Paul has broken the promised anonymity of their relationship, Jeanne shoots him in the genitals. The Last Emperor is based on From Emperor to Citizen, the autobiography of China's last emperor, Pu Yi. The film follows Pu Yi through the various stages of his life: his ascension to the throne at the age of three; his expulsion from the Forbidden City; his life as a playboy in Tientsin; his days as a puppet emperor of Manchuria under the control of Japan; his imprisonment and reeducation in a Communist prison; and finally his life as a working-class gardener. The Sheltering Sky (1990) tells the story of Port, a frustrated composer, and Kit, a New York socialite. The couple travels through Tangier in 1947 searching for spiritual fulfillment and a rekindling of the passion in their marriage. Their search is beleaguered by Port's infidelity and the harsh physical conditions in the desert which leads to Port's death. Kit suffers a mental breakdown soon after, and embarks on a trance-like journey into the desert alone, eventually becoming the concubine of a nomad. The conclusion is ambiguous with no evidence to confirm whether Kit will return home. Besieged (1999) is set in Rome and portrays Kinsky, a solitary pianist who hires Shandurai, a young African woman, as his housekeeper. Shandurai has fled the dictatorship in Africa to study medicine in Rome, and works for Kinsky to provide herself a room and money for her studies. Kinsky falls in love with her, but when he blurts out his feelings, she rebuffs him, telling him her husband is a political prisoner in Africa. Kinsky withdraws, but selflessly sacrifices his happiness and wealth to free her husband. Ironically, this selflessness causes Shandurai to fall in love with Kinsky just as her husband arrives in Rome to reunite with her.

Critical Reception

Critics have passionately disagreed regarding Bertolucci's body of work. Some reviewers have preferred the visual majesty of his large-scale epics, while others have appreciated his more intimate films that explore personal relationships. In his description of Bertolucci's move to epic filmmaking, Dave Kehr asserted, “Within a breathtakingly short period, Bertolucci transformed himself from an edgy sexual-political provocateur into a David Lean manque. … [M]ystery and lyricism soon disappear, giving way to a painterly appreciation of crowd scenes and landscapes devoid of any identifiable personal slant. Introspection yields to spectacle, and art yields to industry.” Another point of contention among critics has arisen over whether the sexual content in Bertolucci's work, particularly Last Tango in Paris, should be viewed as pornography or as liberating eroticism. A few reviewers have actually complained that Bertolucci does not go far enough with the sexual content of his films, asserting that he only hints at homosexuality and incest without tackling the subjects directly. While most critics have agreed that Bertolucci's The Last Emperor is visually impressive, several critics have found fault with the film. Certain reviewers have stated that Bertolucci does not make Pu Yi's reeducation plausible. Others have complained that Pu Yi's character is too passive, a portrayal that caused the film to lack the necessary drama. A number of critics have noted the historical inaccuracies in The Last Emperor, with some bristling at Bertolucci's insertion of fictional events, while others have lauded his artistic melding of fiction and history. His harshest critics have found Bertolucci's films incomprehensible and have asserted that they are fueled by the director's egoism. Several reviewers have commented on Bertolucci's seemingly disparate works. However, Harlan Kennedy has found a continuity in the director's films, stating, “From La commare secca (1962) to The Last Emperor (1987), every Bertolucci movie is a locking of horns between past and present. Every movie is about the quest for salvation, political-historical or private-spiritual. And every movie has a visual style based on concealment and revelation.”

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 14 December 1987)

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SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. Review of The Last Emperor, by Bernardo Bertolucci. New Republic 197, no. 241 (14 December 1987): 22–24.

[In the following negative excerpt, Kauffmann argues that Bertolucci's The Last Emperor lacks drama and seems more like a travelogue than a film.]

Marx and Freud have dominated Bernardo Bertolucci's career, for better and worse. Better: Before the Revolution and Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man. Worse: 1900 and Luna. The twin deities apparently persuaded Bertolucci to choose his latest subject. The story of the Chinese emperor Pu Yi could hardly have swept Bertolucci off his feet as a drama. It's not a drama at all—Pu Yi was a victim, nothing more. But presumably the director saw a Freudian catalyst in the beginning of The Last Emperor and saw one face of Marxism in its conclusion, and these may have fixed him on the subject.

If the term “pathetic” can be applied to any emperor in world history, Pu Yi is the man. In 1908, at the age of three, he was taken from his high-born mother (who later killed herself) by his grandmother, the Dowager Empress, and brought to live in the Forbidden City, the huge imperial residence in Peking (as it then was). Within a few days the males between him and the throne died, and the child was named emperor. In 1912 a republic was declared, and the seven-year-old emperor abdicated. The child, now even more of a nominal ruler, wandered like a prisoner at large within the Forbidden City.

Marriage and concubines came along in time, as did expulsion from the palace and eventual residence in Manchuria, Pu Yi's place of origin. In 1931 the Japanese invaded Manchuria and established the empire of Manchukuo with Pu Yi as their puppet emperor—a front through whom they could rule. Pu Yi tried to establish parity with the Japanese and got into trouble. After the Second World War he and his wife wanted to flee to Japan but were intercepted by Soviet paratroopers and were turned over to the Chinese revolutionaries. Pu Yi then served ten years in a Chinese political prison at hard labor. When he was released, he worked as a gardener until his death in 1967.

The Freudian touches are of course the insecurities brought about by separation from his mother and by his loneliness as a child. We are even treated to some glimpses of his toilet training. His imprisonment at the end, during which he was not physically ill-treated, was seen by his Communist jailers as re-education so that, in time, he could take a useful place in society.

The sole personally initiated action in this long chronicle is his puny, quickly squelched rebellion against the Japanese. Everything else is reaction. Pu Yi's story isn't even poignant. Who can be moved by his story, who can think it sad? Edmond Rostand found some smidgen of poignancy in L'Aiglon, the story of Napoleon's son, who spent his short life trying to regain his father's throne, but even that story is now of diminished interest. Pu Yi is simply an eccentricity of history, worth a paragraph in the Reader's Digest, not a nearly three-hour film.

Apparently Bertolucci made it chiefly because he was empowered to make it. We're told that he approached the Chinese government with two projects to be done in China, Malraux's Man's Fate (once planned by Fred Zinnemann) and this story. The Chinese would not sanction the Malraux, so Bertolucci went ahead with this film rather than waste the chance to shoot in China. The questionable motive led to questionable filmmaking. The Last Emperor is slightly sophisticated De Mille, laden with sumptuous costumes and tours of the Forbidden City and mobs of people. Bertolucci had the use of extras on a scale far beyond the budget limits of Western filmmaking; it's a long time since I've seen such crowds on the screen, so many long lines of uniformed guards standing at attention. The Forbidden City is a prime travelogue subject, but neither the panoramas nor the choreographed crowds constitute a film.

The screenplay by the director and Mark Peploe tries to liven things up by cutting back and forth in time. The film begins in the Red Chinese prison, then goes to the three-year-old child and to other time planes, returning to the prison after flashbacks until it reaches “the present” and moves forward from the prison to the finish. This flitting doesn't help. When the puppet emperor's tennis game is interrupted by armed guards, there's no terror; when, in a dinner jacket, he sings “Am I Blue” at a lavish party, there's no humor; when, at the last, the bent old gardener buys a tourist's ticket of admission to his former palace, there's no pang. Even the very last bit, a guide taking American tourists through the throne room, is muffed, a toothless bite.

John Lone, the Chinese-American actor who was strange and forceful in Iceman, behaves credibly as (the adult) Pu Yi but has little chance to do anything other than behave credibly. Most of the roles are played by English-speaking Chinese actors, some of whom are effective. The only recognizable actor is Peter O'Toole, as the emperor's British tutor. O'Toole, looking much more than 20 years older than he looked in 1967, tries to give the role flavor by over-articulating—enouncing “Scotland” as “Scot-land,” for instance.

Bertolucci, hot or cold, extravagant or focused, was always visible in his films. Here he is invisible, swamped by pedestrian procedure. A controversial director has reached bottom—he has made a consistently boring film.

Principal Works

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In cerca del mistero [In Search of Mystery] (poetry) 1962

La commare secca [The Grim Reaper; director and co-screenwriter with Pier Paolo Pasolini and Sergio Citti] (film) 1962

Prima della rivoluzione [Before the Revolution; director and co-screenwriter with Gianni Amico] (film) 1964

*Partner [director and co-screenwriter with Gianni Amico] (film) 1968

Il conformista [The Conformist; director and co-screenwriter with Marilu Parolini and Eduardo de Gregario] (film) 1970

La strategia del ragno [The Spider's Stratagem; director and co-screenwriter with Marilu Parolini and Eduardo de Gregorio] (film) 1970

Ultimo tango a Parigi [Last Tango in Paris;director and co-screenwriter with Franco Arcalli] (film) 1972

Novecento [1900; director and co-screenwriter with Franco Arcalli and Giuseppe Bertolucci] (film) 1976

La luna [Luna; director and co-screenwriter with Franco Arcalli and Giuseppe Bertolucci] (film) 1979

La tragedia di un uomo ridicuolo [Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man; director and screenwriter] (film) 1981

Bertolucci by Bertolucci (autobiography) 1987

The Last Emperor [director and co-screenwriter with Mark Peploe] (film) 1987

The Sheltering Sky [director and co-screenwriter with Mark Peploe] (film) 1990

Little Buddha [director and screenwriter] (film) 1994

Stealing Beauty [director and screenwriter] (film) 1996

§Besieged [director and co-screenwriter with Clare Peploe] (film) 1999

*This film was adapted from the novel The Double by Fyodor Dostoevski.

†This film was adapted from the novel Il conformista by Alberto Moravia.

‡This film was adapted from the short story “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” by Jorge Luis Borges.

§This film was adapted from the short story “The Siege” by James Lasdun.

T. Jefferson Kline (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Kline, T. Jefferson. “‘A Turbid, Unreal Past, in Certain Measure True’: Last Tango in Paris.” In Bertolucci's Dream Loom: A Psychoanalytic Study of Cinema, pp. 106–26. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Kline examines the role of the Orpheus myth in Last Tango in Paris.]

I hear the echo of those tangos
I watched danced on the pavement
On an instant that today stands out alone
Without before or after, against oblivion
And had the taste of everything lost,
Everything lost and recovered.

Jorge Luis Borges

“Tonight we improvise!” shouts a gleeful Jeanne (Maria Schneider) as she enters the apartment in the rue Jules Verne for the third time. Despite the allusions to Pirandello and Verne, the film [Last Tango in Paris] represented a watershed for [Bernardo] Bertolucci, for he was no longer tied to a literary model. His direct engagement with literature seemed to end with the series of films that had occupied his energies from 1961 through 1970. With the completion of The Conformist Bertolucci had proved that the cinema had a style and a language of its own, fully capable of expressing its own version of the literary model in its own way. The ghost of Atilio/Laertes was at least temporarily pacified.

“You must always leave a door open on the set through which an unexpected visitor may enter. That is cinema!” Jean Renoir was to tell Bertolucci a few years after the completion of Tango. But his younger Italian friend had already discovered this lesson for himself. Marlon Brando (as Paul) and Maria Schneider (as Jeanne) were given enormous freedom to invent their roles as the film unfolded. If we are to believe actors and director, the door remained open throughout.

The visitor to whom Jean Renoir alluded, however, was an unusual one. Bertolucci was to say, “The modern word for the Greek concept of fate is the unconscious. My unconscious is the fate of my movies.” From his unconscious emerged a character from Greek myth who was to structure this film in a way that was deeply coherent despite the degree of improvisation carried out by the actors. An intricate series of allusions to the Orpheus myth and to various modern versions of the myth thoroughly permeates the film.

According to the myth, Orpheus's wife Eurydice was fatally bitten by a serpent while fleeing the advances of her lover, Aristaeus. Inconsolable at her death, Orpheus managed to charm the infernal deities with his poetry and music and obtained permission to descend to Hades to get her back. But the gods of the underworld diabolically imposed one condition on this permission: that Orpheus should not turn back to look at Eurydice as he led her out of the underworld. Orpheus of course broke this command and lost Eurydice, this time forever.

Parallels between the characters in the film and those of the myth are not immediately obvious because, like the adaptations of the myth by other modern artists such as Jean Cocteau, Jules Verne, Marcel Camus, and Tennessee Williams, Bertolucci's work is as much a perversion as a restatement of the myth. Recourse to an analysis of the film will elucidate the many connections with the mythic structure.

Last Tango in Paris in simplest terms presents a man (Paul) and a woman (Jeanne) who encounter each other in an apartment near the Quai de Passy in Paris. We learn during the course of the film that the man's wife, Rosa, has just committed suicide, and, grief-stricken, he seeks hopelessly for a way to get her back. With Jeanne, Paul acts out a series of violently erotic fantasies. When the couple leave the apartment for the last time, Paul pursues Jeanne to her own apartment where she shoots him in the genitals and kills him.

One of the keys to understanding the structure of this film occurs late in the work when Paul sits beside Rosa's bier and conducts a long apostrophe of anger, resentment, and guilt. This scene is particularly difficult because initially it is not clear whether Paul has left the Jules Verne apartment or whether he is in the brothel owned and operated by the late Rosa. Nor is she visible as the scene begins. This ambiguity allows the viewer at least momentarily the impression that Paul is addressing Jeanne with whom he has just finished a scene of enormous emotional impact, telling her that she must “fuck a dying pig” for him. The apostrophe to Rosa's body is crucial, for it retroactively elucidates Paul's relationship with Rosa and provides a comprehensible underlying motive for his otherwise inexplicable search for an apartment and his complex affair with Jeanne. Beside Rosa's beflowered bier, he intones a lament that gradually becomes a terrible but impotent accusation: Rosa was a “goddam fucking whore” and a “pig-fucking liar,” her suicide (accomplished with her lover Marcel's razor) a betrayal. Paul raves at her impassive remains, “‘Even if the husband lives two hundred fucking years, he's never going to be able to discover his wife's true nature. I mean, I might be able to comprehend the universe, but I'll never discover the truth about you, never. I mean, who the hell were you?’”

The repetition of this question of the parents' identity, already posed so insistently in The Spider's Stratagem reinforces both the obsessive need for, and the inaccessibility of a response. Paul must thus search elsewhere for communion, understanding—and revenge. He chooses for his purposes one of Bertolucci's most persistent themes: the double. The immediate repetition of the violent epithet “pig-fucker” as well as many other visual and verbal repetitions demonstrate that Jeanne functions for Paul as a double of his dead wife. The erotic-aggressive ambivalence expressed toward Jeanne can thus be understood as a displacement of Paul's frustrations and anger with Rosa. Bertolucci uses the Orpheus myth to explore many of the deeper implications of Paul's attempt at recuperation or psychic recovery of this wife/mother figure.

The film opens with a series of highly symbolic and deliberately allusive camera shots. Our first view is of Paul, then of Jeanne, who overtakes and passes him. The camera then pans to a shot of the bridge and the river, deliberately emphasizing their transition across the river.1 (According to Greek mythology, we should recall, one was obliged to cross the river Styx to reach the gates of hell.) Jeanne thus precedes Paul onto the Quai de Passy, whose very name constitutes an allusion to death: Passy—passage—trépasser (“to die”). The camera records this from an angle that emphasizes the cavernous tunnellike structure of the bridge. It then quickly cuts, several times, to groups of riot police, who appear to be guarding the far bank, in what I believe to be an early allusion to another well-known interpretation of the Orpheus myth. In Jean Cocteau's Orphée (1950), the same aggressively militaristic uniformed French police deliberately represent the personal guardians of Death's kingdom.

Once past these guardians of the other bank (who include an old hag who literally bares her teeth at the young woman), Jeanne finds herself in the rue Jules Verne, an apparently innocuous detail until one realizes that the geography of Paris has been deliberately scrambled. The actual rue Jules Verne is situated far from the Quai de Passy, in the heart of the Eleventh Arrondissement. Once again, Bertolucci alludes to Cocteau's celebrated film of 1950 in which he effected the creation of an imaginary city out of Paris. In that earlier film, Orpheus got out of his car at Grenelle (alluded to in Tango in the name of the metro station where Jeanne and Tom meet and fight), walked up the Buttes-Chaumont, and arrived at the Place des Vosges. The choice of rue Jules Verne constitutes in itself an allusion to the myth, for Verne's novel Le Château de Carapathe is also a retranscription of the Orpheus legend.

Just before entering the heavy iron gates of the apartment building, Jeanne pauses very insistently to consult her watch, another allusion both to Cocteau's film in which the Princess repeatedly stops to consult her watch as Orpheus follows her through the streets of Paris and to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland whose Mad Hatter is also preoccupied by time immediately prior to his descent down the hole leading beyond the looking glass.

Once inside the gates, Jeanne suddenly encounters the sinister West Indian concierge who raspingly intones, “Some funny things going on around here.” Denying at first any knowledge of the vacant apartment, she grudgingly produces a “double” of the key and then seizes Jeanne's hand and holds her prisoner for several anguished moments, laughing hysterically. According to Greek legend, the vestibule of hell is traditionally guarded by the Eumenides, who sit in cages and harass every new arrival. Similar witch-like figures can be found in both Marcel Camus's Orpheu negro and Tennessee Williams's Orpheus Descending, filmed as The Fugitive Kind.2

Robert Alley's “novel” based on the film describes the concierge's voice as “immensely old. It was as if Jeanne was attempting to gain entrance to some shadowy and threatening netherworld, and the gatekeeper was bent on preventing her. This old woman, like Charon at the gates of Hades, demanded payment before admitting suppliants; Jeanne wondered if she would disappear in the depths of the building.” The place becomes a “place out of time where there were no real people doing the things real people did, just the deformed and the almost-dead.”3 Indeed, Jeanne turns just in time to see a disembodied hand place an empty wine bottle next to a row of others and then retreat noiselessly into the apartment across the hall.

Jeanne's entry into the apartment, whose living room has a Dantesque circular shape, becomes yet another allusion to previous recent versions of the myth. As she passes through the doorway, the camera shifts from a direct to a mirror-reflected shot of Jeanne, so that she appears to pass through the looking glass to enter. Cocteau's Orpheus had also to pass through the mirror of his bedroom in order to visit Hades, and in that film, “Mirrors are doors through which death comes to get souls.” Thereafter, each time the two return to the apartment, they are projected into it by means of jump cuts, which break the normal time—space continuum in a most disconcerting way. Just as disconcerting is the insistence of camera shots that record their faces and actions via a mirror.

When Paul tells the unknown telephone caller, “There is no one here,” he is announcing their symbolic death and finalizing the separation from their normal social roles and identities, preparing the intricate relationship they are to share within this “privileged space.”4 The rest of their first meeting continues the mirror's allusion to an almost infernal world, removed from and somehow parallel to accepted reality.

This parallelism is further reinforced by the fact that, as we later learn, Paul has left behind in his hotel a double of himself in Marcel.5 The series of homing rituals that follow (the discussion of where the armchair should be placed, use of the toilet and telephone) begin to establish Jeanne's role as Rosa's surrogate. Significantly, too, in the later scene in which mysterious movers carry in unannounced and unaccountable furniture, one of them addresses Jeanne as if she were Paul's wife.

The unexpectedly abrupt sexual encounter that terminates this scene further and most obviously contributes to the Jeanne/Rosa doubling, both in identifying the former as Paul's mate and in typing her as a whore, the accusation Paul will later level at the dead Rosa. In that her relations with Paul constitute a betrayal of Tom, she also imitates Rosa's betrayal of Paul.

Later, in the bloodstained room where Rosa has committed suicide, a maid languidly describes and reenacts for Paul Rosa's suicide. Following her description of the wrist slashing, she explicitly reintroduces the theme of the double, saying, “I did everything just like her.” Paul angrily seizes her wrists and neck but quickly pushes her aside and leaves. This momentary anger at an explicit double of Rosa's reestablishes the element of displacement that is so fundamental to the entire film.

When we return to the apartment, the intimacy now established leads Jeanne to ask Paul his name, thereby eliciting the sacred law governing their continued existence together. Paul furiously proclaims, “You don't have a name, and I don't have a name either. No names here. … We don't need names here. … We're going to forget everything we knew … All the people, all that we do wherever we lived … Everything!” This absolute interdiction to consider each other's identity and past life metaphorically parallels the divine command to Orpheus not to look back. Paul's subsequent violation of his own rules as they recross the bridge at the end of the film will fatally doom their relationship as inevitably as Orpheus's disobedience. When Paul reveals his identity there, Jeanne screams, “It's finished!” and flees. In an uncanny parallel to the Orpheus legend, the revelation of her identity coincides precisely with Paul's ultimate failure at the recovery of this maternal figure. In response to his demand to know her name, she whispers, “Jeanne” at exactly the same moment that she fires a pistol into his abdomen. Like the myth again, Jeanne has metamorphosed from Eurydice to castrating Maenad.6

Yet the mere presence of these allusions does not in itself provide an explanation of the film. To translate these mythic figures into interpretation, it is necessary to search behind the myth, as Freud did with the Oedipus legend, recognizing that myths are actually paradigms of mental processes, namely, “distorted vestiges of the wishful phantasies … the secular dreams of youthful humanity.”7 Because the Orpheus myth is most obviously the reenactment of a rescue fantasy, I shall turn first for a deeper understanding of the work to that aspect of mental functioning.

The first and most obvious question to arise is: Who is being rescued? By his insistent allusions to Cocteau's use of the Orpheus myth, and particularly through insistence on the passage through the mirror, Bertolucci suggests an answer to this question, for obviously in Cocteau's Orphée and Sang d'un poète the mirror serves primarily to reflect oneself, and to pass through the mirror represents a fantasy of self-exploration. Michel Serres has demonstrated how, in another version of the Orpheus myth alluded to in this film, Jules Verne's Château de Carapathe, the Orpheus figure pursues his own image into a “sacred space,” perceives the image of his loved one (in this case himself) on a screen, and plunges through the screen, causing an explosion of the entire inner space and ultimate madness.8

Tango is remarkably similar. The key to Paul's self-recuperation lies not only in the use of mirror-imaging (to which I shall return) but also in the correct identification of the Rosa/Jeanne figure. Rosa, we must remember, functioned primarily as a mother/wife figure for Paul. She had “adopted” him and supported him for years but had never given him her complete attention. Paul knows all too well that Rosa has a lover who is to some degree a double of himself, and as “readers” of Bertolucci's work we cannot fail to see a reference to the doubling of Athos Magnani in this configuration. Rosa, like Draifa, becomes an object of intense ambivalence—a desired love object and a hated betrayer. This mother role is reiterated visually when the chambermaid, a remarkable look-alike of Rosa's mother, reenacts Rosa's suicide, saying, “I did everything just like her.” Later, before Rosa's bier, Paul will observe sarcastically, “You're your mother's masterpiece!” And to Rosa's mother, he intones, “Rosa was a lot like you. … People must have told you often. … Isn't that right, Mother?” Rosa's mother answers, “Two sisters.” Paul will vent his feelings onto both the maid and the mother at several different points in the film.

D. W. Winnicott has noted the mother's function as mirror in child development: “What does the baby see when he or she looks at the mother's face? … himself or herself. In other words the mother is looking at the baby and what she looks like is related to what she sees there.”9 Such a function is normally greatly transformed in adult behavior and would be over-interpretive in this instance were it not for several factors: the insistent presence of mirrors in the film—especially in scenes weighted with problems of either self-definition or regression; the emphatically regressive sexual behavior of Paul in the apartment; and the allusion to Francis Bacon that opens the film.

The several Bacon paintings successively occupying the screen at the outset of the film immediately set the problematics of identity that will pervade the entire work. Winnicott insists on Bacon's allusion to the mirror and identity in his essay on the mother's mirror role:

Francis Bacon … the exasperating and skillful and challenging artist of our time who goes on and on painting the human face distorted significantly … is seeing himself in his mother's face, but with some twist that maddens both him and us. … Bacon's faces seem to be far removed from perception of the actual; in looking at faces he seems … to be painfully striving towards being seen, which is at the basis of creative looking.10

Winnicott quotes one of his patients as having said, “Wouldn't it be awful if the child looked into the mirror and saw nothing?”11 Transposed into Winnicott's own terms, the question may be posed, “Wouldn't it be awful if I looked at Mother's face and was unable to see my own being?” Bertolucci has uncannily captured this very moment in the scene at Rosa's bier. She is an expressionless mask to whom Paul turns for some sign of identity, both hers and his own.12 Her mother (whose resemblance to Rosa is an obsession for Paul) wears a similar mask in life. And there is a further allusion to Rosa's blindness while alive. As Paul leaves the room of his double, Marcel, he muses, “I wonder what she ever saw in you.” By condensing this expression of anxiety here displaced onto an explicit double, we may understand, “I wonder what she ever saw in me.”

In discussing Bacon's presence in the film, Bertolucci said, “I took Marlon [Brando] to the exhibition of Bacon's paintings and said, ‘That's what you should be.’”13 That may be generally true of Brando's face, which manages to look so plastic and tortured throughout, but it is nowhere more true than when he first confronts the scene of Rosa's absent presence. In the bathroom covered with Rosa's blood, Brando passes behind a screen of frosted glass so that his face appears to take on the same distortions as the Bacon paintings. It is clearly the moment at which Paul most desperately seeks a lost maternal image. Later, after his most intense punishment of Jeanne and the notion of family—that is, his sodomizing of Jeanne—Bertolucci's camera again captures Brando lying twisted on the floor in exactly the position of the first Bacon painting to be glimpsed. This reference to Bacon with Jeanne most convincingly reemphasizes the doubling of Rosa by Jeanne and Paul's double failure to get her back. Notably, Jeanne's face remains hidden to Paul in this scene.

The Orpheus rescue fantasy, then, would respond to a thoroughly ambivalent retrieval of Rosa using Jeanne as surrogate: to get her back in both recuperative and vengeful terms. This double motive would explain why Brando plays such an impenetrably mercurial role throughout, moving from tenderness to sudden fits of sadistic and punitive behavior. Paul's need for recuperation is, as I have suggested above, most tellingly revealed by the mirroring of the mother role: a project of self-rescue, an effort of recovery of identity. Also, to the degree that Jeanne performs simultaneous roles as sex object and mother surrogate for Paul, we may sense that there is another level of self-rescue at work here:

The mother gave the child life, and it is not easy to find a substitute of equal value for this unique gift. With a slight change of meaning, such as is easily effected in the unconscious and is comparable to the way in which in consciousness concepts shade into one another, rescuing his mother takes on the significance of giving her a child or making a child for her—needless to say, one like himself. This is not too remote from the original sense of rescuing, and the change in meaning is not an arbitrary one. His mother gave him life—his own life—and in exchange he gives her another life, that of a child which has the greatest resemblance to himself. The son shows his gratitude by wishing to have by his mother a son who is like himself: in other words, in the rescue phantasy he is completely identifying himself with his father. All his instincts, those of tenderness, gratitude, lustfulness, defiance and independence, find satisfaction in the single wish to be his own father.14

Again, it is possible to understand how fully the presence of The Spider's Stratagem permeates Last Tango in Paris. As a double of Paul and as Mother's/Rosa's lover, Marcel occupies a structurally identical position to that assumed by Athos Magnani in the earlier film. If, as Bertolucci has claimed, the entire relationship between Paul and Jeanne is “an obvious search for authenticity,” it becomes evident that this search cannot be conducted without the (impossible) clarity about the identity of mother and father.15 The apostrophe to Athos père, “Who was Athos Magnani?” is now addressed to the mother as well.

In this privileged space, womblike in shape and color, a remarkable representation of the unconflicted part of the ego, Paul announces the Orphic command of refusal to look back and thereby attempts to eliminate memory, culture, civilization, and all that they mean in terms of taboos, inhibitions, repressions, and defenses. Just as in primitive language or in the language of dreams, where “contradictory concepts have been quite intentionally combined, not in order to produce a third concept … but only in order to use the compound to express the meaning of one of its contradictory parts,” this command simultaneously prohibits (on the explicit level) and encourages (on the unconscious level) a particular form of behavior. Paul is thus free to experiment in regression to earlier stages of sexual development; pure Oedipal desire, onanism,16 anal eroticism, and even bestiality (with the dead rat). The ultimate expression of this regressive and thoroughly narcissistic desire occurs during their last moments together in the apartment, when Paul exclaims (ironically, as it turns out, describing himself):

You want this gold and shining powerful warrior to build you a fortress where you can hide in. … Well, then it won't be long until he'll want you to build a fortress for him out of your hair and your smile—and it's someplace where he can feel—feel comfortable enough and secure enough so that he can worship in front of the altar of his own prick.

Nor is this the only example of Paul's primarily narcissistic urge. At one point Jeanne screams at Paul, “Why don't you listen to me? You know, it seems to me I'm talking to the wall. Your solitude weighs on me, you know. It isn't indulgent or generous. You're an egoist.” We know that narcissism is to some degree a constant in all creative work, in dreams and fantasies,17 and that under stress a narcissistic person may regress from socially transformed to primary forms of object relations.18 What should impress us is the intricacy with which Bertolucci has woven the reflective aspects of narcissism (the themes of self-rescue and the mirror) together with the deeper significance of the Orpheus myth.

In a most perceptive essay on the nature of Orpheus, Jean Normand has described the mythic bard in Tennessee Williams's play as:

poet, pariah, pervert become martyr. … He represents … a free, nomadic, and irresponsible life, sexuality without complexes, which he can only have by renouncing all security and taboos. He is the man from somewhere else who brings with him his freedom. His three traits are his guitar [read bongos here], his wings, and his animal nature. He is an ambiguous animal whose blood is hot or cold according to his mood (or metamorphosis). “O dieses ist das Tier, das es nicht giebt,” the nonexistent beast of Rainer Maria Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus, who fascinates women and disturbs men. … Orpheus is that which has no name, no face, no expression, that which is hidden, unknown, that which in man is foreign to man, at least so he believes, his unconscious, his intuitions, the dreams he dares not recall or realize, poetry, the poem he carries within with which he does nothing or which he destroys. … The truth of Orpheus is the truth of the poem, a life work which one must snatch from the powers of death—it is the eternal struggle of Eros against Thanatos. Orpheus is, like other men, split between the creative and the destructive drives.19

Significantly, Bertolucci's Paul refuses names, prefers animal grunts and crows to language, and pursues his erotic dream ever closer to death, proclaiming finally to his willing/unwilling Eurydice, Jeanne, “You're all alone. And you won't be able to be free of the feeling of being alone until you look death right in the face. I mean, that sounds like bullshit and some romantic crap. Until you go right up into the ass of death—right up his ass—till you find a womb of fear. And then, maybe then you can—you'll be able to find him.” For Paul, the association of love and self-love seems to lead directly to a confluent description of anality, the maternal womb, and death, a verbal prefiguration of his own fetal-like position as he dies.20

Bertolucci comments on this relationship among sex, narcissism, and death as follows: “I quickly realized when shooting, that when you show the depths … you drown yourself, as it were, in that feeling of solitude and death that attaches to a relationship in our Western, bourgeois society. … Sex is very close to death in feeling.”21 The film becomes a vertiginous dance conducted on the frontier that so narrowly separates Eros from Thanatos, a voyage so persistently Orphic as to be uncanny.

In his various versions of the Orpheus myth, Jean Cocteau repeatedly insists on the relation of primary narcissism to death. “Mirrors,” Cocteau once wrote, “are doors through which Death enters our soul, and through which Orpheus enters the kingdom of Death.”22

Earlier, Francis Bacon's allusion to the mirror was noted. Bertolucci extends that allusion to include a notion of decomposition and death: “Marlon Brando resembles Francis Bacon's characters. … his face has that same plasticity of life in decomposition.” And he quotes Cocteau, “Faire du cinéma, c'est saisir la mort au travail [To make films is to catch Death at work].”23

But Bacon's work constitutes another kind of reference point for Bertolucci as well. Not only do the Bacon paintings seem to signal issues of identity and the relationship between narcissism and death, but they bring these several themes together with another ongoing and fundamental issue for Bertolucci: the identity of the cinematic process itself. First of all, Bacon's work has much to do with mirroring, for “to look at a painting by Bacon is to look into a mirror and to see there our own afflictions and our fears.” John Rothenstein also notes that Bacon's preference for glazing his paintings derives from “his belief that the fortuitous play of reflections will enhance his pictures … by enabling the spectator to see his own face in the glass.”24 Winnicott relates Bacon and a more fundamental historical process in the child: “In looking at faces he seems … to be painfully striving towards being seen, which is at the basis of creative looking. I am linking apperception with perception by postulating an historical process (in the individual) which depends on being seen. When I look I am seen, so I exist. I can now afford to look and see. I now look creatively and what I apperceive I also perceive.”25

Viewers of Last Tango in Paris also look at/through a kind of glass. In his previous films, Bertolucci has compellingly alluded to the spectator's role as voyeur and suggested the intricacies of the dynamics of the film experience. In Last Tango Bertolucci presents an analysis that is no longer merely allusive.

It is Bertolucci's genius to have raised issues in the content of the film that are fundamental to the film experience itself. It is even more extraordinary that he uses a single nodal point in the film—indeed, at the very margins of the film—to allude to so many different but intensely related issues: seeing, mirroring, identity, ontology. The mirroring suggested in the Bacon paintings brings us back to the issue of doubles in the film, this time to a double whose function is almost entirely metacinematic.

Thus far I have explored the double relationships linking Paul with Marcel and Jeanne with Rosa, for these inform most directly the anecdotal level of exchange in the film. Tom, however, serves as the most intricate double of all, for in his character are linked the psychological and metacinematic levels of the work.

In the scene of Tom's arrival in Paris, the arched metalwork of the Gare St. Lazare repeats the visual effect of Jeanne's first meeting with Paul under the Passy trestle. Jeanne's fiancé, Tom (Jean-Pierre Leaud), emerges from a train at the Gare St. Lazare and attempts to capture Jeanne with an enthusiasm and unquestioned license equal to Paul's but here displaced onto the medium of cinema itself. In this first encounter, a film technician thrusts a phallic-shaped microphone into Jeanne's face while Tom declaims on love. Each time Tom and Jeanne meet, this sadly artificial phallus (always proffered by one of Tom's crew) replaces Paul's “hap-penis.” Throughout the film we are to witness the same explicit parallelism of behavior between Paul and Tom with, in each case, Tom's version of Paul's behavior expressed in terms of displacement from a purely sexual (pornographic) to a purely visual (photographic) form of interaction. Jeanne at one point exasperatedly reminds him, “I'm supposed to marry you, not the camera.” Ironically, too, it will be to Tom and not to Paul that Jeanne complains, “You should have asked my permission. … You take advantage of me and make me do things I've never done before. I'm tired of being raped!” In their first meeting, however, Tom is unable to comprehend Jeanne's sarcasm and mimicry as such and, in response to her mock romantic excesses, cries, “Magnifique! Coupez!”

Bertolucci obediently does, raising questions about the status of the film we are watching and its relation to the film we watch in the making. These questions are further emphasized by a curious portrayal of Paul in the next scene shot in the bathroom where Rosa's suicide has been effected. If Tom's role is to double Paul's erotic behavior with a camera, Paul seems to respond with a metacinematic double of his own, indeed on two levels. Filmed repeatedly behind the beveled and frosted glass of the bathroom, his face takes on, as I mentioned earlier, exactly the distortions of the Bacon paintings. Moreover, as the maid discusses her conversation with the police who had investigated the death, she repeats the salient features of Paul's biography: He was a boxer, had been a revolutionary in South America, had gone to Tahiti, and was later a journalist in Japan, ending up married to a rich woman in Paris. As Beverle Houston and Marsha Kinder have pointed out, each of these elements corresponds to a role Marlon Brando had played in earlier films: a boxer in On the Waterfront, a revolutionary in Viva Zapata, a sea captain in Mutiny on the Bounty, concluding with his roles in Teahouse of the August Moon and Sayonara.26 That Paul's biography is in fact Brando's film biography suggests two different levels of interpretation: As actor, Brando's filmography would also have to include, if implicitly, his role as Val in the film version of Tennessee Williams's Orpheus Descending. Paul's bongos must then also certainly constitute another cinematic reference: to Black Orpheus. Secondly, this heightened consciousness of Brando as film actor further accentuates the spectator's sense of Last Tango as a film and emphasizes Paul's doubling of Tom as film director.27 That doubling is conducted with extraordinary complexity throughout the entire film.

Each of Paul's interdictions against turning to the past is countered by Tom's enthusiastic insistence on capturing the woman and her past, but only on celluloid. Following Paul's manifesto, “No names here! … It's beautiful without knowing anything about your past,” Bertolucci jump-cuts to Jeanne's country house where Tom's camera makes its symbolic but impotent descent: “The camera is high. … It slowly descends toward you. And as you advance, it moves in on you. … It gets closer and closer to you.” Here Tom parodies the mythical descent of his more carnal partner, as always displacing his sexual drives onto the camera. As if instinctively applying Paul's rule to this other space, Jeanne discourages Tom's probing with the warning, “It's melancholy to look behind you.” But Tom will not understand and shouts, “It's marvellous. … It's your childhood—everything I want. … I'm opening all the doors. … Reverse gear!!! Close your eyes. Back up, keep going, find your childhood again! You are 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9.” Jeanne repeats the warning, holding up a portrait of her cousin Paul, his eyes closed, but Tom is oblivious. Significantly, he films her through glass in this scene, emphasizing the distance separating them. Exasperated by his single-mindedness and perhaps recalling Paul's reminiscences of cowshit, Jeanne reads a childhood composition about how the cow is entirely “clothed in leather,” and instead of Paul's list of slang equivalents for the male member she offers dictionary definitions of menstruation and penis. Tom's exploration of surface and words have replaced Paul's hunger for carnal satisfaction.

Bertolucci presses this doubling throughout the film. For example, soon after we see Paul and Jeanne on the “good ship Lollipop” in the apartment, Bertolucci cuts to a scene of Tom and Jeanne on the Atalante in the canal. Not only do they replace physical presence with cameras and cinematic equipment, but they end up situated on a cinematic allusion to Jean Vigo. Everything Tom does or thinks seems “contaminated” by cinema. And whereas Paul and Jeanne have just discovered their Orphic names in a series of animalistic grunts and crows, Tom and Jeanne produce an empty parody of this language with a series of childlike yeses and nos. When Tom finally enters the Jules Verne apartment, he proposes his own form of intimacy: “I want to film you every day. In the morning when you wake up, then when you fall asleep. When you smile.”

Significantly, Tom's obsession with capturing only the image of his lover places him in a focal position at the intersection of film director and film viewer. As a double of Bertolucci himself, he seems content to let Paul occupy the place of active lover while he assumes a more distant (and secure) position. Bertolucci said of this relationship, “Leaud is my past as a cinephile,”28 and this is certainly borne out symbolically in such scenes as the gown fitting, where Tom is so ecstatic about comparing Jeanne to Rita Hayworth, Lauren Bacall, and the like that he loses sight of her altogether. But it is also true that Leaud is Bertolucci's past as cinéaste for, like the director of Before the Revolution, Leaud's camera frequently misses what it was intended to see. Twice during the interview with Jeanne at her house in the country the camera simply fails to keep up with the action. While Jeanne is reminiscing about her childhood, her faithful, racist maid interjects her own memories. Tom's crew wheels the hand-held camera to catch sight of the maid, but she disappears, leaving only closed doors or, in one case, a full-length portrait of de Gaulle. When they catch the children defecating in the family garden, Tom's crew rushes vainly after the kids, too late to catch what Bertolucci's camera has already captured. (In his ongoing and subtle doubling of Tom, Paul also evokes this earlier period of Bertolucci's when he recounts watching spittle on an old man's pipe. Always watching to see if it would fall off, like Bertolucci's camera on Agostino in Prima, Brando disappointedly admits, “I'd look around and it would be gone. I never saw it fall off.”)

As a comment on his previous style, these scenes clearly mark Bertolucci's evolution from the earlier radical stylistic position of Prima toward a new exploration of the dynamics of the cinematic experience, less overtly radical but more determinedly aggressive.

In Tom's effort to restitute his sense of identity through a double displacement of his own desires onto the “legitimate” elements of filmmaking and through his projection of his own desires onto Jeanne, we may understand the underlying rationale for the filmmaker's and spectator's compulsion to watch the couple in the primal scene of the apartment. Earlier I cited Winnicott's reaction to the Bacon paintings that open the film. Winnicott suggests how these works relate to the frantic search for identity among the major characters of the film, but his thinking can also be applied to Bertolucci's long-standing issue of how “cinema looks at itself.” Winnicott, in the passage already cited, convincingly relates Bacon to the issue of seeing and being seen: “When I look I am seen, so I exist. I can now afford to look and see. I now look creatively and what I apperceive I also perceive.”29 Nowhere is perceiving more “affordable” and ultimately more potentially creative (in an ontological sense) than in cinema. While Paul tries to be perceived in the expressionless face of Rosa and subsequently in the doubled and mirroring face and body of Jeanne, the film's spectator works unconsciously through voyeurism toward a similar need.

Indeed, the very essence of cinema involves a fundamental condensation and displacement of exactly the kind Brando acts out for us on the screen. For him, the issue is a narcissistic recuperation of identity; for us, potentially, no less so. As a psychic phenomenon, voyeurism is a desire based on the primal scene fantasy. As Leo Bersani has noted,

desire is a movement in the sense of being a mental activity designed to reactivate a scene connected with the past with the experience of pleasure. It immediately moves away from the desired object in order to develop a desiring fantasy which already includes a certain satisfaction. It is fundamental to desire that it should constantly be detaching itself from its object and finding new representations. Repressed desires seek to be “ex-pressed” but in order to be pressed out they must, so to speak, become “ex-centric” to themselves and avoid censorship by moving about among “innocent” images. Displacement is one of the principal strategies of unconscious desire, for to desire is to move to other places. And those places are representations—which is to say the images of fantasy.30

The film viewer as voyeur recapitulates symbolically and unconsciously a pattern enacted symbolically and overtly by Paul in the Jules Verne apartment. Unlike Paul, but like (Peeping) Tom, the film viewer anonymously watches through the “keyhole” of the lens or screen, participant in yet always absent from the action. And the scene viewed is always potentially or symbolically a primal scene in the sense that it evokes the child's “total store of unconscious knowledge and personal mythology concerning the human sexual relation, particularly that of his parents.”31 The “inherently pornographic ontological conditions of film”32 are thus symbolically redeployed in Paul's behavior with Jeanne. But the relation between the act of cinematic viewing and the primal scene goes well beyond a merely erotic tendency, toward issues of personal (rather than merely cinematic) ontology:

The primal scene [argues Guy Rosolato] constitutes, among all the unconscious fantasies, a nucleus where origins are especially marked. First of all as an originating fantasy—genetic vis à vis the individual and even phylogenetic; secondly, as the nexus of curiosity about origins, birth, procreation, identity, filiation, and parenthood. … The primal scene can thus be considered as the most general yet concentrated of fantasies.33

Thus voyeurism itself, which initially seems merely a perversion of normal desire, is, by its connection to the primal scene fantasy, a potentially ontological phenomenon. As film viewers, we may be attracted to the images projected as an “innocent” form of what are thought to be merely perverse drives but which ultimately function as information about our own origins and the possibility of recuperation of those origins.

Last Tango in Paris, however, can be viewed as a cautionary meditation on what Winnicott calls “creative looking.” In Paul's purely physical regression in search of earlier modes of identity, he encounters increasingly sadistic, vengeful, and morbid tendencies in himself. The discomfort of Last Tango for some viewers relates to a similar discovery in the voyeuristic mode. If Jeanne is understood to function merely as a mirror of Paul's regressive fantasies, she appears as a typical cinematic sexual object. But in fact Jeanne has a life of her own—and motives of her own. She is attracted to the Jules Verne apartment for reasons just as complex as those that bring Paul there.

Like her double Rosa, Jeanne also has two lovers, Tom and Paul. Like Rosa's Marcel, Tom ends up being merely an image—and less. He succeeds only in evoking and promising future images. Whereas Rosa commits suicide because she seems unable to do anything but proliferate series of identically dressed and housed lovers, Jeanne instinctively moves toward a space where she can put a stop to this proliferation of surfaces (the “pop” marriage) and reach some depth.

At yet another level we remember that in her father's apartment in Paris Jeanne comes across a photograph of a Berber servant woman, naked to the waist. Her mother carelessly dismisses this evidence of the colonel's relations with his maidservants, complaining only of the fact that “the race of Berbers were difficult to train as servants.” Jeanne, however, recognizes the pictured woman as a sexual object of her father's and a subject of intense jealousy and pity. We, however, may recognize Jeanne herself in the photograph, both as Paul's sexual object (within the film narrative) and as nude photograph (as a cinema actress in Last Tango in Paris!).

Because her father is now dead, Jeanne's “return” to the apartment can be understood as a voyage of recuperation, much like Paul's. She wants to “get her father back” both in terms of the love and affirmation that she needs from the opposite-sex parent and in terms of punishing him for his infidelity (both to Mother and to herself) and for his racist and sexist exploitation of women. Paul presents her with a perfect object, for he seems both to satisfy her regressive-erotic urges and to set himself up as the object of her revenge. Like Paul's swings of mood, Jeanne moves from an immediate and aggressive sexual possession of Paul to more hostile and punitive moods, such as those where she traps him into breaking his own rules or causes him to shock himself with the faulty wiring of the phonograph. If her own identity, like Paul's, is inextricably bound up with that of her parents, Jeanne manages to act out much of her relationship with a father figure in Paul.

If these recuperative gestures are permissible within the privileged space of the apartment, they are, like the fantasies of cinema itself, unacceptable in the light of day. There she no longer reflects, she reacts. When Paul pursues her, she leads him first to the dance hall where they reenact a burlesque of their earlier relationship and where Jeanne ambivalently masturbates Paul and then flees. In her father's apartment, Paul reduces to an aggressive, sexist stranger, donning her father's military cap as a sign of his unambiguous desires and a reaffirmation of his doubling of the father. Jeanne's pistol shot fired at his genitals violently reaffirms the unacceptability of such exploitation. Paul staggers to the balcony of her apartment and, as a reminder of his regression, childishly sticks a piece of gum onto the balcony railing, curls into a fetal position, and dies. As the camera tracks back into the apartment from the balcony, it catches, as if accidentally, the reflection of one of Bertolucci's camera crew in a pane of the French windows. Another viewer viewed!

Ultimately, the genius of this film is to have brought together in a single work several different levels of thinking: the mythic, the psychoanalytic, and the metacinematic. Jeanne may be said to be the nexus of these themes, for she represents at once the displaced object of Paul's Orphic quest, the projected image of Tom's artistic drive, and the distanced object of the viewer's voyeurism. In so interweaving these themes, the film does not merely contain a spectacle for the viewer but challenges his very status as viewer. The outraged, middle-aged dance hall judge shouts mindlessly to the mooning Paul, “Where's love fit in? Go to the movies to see love!” And so we have. The film achieved an extraordinary status because the critics assured us it was “the most powerfully erotic movie ever made.”34 While concentrating on Paul's obsession with penetrating Jeanne's body and Tom's frantic attempts to film it, Bertolucci has made his viewers conscious of their own role as voyeurs and ultimately of their own fascination with the primal scene.

Through the voyage enacted in this film, we may better understand the degree to which cinema itself is an Orphic experience: to descend into the darkness of a protected space in an effort to retrieve through images a lost origin.


  1. Ferenczi (Theory and Practice, pp. 356–57) has explained the analytic implications of the bridge as follows: (1) as the male member that unites the parents during sexual intercourse; (2) as an important vehicle between the “beyond”—the condition of the unborn and the womb—and the “here”—life; (3) as a return to the womb, to water, to Mother Earth, where the bridge is also the symbol of the pathway to death; and finally, as a formal representation of transitions in general. Ferenczi's analysis of this symbol unites the themes of sexuality, regression, and death, each of which will play an important role in Last Tango.

  2. The concierge also serves as a visual link between the Jules Verne apartment and the brothel, which houses a community of Caribbean-looking blacks who play hot music all day—undoubtedly an allusion to Camus's Orpheu negro.

  3. Robert Alley, Last Tango in Paris (New York: Dell, 1973), pp. 13–14.

  4. Bertolucci himself referred to the apartment as “a privileged space.” Colette Godard, “Bernardo Bertolucci: On s'exprime toujours par ses défenses,” Le Monde, December 11–12, 1972, p. 14.

  5. Marcel's room holds a prominently displayed photo portrait of Albert Camus, whose essays centering on suicide and the absurd constitute a philosophical decor for the film. But behind this obvious allusion lies another: the visual pun “Marcel/Camus” calls to mind the director of Orpheu negro as well.

  6. In the film version of Orpheus Descending, Brando's character is castrated by a blow torch.

  7. Freud, “Creative Writers and Daydreaming,” The Standard Edition 9 (London: Hogarth Press, 1959): 152.

  8. Michel Serres, Jouvences sur Jules Verne (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1974).

  9. Winnicott, “Mirror-Role of Mother and Family in Child Development,” in The Predicament of the Family, ed. P. Lomas (London: Hogarth Press, 1967), p. 27.

  10. Ibid., p. 29.

  11. Ibid., p. 31.

  12. Ibid., p. 29. It is also noteworthy that Bertolucci said of Brando's role, “Brando feels, in a way, that he is as much the son of his wife as he is the father of the girl.” Bachmann, “Every Sexual Relationship,” p. 5.

  13. Remarks at “A Weekend with Bertolucci,” June 15, 1985.

  14. Freud, “A Special Type of Object Choice,” p. 173.

  15. Bachmann, “Every Sexual Relationship,” p. 6.

  16. See Freud, “A Special Type of Object Choice.”

  17. Freud, “Creative Writers and Daydreaming”; also, The Libido Theory and Narcissism, The Standard Edition 18 (London: Hogarth Press, 1964), p. 255.

  18. Freud, The Libido Theory, pp. 138–39.

  19. Jean Normand, “Le Poète, image de l'étranger: l'Orphée de Tennessee Williams,” French American Review 4, no. 2 (Fall 1980): 76–77; translation mine.

  20. Bertolucci's comments on this scene are particularly useful here: “At the beginning of the film he is supervirile … but slowly he loses his virility. At a certain point he makes the girl sodomize him: going backwards, he has arrived at the anal stage. Let's say the sadico-anal stage. Then he goes back even further and arrives in the womb of Paris, dying with mother-Paris all around him. … There is a clear arrival in death. When we were planning the film, all this was only in my subconscious. My camera research clarified it for me. The irrational becomes lucid.” Bachmann, “Every Sexual Relationship,” p. 7.

  21. Bachmann, ibid., pp. 4, 7.

  22. Jean Matter notes, “Narcissus in love with himself can only be in love with death, for the contemplation of the self is fatally linked to the thought of Death. The mirror is an inevitable pathway to death. If Orpheus refuses to retreat in the face of Death, it is because Death attracts him and he loves her. He loves Death like a mother whose fate is bound up with his own. Narcissism usually flows from a fixation. The young man loves in himself the object of his mother's love. Orpheus is, literally, full of himself. That is why he listens to no one other than Death. … Death is beautiful, all-powerful and inaccessible … attributes of the mother in the child's eyes.” “Le Mythe de Narcisse dans L'Orphée de Jean Cocteau,” Psyché 6 (1951): 251. See also Freud, The Libido Theory, p. 430. Lacan (“Le Stade du miroir,” p. 454) saw narcissism related to “instincts of destruction, even of death,” and noted “the evident relation of the narcissistic libido to the alienating function of the I.”

  23. Godard, “Bernardo Bertolucci.”

  24. John Rothenstein, Francis Bacon: Catalogue raisonné (London: Thames and Hudson, 1964), p. 15.

  25. Winnicott, “Mirror-Role of Mother and Family,” p. 29.

  26. Marsha Kinder and Beverle Houston, “Bertolucci and the Dance of Danger,” Sight and Sound 42, no. 4 (Autumn 1973): 189.

  27. It is interesting to note once again the degree of allusion to Orpheus in this film: Jean-Pierre Leaud played in Cocteau's Testament d'Orphée.

  28. Ungari, Scena madri, p. 90.

  29. Winnicott, “Mirror-Role of Mother and Family,” p. 29.

  30. Bersani, Baudelaire and Freud, pp. 37–38.

  31. McDougall, “Primal Scene and Sexual Perversion,” p. 372.

  32. Cavell, The World Viewed, p. 45.

  33. Rosolato, Essais, pp. 79–80.

  34. Kael, “Last Tango in Paris,” p. 130.

Both title and epigram are taken from Borges's poem, “The Tango,” in A Personal Anthology (New York: Grove Press, 1967), pp. 158–60.

Fatimah Tobing Rony (review date winter 1988)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3449

SOURCE: Rony, Fatimah Tobing. Review of The Last Emperor, by Bernardo Bertolucci. Film Quarterly 42, no. 2 (winter 1988): 47–52.

[In the following review, Rony presents a historical analysis of The Last Emperor in order to portray how Bertolucci engages the viewer in a game of belief versus disbelief.]

There seem to be two responses to Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor. One is typified by a remark I overheard as I left the theater: “I loved it! And I learned so much about history too.” The other is characterized by a New York Times article which, in its obsession with verisimilitude, set out to prove the historical inaccuracy of the film.1 Perhaps these concerns with the film's true-to-lifeness should not be surprising. With its extravagantly ornamental sets and multicolored costumed “cast of thousands,” The Last Emperor harkens back to Hollywood epics à la Cecil B. De Mille. Unlike De Mille, however, Bertolucci has openly rejected the ideal of historical accuracy. As Bertolucci remarked concerning the film's pre-production research: “We had to know the entire truth before we could choose to be unfaithful to it.”2

To focus only on The Last Emperor's verisimilitude is therefore misguided at best: a more interesting approach to the historical film is to examine its faculty of engaging the viewer in a game of belief and disbelief. As Jean-Louis Comolli has written, the historical film is a game, one which stretches the audience's belief in cinema's fictional apparatus to its utmost. Comolli writes, “The simulacrum does not fool a ‘passive’ spectator (there are no ‘passive spectators’): the spectator has to participate in his own fooling; the simulacrum is the means whereby he is helped to fool himself.”3 It is the foregrounding of this game of belief and disbelief within The Last Emperor which I would like to explore in this review—a game which, no matter how self-reflexive, ultimately does not liberate the viewer from the “shackles” of spectatorship nor move the film beyond the confines of a certain dangerous tradition of film history and orientalist historiography.

Past films by Bertolucci have shown an awareness of ideology as not only a set of political beliefs imposed from above, but as a way in which one experiences the world and perceives reality. The Conformist (1970) and The Spider's Stratagem (1970) implicitly critique the “naturalness” of film, showing it to be a cultural apparatus which constructs individuals as ideological subjects, fabricating a reality that appears unified and ahistorical.4 Like the protagonists Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in The Conformist and Athos Magnani (Giulio Brogi) in The Spider's Stratagem who are entrapped in the ideological screens of fascist history, the emperor Pu Yi is both subject of and subject to history. Although the narrative of Pu Yi's life is presented in a coherent, chronological form—beginning with his arrest in 1950, and then proceeding in flashbacks through his entire life—Pu Yi (John Lone) is also presented as an allegorical figure for the ideal film spectator, produced as a subject-effect, seduced by the fetishism of film.

Like another story about an emperor, Hans Christian Andersen's “The Emperor's New Clothes,”5The Last Emperor is a story about surface and the act of looking. In Andersen's fairy tale, the magical cloth does not exist. Instead the weaving is the story that the two swindlers tell the emperor, a story which becomes a veil: the emperor and his subjects see that they do not see but are afraid to admit their own “stupidity” or “incompetence.” Believing in the clothes covers the fear shared by both the emperor and his subjects of being caught “naked,” the fear that they cannot trust their own eyes. Like the film viewer who fetishizes the cinematic apparatus, the emperor and his subjects fetishize the “magical” cloth. The new clothes are both a sign of fullness and coherence, and a lie hiding a fear of inadequacy or nakedness.

Bertolucci's The Last Emperor is also a weaving, a story which embroiders upon theories of film spectatorship and fetishism. As a fabric, it too consists of a telling. Bertolucci's film exposes the fetishism of ideology and film spectatorship, constructed as the film is out of screens superimposed on screens, veils covering veils in rich brocaded clothes. The veils or screens exist not only in the court of the Forbidden City, but also later in the screens of ideology of Manchukuo, and of the Maoist re-education camp; they also parallel the screen onto which a film is projected. Like the ideal film spectator who both sees the fabricated nature of cinema and yet denies it at the same time in order to enjoy watching the film, Pu Yi deludes himself into thinking that he is master of his own domain, when in fact he is merely a symbol and puppet manipulated for the benefit of various political regimes.

The visual style and narrative of the film is composed of screens of ideologies, mirroring the way in which the relations of subjectivity, lack, and spectatorship are conceptualized by Bertolucci. The first screen is the billowing yellow canopy that fascinates the three-year-old Pu Yi, who runs out of the Hall of Supreme Harmony into the bright sunlight on the first day of his reign, and is suddenly greeted by thousands of kowtowing courtiers. A second screen is the long white sheet that prevents the eunuchs from touching the adolescent Pu Yi as they play together. These playmates appear only as shadows from the point of view of Pu Yi; the white sheet brings to mind both the movie screen and the wall in Plato's cave. A third screen is part of yet another game: Pu Yi and his two wives play hide and seek under a silk sheet—as we viewers only see their shapes while simultaneously an unseen fire, like the fire in Plato's cave, blazes in the Forbidden City's storerooms, set by the eunuchs who are afraid that Pu Yi will discover their thefts. The final screen is the crisp, red flag of Mao's Red Guard, waved by the zealous marching youth of the Cultural Revolution.

Pu Yi's imprisonment is a necessary component of his desire, since only within the prison can he be emperor. Like the fetishism of the ideal film spectator described by Metz, his desire is sustained by a game in which he oscillates between belief (Yes, I am emperor) and disbelief (No, I am not emperor). The psychoanalytic underpinnings of his desire are revealed in his fixation on returning to the mother and his search for origins, a return perhaps to the Imaginary: Pu Yi is seen repeatedly running after a fleeing mother figure, first his wet nurse, then upon his mother's death, and finally when his wife is forced to an asylum. Always held back by lackeys, his return to the mother is never successful, as indeed it cannot be: his overriding desire is to remain emperor.

Pu Yi's desire to be emperor, even a puppet emperor, is molded by the needs of the particular regime in power. Because Pu Yi is an emperor, he must abide by certain rules, akin to those of the model film viewer. His is a royal body that Pu Yi himself learns to objectify: he is rigid and impassive; he never uses the pronoun “I,” referring to himself in the third person or as the royal “we”; and as emperor he is supposed to see all, but no one may look at him. Like the film viewer who, identifying with the camera, comes to believe that s/he is in the position of the “transcendental eye,” Pu Yi thinks he is all-perceiving when in fact he is only allowed to see what his captors want him to see. Since no one may look at him, since no one else may wear the royal yellow, and since no other men are allowed to live in the palace of the Forbidden City, Pu Yi cannot see any representation of himself. He never sees himself in the clothes of another, or in the gaze of another, flattened as a representation within that gaze, just as the film viewer does not find his or her body reflected in the mirror that is the movie screen.

As the Lord Chamberlain tells the tutor Mr. Johnston (Peter O'Toole), Pu Yi is a symbol of great importance. As symbol, therefore, he not only figures for the textually produced viewer, but for the object of spectatorship itself. In every regime, Pu Yi is under a surveillance by a power that monitors and contains him. His first overseer is of course the Lord Chamberlain, with the eunuchs. The architecture of the Forbidden City moreover is conducive to voyeurism: doorways are framed by doorways, rooms lie within rooms, and the palace is its own mise-en-abyme.

Pu Yi's next important overseer is Johnston. He is also a voyeur: it is Johnston who watches Pu Yi play the screen game with the eunuchs and Johnston who photographs him before he leaves the Forbidden City, a neat trope for his particular objectification of the emperor. Johnston introduced Pu Yi to western education and western ideas of reform, and yet he keeps Pu Yi ignorant of the political realities of revolution. Instead Johnston encourages his passion for superficial reform like western fads, clothes, tennis, etc.

After his years of tutoring under Johnston, Pu Yi is forced to leave the Forbidden City by Jiang Jie-Shi's (Chiang Kai-Shek's) troops, but his blindness to the imperatives of political reform and to the fact that his monarchy is indeed obsolete is symbolized by his wearing of dark glasses, and his stumbling walk as he goes outside the palace gate for the first time. He thus leaves the first prison only to enter another one. The Japanese become Pu Yi's third overseers by convincing him that they will help him become emperor again. The sequences with the Japanese, reminiscent of the mise-en-scène of The Conformist, are replete with the signifiers of “fascinating fascism,” to use Susan Sontag's term, from the grey and black interior architecture of his new palace, combining sterile modernity and kitsch, to the playboy Pu Yi's smooth rendition of “Am I Blue?,” like a crooner in an Italian white-telephone film.

The new palace is another theater of shadows, a fascist prison for the deluded Pu Yi who refuses to perceive the imperialist motives of his puppet masters. The coronation ball is a dramatic metaphor for this new prison/cave: we see Amikasu (Ryuichi Sakamoto) directing cameramen as the harsh lighting used for filming creates a chiaroscuro world where the dancers cast large shadows. Only Pu Yi's wife, Wan Jung (Joan Chen) protests their imprisonment. Her self-destructive resistance is characterized by the sequence in which she eats lotus blossoms petal by petal as her husband greets the Japanese dignitaries, thereby calling attention to her and Pu Yi's role in Manchukuo as mere “lotus eaters.”

Just as Pu Yi came to know that he was not really Emperor of China in the Forbidden City, he becomes increasingly aware of his manipulation by the Japanese, but in both cases he is immobilized by his own desire to be emperor. Although the monochromatic khaki world of the Fushun prison, a re-education camp for Mao's new order, is a starkly different environment, it does parallel his earlier prisons. Once again we have a place of surveillance, this time tied to our own viewing of the film. Our voyeurism is pointed out by our identification with the point-of-view peephole shot of the governor watching Pu Yi having his shoes tied by his former valet. Like the governor, we too desire to learn the truth about Pu Yi.

In many ways, the governor seems to be the best of Pu Yi's overseers. As the governor tells the prisoners in his orientation speech: “We believe that men are good. We believe that the only way to change is to stare at the truth.” Yet Bertolucci subverts any idealist notions that man has the ability to see the truth. In one crucial scene Pu Yi is made explicitly into a cinematic spectator, viewing a film composed of newsreel footage of Japanese atrocities in China and Manchukuo. But it is only when Pu Yi sees an image of himself that he stands, entranced, staring straight at his own mass-produced portrait. This “moment of truth” is immediately undermined, since the next shot is of the hailing hands of a rally, as if to highlight the notion that ideology hails the subject, fabricates a unified reality, reminding one of Louis Althusser's statement: “All ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects.”6 There is no child to cry out that the emperor hasn't got anything on, because ultimately there is no royal body, no referent of truth but only clothes, its signs.7

The final screen is that of China during the Cultural Revolution. Instead of the chanting golden-robed monks of the Forbidden City, there are Mao Zedong's marching, bullying children. The aging Pu Yi protests to these children that the governor “is a teacher, a good teacher,” only to be ignored. The red flag waves, symbol of another blinding ideology; a group of uniformed girls in red arm bands march in a circle, to the accompaniment of accordionists lined up under a mural depicting the beaming face of Chairman Mao in the sun. In Plato's allegory the sun represented the light of truth, the Good; here the sun is just another propagandistic symbol of power. The movement of the girls in a circle with the red-flag-waving youth in the middle repeats the circular chase of the young Pu Yi and his brother Pu Chieh, and this choreographed use of screens is important because it represents the ultimate inescapability of ideology. Just as Marcello was caught in a swirling circle of dancers in The Conformist, Pu Yi never comes to any ultimate truth, but is always trapped within a circle.

So far in this review, I too may appear to be seduced by the visual splendor and conceptual sophistication of Bertolucci's latest work. I would like to argue now that although Bertolucci has created a film that exposes the woven screens of shadows and nesting boxes which constitutes both history and film spectatorship, at the center of the film is also a lack, an emptiness of a particular ideological nature.

To begin, the last screen of ideology which I discussed, that of the cruelty and theater of Maoist China, seems a little too transparent to me. What it reveals is another screen of ideology: that of the current Chinese government's support of the film through its granting of unprecedented permission for on-site shooting. The governor of the prison is even played by the actor and director Ying Ruocheng, Deputy Minister of Culture. A critical perspective on the Cultural Revolution is welcome to the present government with its program of economic reforms, and it is only because of these reforms that a western filmmaker like Bertolucci would be allowed to film in China at all. This unfavorable representation of Maoist China also reveals a shift in Bertolucci's stance as an Italian Marxist intellectual who at one point was sympathetic to Mao but seems now to have shifted allegiances.8

Secondly, The Last Emperor, which after all is a work financed by Western capital, must be posited within a tradition of Hollywood realism and the epic film, especially in the ways it reflects orientalist historiography. At the film's conclusion, the horde of western tourists who invade the Hall of Supreme Harmony reminds us that we too have been tourists in Pu Yi's life. The seamlessness of the film is ruptured here, and we are abruptly brought back to our own time. Yet for all its implied critique of the filmic apparatus, Bertolucci's film, as a narratival, chronological story of the life of one man, still constructs a classical subject-effect through the strategies of mainstream realist Hollywood cinema—witness the many marks of “authenticity,” whether it be the inserted titles of place and date, or the logic of the continuity editing. The self-reflexive foregrounding of the apparatus of film does not challenge the essential game of belief and disbelief: Bertolucci allows us to disbelieve, as if winking at us—yes, it is only a game—in order that we may believe just a little bit longer. The Last Emperor is an airtight box that only contains boxes within boxes (Pu Yi's life, after all, spans the history of cinema), and I find the ending to be an excuse for what is basically still a realist film.

Moreover, The Last Emperor simulates the Hollywood epic films—it is a simulation of a simulation—through its self-reflexive style of realism. The difference between Cecil B. De Mille and Bertolucci is that at some level De Mille invoked the rubric of historical accuracy as a marketing strategy for his films. But despite De Mille's efforts, the Hollywood looks and accents of his actors, of course, always gave the film away. Bertolucci, on the other hand, is aware of the impossibility of historical authenticity, and thus he highlights the surface of history. The problem is that in creating another film about surface spectacle and Orientalism, Bertolucci feeds into some dangerous myths about China. Perhaps the epic, the spectacular Hollywood historical film, may be characterized as a representation of a power struggle, usually an essentialist Manichean struggle for some kind of empire, some kind of hegemony—a battle of ideologies. In lavish Hollywood spectacles like those of De Mille, there are usually implicit or explicit struggles between East and West, the barbaric versus the civilized, with the civilized always winning at the end. Although The Last Emperor tries to subvert the De Mille style of representing history by containing within the film a self-reflexive critique of film, it does not escape from one major problem: colonialist attitudes. The Last Emperor's opium-dream-like oneiricism, although self-conscious, descends into old stereotypes about China and Orientalism: that is, Oriental cruelty, sensuality, and lack of rationality. The West has traditionally thought of itself as the site of substance and the Orient as one of surface; the fetishism of the film for dazzling silks, brocades, and embroidery still promotes an attitude that after all underneath the Orient's silky sleeves there is nothing there.

While Pu Yi was in his box of shadows, tremendous changes transformed China from the Middle Kingdom into the People's Republic of China. As the production history of The Last Emperor shows, moreover, the transformation continues, this time with the bourgeoisification of China. John Powers relates an interesting anecdote: in between takes of one scene, Chinese soldiers, hired as extras for the scene involving rebelling students, listened to disco and took pictures of themselves with cameras hidden underneath their costumes.9 May we then think of Bertolucci himself as a last emperor? The irony of the title The Last Emperor is that in trying to get away from looking for the referent, for truth, for the causes of effects—this is a film about the last emperor, the title has nothing to do with firsts, with originals—this film which tries to subvert the ideological apparatus of film ends up hiding behind an old ideological screen, and a pernicious one at that. If Pu Yi is a model for the ideal film spectator, we do not become the last emperors, aware of our production as subject-effects. Instead, the old empire continues, albeit under a new surface.


  1. Richard Bernstein, “Is The Last Emperor Truth or Propaganda?,” New York Times (May 8, 1988), Cl, 33.

  2. John Powers, “Last Tango in Beijing,” American Film, November 1987, Vol. XIII, No. 2, 40.

  3. Jean-Louis Comolli, “Historical Fiction: A Body Too Much,” Screen 19, no. 2 (Summer 1978), 46.

  4. Jodi Hauptmann has written an unpublished paper that explores the relation of the story of Plato's cave to The Conformist, entitled “Slaves to Shadows: The Allegory of Plato's Cave in The Conformist.

  5. Hans Christian Andersen, Eighty Fairy Tales, trans. R. P. Keigwin (New York: Pantheon, 1982), 64–68. For my interpretation of “The Emperor's New Clothes” I am indebted in part to Shoshana Felman's class lectures on the same fairy tale.

  6. Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation,” trans. Ben Brewster, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 173.

  7. Ettore Scola's La Nuit de Varennes (1982) is arguably more successful in foregrounding the game of the historical film because of its playfulness. Scola does not show the body of the king at all, but shows us only the king's red inauguration coat, dwelling instead on the discourse centered around the king, the conversations held within the coach.

  8. See Robert Philip Kolker's chapter on Godard, and Bertolucci's early politics in his chapter, “‘Versus Godard,’” Bernardo Bertolucci (London: British Film Institute, 1985), 11–35.

  9. Powers, 40.

Further Reading

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Bertolucci, Bernardo, and Don Ranvaud. “After the Revolution.” American Film 11, no. 1 (October 1986): 19–21.

Bertolucci discusses the logistics of filming The Last Emperor.

Bertolucci, Bernardo, and Lynn Hirschberg. “Romancing the East.” Rolling Stone, no. 517 (14 January 1988): 33.

Bertolucci discusses the filming of The Last Emperor and his frustration with the Hollywood studio system.

Bertolucci, Bernardo, and Harlan Kennedy. “Radical Sheik.” American Film 15, no. 15 (December 1990): 30–35, 56.

Bertolucci discusses the making of The Sheltering Sky.

Born, Georgina. “Feudal Gestures.” New Statesman 115, no. 2971 (4 March 1988): 30–31.

Born argues that Bertolucci's The Last Emperor has a definite political slant, endorsing pre-Maoist China and condemning Maoism.

Brass, Kevin. “Bertolucci Film Festival Honors His Early Works.” Los Angeles Times (31 July 1991): F1.

Brass discusses Bertolucci's four earliest films and how they fit into the director's body of work.

Goodale, Gloria. “Wandering Filmmaker's New Love—His Native Italy.” Christian Science Monitor (21 May 1999): 18.

Goodale explores Bertolucci's international perspective and the role his native Italy plays in Besieged.

Harris, Richard. “The Isolation of Old Places.” Times Literary Supplement (26 February 1988): 220.

Harris asserts that Bertolucci tells Emperor Pu Yi's story as a filmmaker—not as a historian—in The Last Emperor.

Hausmann, Vincent. “Cinematic Inscriptions of Otherness: Sounding a Critique of Subjectivity.” Journal of Film and Video 50, no. 1 (spring 1998): 20–41.

Hausmann traces the role of the mother/child relationship and the theme of otherness in La luna and The Sheltering Sky.

Hinson, Hal. “Bertolucci's Clouded Sky: Winger, Malkovich on a Voyage to Nowhere.” Washington Post (11 January 1991): D6.

Hinson offers a negative assessment of The Sheltering Sky.

———. “The Conformist: Bertolucci at His Best.” Washington Post (25 November 1994): B7.

Hinson offers a positive assessment of The Conformist.

Horton, Robert. Review of Little Buddha, by Bernardo Bertolucci. Film Comment 30, no. 4 (July–August 1994): 26–28.

Horton asserts that Bertolucci's Little Buddha is a turning point in the director's career.

Howe, Desson. “Little Buddha: Bertolucci's Spiritual Glow.” Washington Post (25 May 1994): C1.

Howe offers a positive assessment of Little Buddha, praising the film's “guileless innocence.”

Hunter, Stephen. “Bertolucci's Ode to Selfless Love.” Washington Post (11 June 1999): C5.

Hunter praises the message of selfless love in Bertolucci's Besieged.

Kael, Pauline. “The Manchurian Conformist.” New Yorker LXIII, no. 41 (30 November 1987): 98–104.

Kael complains that Bertolucci does not do enough to dramatize the inner life of the character Pu Yi in The Last Emperor.

———. Review of The Sheltering Sky, by Bernardo Bertolucci. New Yorker LXVI, no. 44 (17 December 1990): 118–21.

Kael argues that Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky does not have the same sensibilities as the Paul Bowles' novel the film was based on.

Kauffmann, Stanley. Review of Little Buddha, by Bernardo Bertolucci. New Republic 210, no. 24 (13 June 1994): 32.

Kauffmann argues that Bertolucci's Little Buddha is dominated by “pictorial opportunism.”

Kempley, Rita. “The Last Emperor: China Dull.” Washington Post (18 December 1987): G7.

Kempley offers a negative assessment of The Last Emperor.

Lane, Anthony. “Instant Karma.” New Yorker LXX, no. 15 (30 May 1994): 97–99.

Lane argues that Little Buddha has a wealth of style, but very little substance.

O'Brien, Tom. Review of The Last Emperor, by Bernardo Bertolucci. Commonweal CXIV, no. 22 (18 December 1987): 747–48.

O'Brien asserts that despite its flaws, The Last Emperor succeeds due to its almost exclusively Asian perspective.

Powers, John. “Last Tango in Beijing.” American Film 23, no. 2 (November 1987): 34–40.

Powers relates Bertolucci's experience of filming The Last Emperor in China.

Rayns, Tony. “Model Citizen: Bernardo Bertolucci on Location in China.” Film Comment 23, no. 6 (November–December 1987): 31–36.

Rayns discusses the making of Bertolucci's The Last Emperor.

Thomas, Allan James. “The Sheltering Sky and the Sorrow of Memory: Reading Bertolucci through Deleuze.” Literature-Film Quarterly 26, no. 3 (July 1998): 196–203.

Thomas analyzes Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky in terms of the cinematic theory of Gilles Deleuze.

Thomson, David. “Gone Away.” Film Comment 27, no. 3 (May–June 1991): 18–23.

Thomson argues that Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky has an auspicious beginning, but eventually unravels.

Tonetti, Claretta Micheletti. “The Sheltering Sky.” In Bernardo Bertolucci: The Cinema of Ambiguity, pp. 228–46. New York: Twayne, 1995.

Tonetti traces how Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky differs from the Paul Bowles novel on which it is based.

Tonkin, Boyd. “Bertolucci's Lost Horizons.” New Statesman & Society 7, no. 300 (29 April 1994): 33–34.

Tonkin complains that Bertolucci's Little Buddha relies too much on over-the-top production values in its portrayal of Buddhism.

Ulstein, Stefan. “Last Emperor, Lost Emperor.” Christianity Today 32, no. 6 (8 April 1988): 57–58.

Ulstein argues that The Last Emperor must be viewed in the context of China's communist government's involvement with and approval of the film's production.

Wagstaff, Chris. Review of Stealing Beauty, by Bernardo Bertolucci. Sight and Sound 6, no. 9 (September 1996): 54–55.

Wagstaff offers a positive assessment of Stealing Beauty.

Additional coverage of Bertolucci's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 106; and Literature Resource Center.

Richard A. Blake (review date 9 January 1988)

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SOURCE: Blake, Richard A. “China Doll.” America 158, no. 1 (9 January 1988): 17.

[In the following positive review, Blake asserts that The Last Emperor exhibits a return to the brilliance of Bertolucci's early career.]

Many people, especially as they pass through the peak of their middle years, grow melancholy with their lack of achievement. Most of these will simply regret that life has never called them to greatness, or having called them, then conspired against them. Most lives are shot through with threads of regret bordering on tragedy. The fortunate among such people learn to scale down expectations and relish the smaller, more human pleasures life offers. If they cannot rule an empire, then they can plant a garden. Some few others look back on opportunities for greatness once given but unrecognized and now passed, and label themselves simply failures. Finally, there are people who collaborate with history in their own downfall. These remember moments of immense opportunity, but in moments of painful self-discovery, they also realize that failure was determined by circumstances beyond their understanding and control, and even more, by their own mediocrity. These last are tragic victims and failures in one. The bitter draught is doubly deep.

The Last Emperor is the story of one such life. Pu Yi was a Manchurian prince who became emperor of China in 1908 at the age of three. Within a few years, China becomes a republic, but the boy is permitted to remain in the Forbidden City of Beijing as its absolute ruler. Of course, he may not leave the palace compound. The new country soon reverts to an endless civil war among the traditional warlords. Pu Yi decides to become a ruler in fact as well as in name, but his one attempt to reorganize the imperial storerooms leads to a palace revolution, and he is forced to flee to the port city of Tianjin with his two beautiful wives and his vast private fortune.

There he adopts Western ways and falls into a life of apparent decadence, but when the Japanese begin their expansion into China, he is installed as the Emperor of Manchukuo, the Japanese name for his home province of Manchuria. He believes he will be a real emperor, but is little more than a puppet of the Japanese occupying army. At the end of the war, he tries to reach Tokyo to surrender to the Americans, but Soviet airborne troops block his escape and he eventually is turned over to the Maoists for interrogation and reeducation. After 10 years, he leaves prison, works as a gardener and dies in 1967.

This fascinating story forms the framework for Bernardo Bertolucci's elegant new film. His Pu Yi (John Lone) is a man who is always late for his rendezvous with destiny. As a child he is sheltered to an absurd degree. Royal physicians examine the child's daily stool in order to prescribe the next day's menu. He retains a wet nurse until the age of eight. He has no parents, no children for companionship, only an entourage of doting eunuchs who serve his every whim. He has no experience of a world beyond his gates, and his only companions are caged animals, a cricket and a mouse, who are pathetic images of his own existence. Vittorio Storaro, the cinematographer, heightens the claustrophobia by photographing the boy emperor in confined sets tight against walls and oppressed by textured ceilings.

Even the imperial robes form a brocade prison. In one touching scene, when the emperor meets his child bride on their wedding night, as they embrace, the hands of unseen servants labor to unfasten the symbolic robes that will imprison both of them for the rest of their lives. At least for a time, the marriage is not consummated.

His Scottish tutor, Reginald Johnston (Peter O'Toole), represents the boy's only path to the outside world. Pu Yi is soon captivated by everything British and longs to go to Oxford. If he cannot leave the Forbidden City, he can at least build a tennis court on the porch of the Temple of Serenity. He is playing tennis, dressed in fashionable whites, when he is ordered into exile. One of the truly brilliant scenes is set in the ballroom of his villa at Tianjin. Dressed in tuxedo with his hair pomaded into place, he croons “Am I Blue” in a Bing Crosby voice that he has learned from records.

Life in exile has its dark side. The empress (Joan Chen) becomes addicted to opium, supplied by Eastern Jewel, who spies for the Japanese and who replaces the emperor in her affections. The generals become more assertive, and Pu Yi is naïve enough to believe that they will allow him, a young playboy who cannot even rule his own family, to become an emperor side-by-side with Hirohito. As the war grinds on, not only the Japanese, but his own cabinet treat him with open contempt. Arrest by the Soviets and internment in the labor camp is only another form of the imprisonment he has known all his life.

The interrogations form the frame for the series of flashbacks that tells this story, and these prison camp scenes are a significant weakness in an otherwise excellent film. At first, the inquisitors shout irrationally, as though building sympathy for this victim of history. As the story unfolds, they seem almost sympathetic to his collaboration with the Japanese. Finally, when he is released from prison, they seem even pleased with Pu Yi, a successful specimen of their work of reeducation. Later, when the Red Guard parades one of the officials as a traitor, Pu Yi defends the man.

This ambivalent relationship shows that Bertolucci and his scriptwriter Mark Peploe are uncertain about Pu Yi's “conversion.” Are they maintaining that the individual is insignificant before the forces of history? Or are they trying to say that Pu Yi has triumphed over all the adversity in his life and now has achieved true freedom? Most probably they are not sure. Pu Yi was an enigmatic man to begin with, and the filmmakers have not committed themselves to any one interpretation of his life.

In two earlier films, The Conformist (1970) and Last Tango in Paris (1972), Bertolucci explored the plight of the weak man overwhelmed by life. In the first, the hero is caught in the whirlpool of Fascist politics, and in the second in his own sexual appetites. In The Last Emperor he has returned to the theme that once made him a promising young director. After a long silence and several weak films, he is back, exploring brilliantly and painfully the questions that torture people of this century. What is the role of an individual amid forces too powerful to be controlled and too mad to be understood?

John K. Fairbank (review date 18 February 1988)

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SOURCE: Fairbank, John K. “Born Too Late.” New York Review of Books 35, no. 2 (18 February 1988): 14–16.

[In the following review, Fairbank discusses the literary origins of Bertolucci's The Last Emperor.]

The Last Emperor is a spectacular film photographed in brilliant color. It is also a moral drama with controversial political overtones of great ambiguity. It spans sixty years of history, between the Manchu dynasty's final decrepitude and the disaster of the Cultural Revolution in the People's Republic. It leaves us with a question: Did Pu Yi, the last emperor of the Ch'ing dynasty (1644–1912) and the only emperor of Japan's puppet state of Manchukuo (1931–1945), really find a new life in Mao's China? Or was it simply a variation on his life's theme of puppetry? Was he not in fact the world's champion puppet—first under the Ch'ing court, then under the Japanese militarists, finally under the Chinese Communists? The answer is by no means as self-evident as we may tend to think.

Quite aside from the enigma of Pu Yi, Bernardo Bertolucci and his Anglo-Italian producers had the Peking government's collaboration to exploit the visual grandeur of the Forbidden City. Great aesthetic potential was always there in the vast courtyards and the broad horizontal spread of the three throne halls. Their white marble stairs and balustrades, red walls, and yellow tiled roofs under the formerly unsullied blue sky of North China formed a setting that awaited action. Bertolucci has brought back the ranks of richly dressed officials who used to fill the scene on state occasions. He has used billowing red and yellow curtains as moving backgrounds for the intricate finery of court dress.

Thanks to the help of the Chinese during filming in 1986 the silk gowns, jewels, scarves, footwear, and headdresses of the hundreds of eunuchs, palace ladies, priests and servants have a seemingly impeccable authenticity. When six hundred or more eunuchs and officials in long rows, each on his mat in the great courtyard, perform the three kneelings and nine prostrations of the full kotow at the strident command of an usher, the Forbidden City comes alive again as a setting for rituals of abject servitude. Ever since 1912 the millions of tourist photographers who have responded to the architectural magnificence of the site have tried to imagine it peopled and in use. Bertolucci has now done it on film.

Against this opulent background we see the eunuchs and female consorts of the court and even the emperor, all under the thumb of the imperial institution. For a thousand years, as a holdover from classical antiquity, the Son of Heaven had symbolized China's cultural unity and preeminence. Pu Yi was a final pebble caught under this juggernaut.

His career falls into half a dozen clearly defined phases. Born in 1906, he was made emperor in 1908 at the Chinese age of three (the observant Chinese credit the individual with one year of age at birth). As the Hsuan-t'ung Emperor of the Ch'ing he reigned for less than four years until his abdication in 1912, but went on being a walled-in emperor without power until 1924. The thousand or so eunuchs, consorts, tutors, and other denizens of the Forbidden City lived off his stipend from the Chinese Republican government while the enterprising among them sold off the treasures of the Ch'ing palace. In his Westernized playboy interlude between 1924 and 1931 Pu Yi lived in Tientsin with a smaller court and stipend, seeing some pretty vile warlords but falling more and more under Japanese control. From 1931 to 1945 he headed Japan's puppet state of Manchukuo, after 1934 reigning over a shoddy court as Emperor Kang-te. In 1945 the Soviets stockpiled him for five years as a war criminal, handing him over to Mao's China in 1950 for reconditioning. Finally, in 1959, as a new man re-created by Maoist thought reform, he was pardoned and returned to civilian life in Peking, where he died in 1967.

This career is an extraordinarily symbolic but otherwise inconsequential one. Pu Yi grew up as a make-believe emperor not allowed out of the Forbidden City and entered history mainly as Japan's puppet. Once the Ch'ing dynasty had ended in 1912, however, its last emperor did not represent an important ethnic minority, because the Manchus in North China were generally assimilated into the Chinese population. One die-hard warlord entered Peking and restored the dynasty for a moment in 1917, but otherwise Pu Yi had no particular public to represent except his former stipendiaries and ex-Ch'ing officials. He tried to find a historical niche for himself as the protagonist of the Manchu people, but their homeland of Manchuria had already been overrun by Chinese migration and had become China's Northeast.

From the start of his film Bertolucci reshapes history the better to serve his own purposes. The Last Emperor begins with the middle-aged and worn Pu Yi arriving in Chinese Communist hands in 1950 and at once attempting suicide. He evidently cuts only the veins in his wrists, not his arteries, and is easily saved. This seemingly neat device helps to unify the film since scenes of his earlier life appear as flashbacks. Unfortunately, however, suicide is entirely out of keeping with Pu Yi's imperial character and self-image. His writings record constant fears but no thought of killing himself. He lacked the necessary decisiveness. The incident seems cooked up: good drama, perhaps, but bad history.

Back at the palace in 1908, when Pu Yi is hardly three years old, history is warped again: a fattish old dame (not at all withered and wizened) says to him in effect, “Me Empress Dowager, you Emperor now,” and immediately passes out. Pu Yi's memoir says that at his enthronement he sat crying for his amah, but in the film he marches imperiously about to look at the courtiers like a boy of at least five or six. Still, by taking artistic license Bertolucci presents a striking scene.

In Pu Yi's palace phase the eunuchs steal the show. A gang of corpulent, agile, fawning servitors (actually recruited from the People's Liberation Army), they are the boy emperor's constant companions. They dress him, bathe him, and carry him about. Indeed, in a few seconds of film they manage an imperial defecation that must set a record in this line. When the proceeds are quickly shown to the eunuch inspector of imperial feces, the event has more than gastrointestinal significance. One begins to wonder whether and when the emperor ever learned to go to the toilet by himself.

The Son of Heaven is pauperized in personal experience at the same time that he learns to wield his petty absolute power. “Drink this ink!” he says to a eunuch, who immediately does so to escape a flogging. Pu Yi never sees his mother and has a warm physical relationship only with his comely amah, or wet nurse, who suckles him almost uxorially until he is eight years old. Emotionally starved, he relieves the boredom of palace protocol by having eunuchs bastinadoed. This palace ritual inherited from the Ming court was performed with light or heavy bamboo staves on the bare buttocks of the prone victim. Once the skin was broken, blood would spatter, but Bertolucci has foregone this scenic possibility.

Pu Yi's adolescence is ameliorated by his having between 1919 and 1924 an English tutor, Reginald Johnston, on loan from the Colonial Office. Johnston's book of 1934, Twilight in the Forbidden City, stresses the gross corruption of the imperial household, including the eunuchs, who pillaged the dynastic treasures. Johnston describes how he got Pu Yi a bicycle, some badly needed spectacles, and even a telephone. Pu Yi started phoning around and had a guess-who-this-is sort of conversation with China's top liberal of the day, Dr. Hu Shih, who came to see him. Johnston subversively got Pu Yi to cut off his queue; but Johnston believed in royalty and empire, preferably that of Queen Victoria. His affectionate loyalty toward His Majesty led him somewhat pathetically to hope history would give Pu Yi his chance to sit on a real throne.

In addition to Johnston's book, Chinese and Japanese memoirs and pulp romances, on which the researchers for The Last Emperor have obviously drawn, had already created a legend during the 1950s and 1960s. The main source soon became Pu Yi himself, some of whose reminiscences began to appear through interviews published in Chinese as early as 1957. By that time the imaginative British sinologist Henry McAleavy had found that the academic history of modern China then being turned out was dull stuff. Summaries of Li Hung-chang's official reports to the court of the Empress Dowager could be cranked out endlessly, each paragraph dropping a footnote as it moved along, but who cared? McAleavy found more vitality in the informal “raw history” (yeh-shih) buried in obscure Chinese and Japanese memoirs and essays. These were the kinds of sources that an earlier oddball, Sir Edmund Backhouse, had been led to by his Chinese and Manchu friends when he was preparing the materials that his coauthor, the journalist J. O. P. Bland, would write up as Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking and China under the Empress Dowager.

Though by no means the scalawag that Sir Edmund turned out to be, McAleavy followed his lead and in 1963 published a fascinating summary of insider gossip and personal history of the late Ch'ing court, A Dream of Tartary: The Origins and Misfortunes of Henry Pu Yi. McAleavy featured a Japanese Manchu adventuress of the imperial Aisin-Gioro clan, who turns up rather inexplicably in The Last Emperor to lead Pu Yi's empress astray. The Chinese and Japanese sources cited by McAleavy quote correspondence of Pu Yi and provide details of court life—for example, the “curtain game” shown in the film, in which Pu Yi on one side and eunuchs on the other press against each other's hands.

Meanwhile, from Pu Yi's prison confessions a first draft of a memoir had been put together by 1955 and revised by 1960. After his pardon, this was rewritten mainly by Li Wenda, a forty-year-old government editor (who is now given copyright as coauthor). From Emperor to Citizen: The Autobiography of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi was published in a small Chinese edition in 1964 and a larger English edition for consumption abroad in two volumes in 1964 and 1965. The translator was an Oxford-trained sinologist, W. J. F. Jenner, then employed by the Foreign Languages Press in Peking. Now a professor of Chinese at the Australian National University, Jenner has supplied a general introduction to Oxford University Press's 1987 reprint as well as introductions to each of the book's sections.1

The presentation of the Bertolucci film itself has been accompanied by publication of a three-hundred-page paperback by Edward Behr, who lives in Paris and is currently cultural editor of Newsweek International. Behr was in Peking in 1964 making a documentary and got a glimpse of Pu Yi's “gaunt, stooped figure” and “tired, wan smile.” His reporting on the spot in Peking in 1986 was assisted by an American-Chinese interpreter who had graduated from Wellesley and by introductions from the film producers. The resulting book is parallel to but independent of the film. Among those he interviewed were most importantly Pu Yi's younger brother, Pu Jie, now in his eighties, and Jin Yuan, who had been governor of the remolding center at Fushun where Pu Yi spent nine years.

Mr. Behr seems to exemplify certain tendencies in Gary Hart's America. Right off, on page 2 of his foreword, he tells us that those who had known Pu Yi best “were extremely reluctant to talk about his sex life to a stranger like myself. … Time and again, as I pressed otherwise cooperative and even loquacious intimates of Pu Yi's life and times to tell me more, I inwardly raged at their protective discretion—while also, to some extent, sympathizing with it.” Behr concludes that “Pu Yi was bisexual and—by his own admission—something of a sadist.” He adds that “though there was nothing effeminate about Johnston, his sex drive appears to have been completely sublimated. … Johnston is also completely silent on the subject of Pu Yi's sexuality. Like most conventional Britons of the time, he regarded the whole subject as taboo.” Times have changed, to be sure. Let us not fall behind. Don't we need a rule that reporters on sex must tell us their qualifications? How can we evaluate Mr. Behr's testimony on this important subject unless we know his own experience and preferences?

On the other hand, Mr. Behr seems careless about proofreading and/or the historical record. For example, the Hundred Days of reform did not occur in 1880, the British did not take Chinese territory at Canton in 1898, the Peking Legation Quarter was not set up in 1860, the province of Anhwei was not the Empress Dowager “Tzu-hsi's home base,” Lord Palmerston in 1855 did not say he would have to strike “another blow for China,” he said in China, “Weihawei” [sic] was not “one of the oldest British owned Chinese colonies after Hong Kong.” Such howlers and misunderstandings indicate that Mr. Behr is not a trained historian. This is corroborated by his enthusiastic acceptance of David Bergamini's Japan's Imperial Conspiracy, which makes Emperor Hirohito the mastermind and chief operator of Japan's implacable drive to take over half the world—a theory long since discredited. Evidently books are like people: if they exist they can be quoted. As a result Mr. Behr's book is full of the most fascinating details he could find and it is fun to read. It is the fullest account available in English, but on any given point you should keep your fingers crossed.

All writers agree that Pu Yi was a stunted personality. Jenner feels he “never became a person in his own right and … tried to please his masters at every stage in his life.” He was “cruel to underlings.” With the five women he was married to, first and last, “he was unable to perform sexually.” His original empress died of opium, his original concubine got a divorce. Behr sees Pu Yi as “weak, neurotic and profoundly flawed, … a professional survivor, bending to the wind, … a coward most of his life. But he was also an innocent.”

If we now return to our original questions—Did the Chinese Communists really remold Pu Yi? Were they justified in touting him as a successfully reformed war criminal?—two points may be suggested. First, the memoirs follow most confessions made inside Mao's prisons in exaggerating the evil deeds of the old life and the idealistic appeal of the new. But Pu Yi was not an intellectual unjustly and grotesquely victimized for his class status and foreign taint like so many other victims with whose careers we have become acquainted. On the contrary he fit very well the definition of a war criminal and real enemy of the people. There was a lot in his life that he could feel remorseful about. He could quite properly have been classed among the Japanese war criminals about whom he gave perjured testimony at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal in 1946. Consequently the “leniency” and “forgiveness” of the Communists was a great deal more genuine and substantial in his case than in most.

According to Pu Yi, one turning point came when his cell mates, who had rejected him for his incompetence in handling his daily life unaided, finally accepted him as a human equal and companion. Why should he not feel renewed by this unique experience? We tend to see Maoist conversions as purely manipulated false fronts, and we are for the most part right to do so. In the case of this longtime would-be emperor it could have been valid. He seems to have been an ideal candidate for the treatment. We can imagine that he might really have preferred Maoist citizenship to being a ghostlike Son of Heaven, especially of course when the ghostly aura would stay with him as a citizen. We can understand why the new rulers in Peking under Mao decided that Pu Yi's conversion would make good propaganda, and why their successors under Deng Xiaoping have collaborated in making this film.

Second, the superb cast of The Last Emperor create their own version of Pu Yi's history. John Lone as the mature Pu Yi, Peter O'Toole as Johnston, Ying Ruocheng (who starred in Peking's Death of a Salesman) as the prison governor Jin Yuan are probably all more human and engaging personalities than the historic figures they represent. They show us a Pu Yi who is more intelligible and appealing to a Western audience than the original scion of the Aisin-Gioro clan.

The New Yorker's reviewer (November 30, 1987) said that The Last Emperor is too passive in its portrayal of Pu Yi, “a historical pageant without a protagonist.” The long-suffering Pu Yi, who took to reciting Buddhist sutras, might agree. He was raised, too late, to be a ritual autocrat, just when his kind of autocracy was about to be supplanted by party dictatorship. He could represent only a dead past. Critics should broaden their sights. The main character in this film is the Manchu dynasty itself, and it took a long time dying.


  1. The official Foreign Languages Press published in 1964 a German translation, Vom Kaiser zum Bürger. There followed several attempts to make the story more of a narrative than a chronicle and less dull and repetitious for Western readers. In 1967 Paul Kramer published The Last Manchu based on an English translation from the Chinese original that was read onto tape by Kuo Ying Paul Tsai, Ph.D. Mr. Kramer condensed dull sections, transposed others, and generally improved on the original according to his lights, which however lacked the scholarship and acuity of McAleavy and Jenner. This condensed and revised Kramer version has now been republished by Pocket Books in 1987 with a new preface and epilogue. Meanwhile in Paris, Flammarion published in 1975 a French version: Pu Yi: Jétais empereur de Chine, translated from a German version, Pu Yi: Ich war Kaiser von China (Munich: Carl Hauser Verlag, 1973). This French edition is rearranged in content and has occasional footnotes to help the Western reader.

David Wilson (review date spring 1988)

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SOURCE: Wilson, David. “Peter Pan in the Forbidden City.” Sight and Sound 57, no. 2 (spring 1988): 134–35.

[In the following review, Wilson argues that although segments of Bertolucci's The Last Emperor are “magnificent,” they do not create a unified whole.]

‘Is it true I can do anything I like?’ The child's remark is half innocent, half aware of the corruptions of power—and perhaps the key to Bertolucci's interpretation of the life of the last Emperor of China. Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi was, literally, His Majesty the Child. Installed on the Dragon Throne in 1908 at the age of three, festooned by stepmothers, tutors, courtiers and an army of eunuchs (1,600 of them), the child emperor was omnipotent. In his confessional autobiography written—or ghosted—during the period of his rehabilitation by the Chinese Communist Party, Pu Yi describes a meal that was laid out for him each day in the Mind Nurture Palace. From Duck of Triple Delight to Ancestor Meat Soup, the menu occupies a page of text. But the food was not for eating: it was pure display, a hieratic ritual of the Ch'ing dynasty court.

This all-powerful monarch, Son of Heaven and Lord of Ten Thousand Years, absolute ruler of an empire which stretched from Siberia to Burma, ended his days as a gardener in the Beijing Botanical Gardens. Was this a fall from grace, of spectacular dimensions? Not according to the Chinese, who congratulated Bertolucci on the screenplay (by Mark Peploe and the director, with earlier collaboration by the late Enzo Ungari) for its account of Pu Yi's transformation from imperial dragon to model citizen of the People's Republic, just one face among the hundreds of cyclists waiting at a traffic light on their way to work.

Bertolucci himself sees The Last Emperor (Columbia) as a journey from darkness into light, where his previous films travelled from light to dark. So the film begins, immediately interposing its moral and political thematic, with that point in Pu Yi's life when he tried to end it, by cutting his wrists in a railway station washroom on the Sino-Soviet border. In one of those coded compositions that have become a characterising feature of Bertolucci's cinema, the camera closes on the red circle of blood. Pu Yi is saved, though, as he is to be ‘saved’ by ten years of political re-education.

It is this journey into light which determines the film's structure, and is reflected in the gradations of its style. As Pu Yi responds to his interrogator and to his mentor, the prison governor (played, with a nice irony, by China's Deputy Minister of Culture, Ying Ruocheng), we see a version of his extraordinary life. First, and at length, the oppressive pageant of the Manchu court. Great blocks of spectacle fill the screen as Vittorio Storaro's camera sweeps and swoops through the vast courtyards and the interior maze of the Forbidden City, or describes slow parabolas round the massed ranks of kowtowing courtiers. This is breathtaking cinema, its calculated grandiosity recalling, on a magnified scale, the geometrical architecture of The Conformist. As one bravura sequence follows another (crowds scurrying to turn their faces to the walls as their child emperor is carried through the streets; the venerable Empress Dowager propped up on her mammoth bed with a Pekinese dog at her feet), the film runs the risk, which it does not entirely avoid, of offering a surfeit of spectacle. But this is not of course mere spectacle, which for all its pomp and circumstance would soon become a visual tautology. What we have here is that familiar Bertolucci strategy of playing one perception against another, as Pu Yi's recollections are mediated by the director's formal commentary on them, and by the spectator's own shifting interpretation of these scenes.

Typically, in this first section, the camera will describe a line across a crowded scene before moving slightly off the horizontal. The angularity alerts us to a point of view, and as a formal device it is supported by the elaborate colour coding of Storaro's lighting. The early sequences in the palace are suffused in yellow and red (the yellow tiles evidently reminding Bertolucci of his birthplace, Parma). Cocooned in ritual, shielded from the forbidden world outside the Forbidden City, Pu Yi is a prisoner of this imperial pageant. The sense of confinement is nowhere better conveyed than in a vast open space as the boy, in extreme long shot, despairingly calls after his wet nurse when she is dismissed from the palace.

Even when the dynasty is forced to abdicate after the 1911 revolution, life within the Forbidden City continues as, in Pu Yi's words, ‘a theatre without an audience.’ A little light is let in with the arrival of a foreign tutor (Peter O'Toole, with a faltering Scottish accent but otherwise striking an agreeable balance between awe and canniness), who introduces his charge to some of the mysteries of the Occident. As Pu Yi emerges into adulthood, he also emerges tentatively out of the shadows cast by the towering walls of his entrapment. But not beyond them: confronted by a barred gate as he tries to leave the city, he hurls his pet white mouse against it.

Pu Yi as victim, then? We should know by now that Bertolucci could not entertain so reductive a view, and there have already been qualifying indications. The omnipotent child is not averse to the seductions of power. When even a cricket crawls from its box to kowtow to him, it is nothing for him to prove his power as emperor by obliging a Chinese tutor to drink green ink. The shade of Freud is never far from Bertolucci's films. It haunted The Conformist, and it is that film's dark obsessions which the central section of The Last Emperor most recalls.

Denied real power as a child by a surfeit of its trappings, Pu Yi as an adult (the excellent John Lone) is traduced into believing that he has found it when he is installed by the Japanese as puppet emperor of their client state of Manchukuo. With a retinue of camels and black limousines, the emperor's second coronation is enacted on a dusty plain in a replica of the Forbidden City's Temple of Heaven—and in the middle of nowhere. The power is illusory, an illusion reflected by the lighting and the decor throughout this part of the film. Cold greys and browns predominate, as Pu Yi's strings are pulled by the Japanese and his wife (Joan Chen) is seduced into opium addiction by a sinister temptress called Eastern Jewel (Maggie Han).

This agent of the dark, first seen in a startling brown leather flying suit, remains a mysterious figure. The focus hereabouts is blurred, as though the film were itself being seduced by its portrait of decadence: there is more than a touch of 1930s Hollywood Chinoiserie in the steamy shadows of the opium-smoking scenes. A similar sense of haste is evident in the relatively brief account of Pu Yi's final emergence into the light, with the result that we are not quite persuaded, as Bertolucci clearly means to persuade us, of the emperor's absorption into the collective consciousness of the Chinese people. The Cultural Revolution, presented as a piece of street theatre performed by fresh-faced students, and unpersuasively bringing on Pu Yi from the wings to protest about the prison governor's appearance in a parade of dunce-capped revisionists, looks like a Westerner's view of these somewhat less anodyne events. And the final sequence, as the gardener Pu Yi revisits the Forbidden City and ‘discovers’ his childhood cricket behind the throne to prove to a red-neckerchiefed boy that he was indeed the emperor, is astonishingly sentimental. The full-circle schematism of this scene is an indication of the film's ultimate failure to resolve its own contradictions. Not for the first time in Bertolucci's work, the parts do not quite build into a whole, even when that whole is built on shifting perspectives. But they are magnificent.

Robert Zaller (essay date winter 1989)

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SOURCE: Zaller, Robert. “After the Revolution: Bertolucci's The Last Emperor.Michigan Quarterly Review 28, no. 1 (winter 1989): 79–93.

[In the following essay, Zaller discusses the importance of The Last Emperor and praises Bertolucci for his combination of the tragic and the ridiculous in the film.]

The theme of this movie is change. Can a man change? The story of Pu Yi is a story of metamorphosis. From emperor to citizen … from caterpillar to butterfly. The extraordinary thing is that the film's story coincides completely with China today. China is changing, a big mutation is in progress. … The movie is somehow in synch with that.

—Bernardo Bertolucci1

It is axiomatic that an artist's own words are the best guide to his intentions. It is not necessarily the case with his results. In The Last Emperor, Bernardo Bertolucci has succeeded in making a movie not about change but about immobility—the immobility of personality, and the immobility of history. In doing so, he has come full circle as well in a cinematic project that began twenty-five years earlier in Before the Revolution. The Bertolucci of that precocious masterpiece was a young man in search of personal and political transcendence, a way beyond the bourgeois, Freudian ego in which his class and time had trapped him. Through purgative madness and disgust in the manner of Artaud (Partner), absorption in the false collectivity of Fascism (The Conformist), temporal reversal (The Spider's Stratagem), and sexual privatization (Last Tango in Paris), Bertolucci had explored the avenues of rebellion and escape afforded by his culture, and found that they terminated in stasis, despair, and death.2

Yet each such terminus formed the point of departure for another utopian projection upon history, another quest for a politics of liberation. In 1900, the film that marked the crisis of his career, Bertolucci seized upon an idealized peasantry, whose comradeship in the struggle for social justice in twentieth-century Italy represented the closest approach to an achieved vision of communal and sexual harmony available to him, as the image of his own quest for a reconciliation of personal and social identity. But the image, despite its cinematic virtuosity, was knowingly false: false to history, which Bertolucci stopped in freeze-frame at the moment of the illusory triumph of the peasant-partisan forces in 1945, and false to the reality of desire, which, formed under class relations, could not transcend them in the absence of a revolution that is both the precondition and the result of utopian desire. The result of this was an egregious contrast between the “natural” fulfillment of sexual impulse among the peasantry and the degeneracy of desire among the landed elite. This too rang false, not only by virtue of exaggeration but because the depiction of liberated sexuality in the unliberated peasantry reduced itself to a combination of naivete and prudery that was scarcely more (and, often, perilously less) appealing than the perversions of the elite.3

The most retrograde element in this film was that it was made at a time (1976) when no one, least of all the urbane Bertolucci, could have taken the idea of a revolutionary peasantry in Italy seriously. Indeed, the disappearance of this peasantry had been a salient theme of Before the Revolution, the absence of a revolutionary class had been the political starting-point of his film career, and the tough-minded engagement with Italy's fascist past had been one of the strengths of his early work.4

After the debacle of Luna (1979), Bertolucci's most openly Oedipal romance, he made a partial recovery in Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (1982), a film which returned him to the scene and scenario of Before the Revolution. Bertolucci's ridiculous man is Primo (Ugo Tognazzi), a small factory owner who knows that he is inauthentic, trapped between the memory of his peasant roots and the vision of a harmonious social order that he, as much as any, would gladly see lift the burden of historical responsibility from his shoulders. Thus, he takes pride in the fact that his factory, which processes cheese and pork, is connected with the soil, while his fellow industrialists deal in “inanimate” materials. On the other hand, despite the proprietary satisfaction he takes in his plant, he muses that if it were a cooperative and he its manager he would be safe from the class hatred (and self-contempt) to which he is now exposed.

The convoluted plot revolves around the staged abduction of Primo's son, Giovanni, by a revolutionary group to which Giovanni actually belongs. As Primo's suspicions about the abduction grow, his solicitude for his son turns to cynicism, and he accepts the report of Giovanni's death with alacrity, deciding to use the ransom he has raised to recapitalize his business. The story, whose details need not detain us here, quickly reverts to the familiar Bertoluccian themes of generational substitution and Oedipal conflict. Primo is a father who is not really looking for his son (as Athos, Jr. in The Spider's Stratagem is a son not really looking for his father); each is willing to betray the other, Primo to turn his son's reported death to profit, and Giovanni to use revolutionary politics as a pretext for stripping Primo of his fortune. The corruption of all relations within the capitalist order, especially those of its proudest product, the bourgeois family, is foreordained, and the truth about the terrorism of the Red Brigades is the same as that about fascism—they are both degenerative aspects of the same order.

Such a reading, however, suggests only half the issue. As Bertolucci's project has been the attempt to reconcile the individual and the social—posed most starkly by the warring visions of Freud and Marx—so, in the best of his work to this point, he had withheld judgment on the ultimate primacy of the personal or the political. Such a suspension had been possible as long as Bertolucci's films themselves remained fables of bourgeois revolt, fixed within the unsurpassable limit of the capitalist order. But this was an impasse for Bertolucci too; like his heroes, he was fated within that order to repetition, and while the tension of an unresolved quest had given vitality to his art, it also threatened its further development. The constriction of the political situation in Europe had led a number of directors, including Louis Malle and Wim Wenders, toward American subjects, and Bertolucci, declaring his interest in Italian society exhausted, attempted to revive a long-standing project to film Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest.

In the event, Bertolucci's next locale was neither Europe nor America, but the People's Republic of China, and his subject neither Hammett's novel nor (his own first preference for a Chinese project) Malraux's Man's Fate, but one urged on him by his hosts: the life of the last Manchu emperor, Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi. What the Chinese hoped for in promoting a film treatment of Pu Yi can perhaps best be gauged by the title of his exemplary autobiography, From Emperor to Citizen. What Bertolucci found instead was the tragedy of a truly ridiculous man, the epitome of his film heroes, and the clearest—perhaps the definitive—expression of the political irony that has been implicit in his work from the beginning.

The film pivots on its opening scene, which depicts the return of a trainload of Russian-held Chinese collaborators and war criminals, including Pu Yi, to the Communist authorities of the newly victorious People's Republic. From this moment, it proceeds backwards in a series of extended flashbacks from the presentation of the three-year-old Pu Yi at the Manchu court, and forward from the point of his arrival at the Chinese internment camp—a very different presentation at a very different court—to his rehabilitation as a citizen of the new order. No doubt Bertolucci's Chinese hosts found this opening highly appropriate, as marking the beginning of Pu Yi's rebirth. For the viewer, however, adopting the perspective of the still-unreconstructed Pu Yi, this narrative choice, centering the film in Pu Yi's memory, makes the long flashbacks a kind of remembered dream, the return to his captive present a living nightmare. It is only as the film turns slowly on this axis that the ends of the dream knit together, and are shown to enclose a single image.

That image is given in the film's first moments. The train bringing Pu Yi to the internment camp pulls into the station where a detachment of soldiers waits for it. The image is doubly ironic: it brings Pu Yi “home” to his native soil, but as a prisoner; and it provides him with a “guard” that will recall the imperial guard that prostrates itself before the boy-emperor, but which leads him instead to a cell. Above all, however, the image of the train itself commands: smoke-wreathed, photographed from a variety of elevations, thrusting itself majestically between the motionless ranks of men. Yet this image belies itself more than any other, for the train's motion is ultimately illusory: shuttling back and forth on its track, it paces and repaces its own steps, like a prisoner in his yard: it can “go,” ultimately, nowhere.5

The film unfolds this image with endlessly fertile variation, but, in essence, never departs from it. The sequence continues as Pu Yi alights from the train, is recognized by four men who prostrate themselves before him and are driven off by the soldiers, and attempts suicide in the dingy station washroom by slitting his wrists. The blood filling the basin has the effect of a Proustian Madeleine: it prepares us for the flashbacks that establish Pu Yi's past.

What Bertolucci finds in the story of Pu Yi's childhood and infancy is the perfect Oedipal paradigm, the bourgeois child's fantasy of omnipotence lived out as historical reality. The child-emperor, crowned at the age of two, lives in the hermetically sealed world of the Forbidden City, in which his every wish is, literally, law. He lives without sibling or rival, for there are no other children in the Forbidden City. The eunuchs who are his servitors and companions are nonthreatening fathers, for it is they and not he who have been castrated, and no other male dare approach or even gaze upon him. As the Son of Heaven, he is, indeed, fatherless from the beginning. When the wizened Dowager Empress announces to the infant Pu Yi, “The Emperor is dead,” and designates him his heir, she makes him symbolically an orphaned son. A crisis occurs when Pu Yi is visited by his younger brother, Pu Je. Pu Je is not only a reminder of the real continued existence of his father (and his continued potency as well), but of a world outside the Forbidden City which, after the republican revolution of 1911, no longer recognized the throne. Pu Yi, shocked by this challenge to his childish omnipotence, seeks to reaffirm it by forcing his elderly chamberlain to drink a tray of ink. It is the most horrific moment in the film, and perhaps the most personally charged one as well: Bertolucci began his own career as a writer, and his father is a poet.

But Pu Yi's father, in his own domain beyond the walls of the Forbidden City, possesses something else that mocks Pu Yi's omnipotence: his mother, from whom he has been separated since entering the Forbidden City. Her place is taken by his amah or wet nurse, to whom he has transferred his maternal needs and affections, without, however, forgetting her absence. Pu Yi's compensation for the loss of his mother is the exclusive possession of her surrogate, by whom he is suckled until the age of eight. Since the amah is the only nubile woman in the palace, this sense of exclusivity is strengthened. When, however, the late Emperor's former consorts, who never approach Pu Yi but observe him from a distance, see that his caresses have become exploratory, she, too, is summarily removed. Pu Yi chases after her, yelling helplessly, while she in turn begs to be allowed at least a farewell: “He is my child!”

In contrast to this anguished scene, the subsequent news of his mother's death leaves Pu Yi seemingly indifferent. When his tutor, who alone among the eunuchs exhibits some sympathy toward him, offers condolences, Pu Yi spurns them. But this event is decisive, for it reveals to him that the Forbidden City, with its promise of omnipotence, is a fraud, since it has withheld from him the one object he truly desired. He attempts to escape, only to have the portals of the City closed in his face. Climbing the roof of the palace, he threatens suicide, only to be rescued by a human chain of eunuchs. These are the only genuine acts of revolt in his life. They serve merely to reveal his true situation as a prisoner.

The now-adolescent Pu Yi is placated by another surrogate. The eunuchs engage him to the sexually assured Princess Wan Jung (Joan Chen). According to imperial tradition, he is also provided with a no less attractive Secondary Consort, thus affording him substitutes for both mother and nurse simultaneously. In a surpassingly erotic scene, Pu Yi takes both women to bed, and the three disappear under a rippling silk sheet where identities as well as bodies merge.

This idyl is menaced both by the ongoing revolution outside the walls and the machinations of the eunuchs within. The latter, who have systematically plundered the palace, set it afire to escape discovery. Pu Yi goes in fear of his life, but finds an ally in the Scots Orientalist, Reginald Johnston (Peter O'Toole), who is brought in to tutor him in “Western” subjects.

Pu Yi's relationship with Johnston puts the final impress on his character. The articles Johnston procures for him are symbolic as well as practical: spectacles for his poor eyesight (the eunuchs, it is intimated, would prefer him to go blind), and a bicycle, which gives him access to locomotion for the first time (though it does not enable him to leave the palace compound). But Johnston brings with him something far more precious: knowledge of the outside world, whose mastery is essential if Pu Yi is to achieve what has now become the ruling passion of his life: dominion in the great kingdom of his father. The first two questions he asks of Johnston are revelatory: “Why are you not wearing skirts?” (i.e., kilts); and, “Where are your ancestors buried?” In the presence of the first true male he has been alone with since entering the palace, and the first foreigner he has ever seen, what Pu Yi wants to know is, “Why are you not feminized?,” and, “Where is your father?” His anxiety about this latter question reveals itself further when he asks Johnston whether his predecessor had been assassinated. The Emperor Kuang-Hsi is his formal ancestor and, like him, a Son of Heaven, i.e., a son whose earthly father remains hidden. Dare he rule without incurring Kuang-Hsi's fate?

Johnston's replies are candid—another winning attribute in a house of lies—but he perpetuates in Pu Yi the most dangerous illusion of all, that he can in fact some day rule China. Pu Yi gives him his unswerving trust in part because he feeds this illusion, and the illusion is confirmed in part because of that trust.

Johnston's own political interest is obscure. When, while bargaining with the eunuchs for Pu Yi's eyeglasses, he is asked what he really wants, he replies, disingenuously, “The glasses.” Johnston “sees” through others in a double sense; he exposes the thievery and self-interest of the eunuchs, yet articulates no perspective of his own. In the end, he appears to be simply the medium through which Pu Yi passes to adulthood. These contradictions are reflected in O'Toole's performance, which goes for the butler manner, sacrificing in substance what it achieves in style. Yet Johnston's influence is pivotal. As the first male in the Emperor's mature life, he sets the pattern of his dependence on masculine authority figures. Pu Yi reveals himself in this relationship as a young man desperately in need of guidance, yet fixed upon achieving a single goal. As such, he will be easily manipulated by anyone who sees what he wants.

Pu Yi (played as an adult by John Lone) is finally not liberated but driven from the Forbidden City by the warlord Feng Yuxiang. Johnston urges him to take refuge in the British embassy, but he chooses the Japanese legation instead. While living through the late 1920s in Tianjin as a Westernized playboy—he and the Empress adopt the names of “Henry” and “Elizabeth”—Pu Yi falls increasingly under the sway of the Japanese, who appear to combine Western efficiency and strength with a hieratic vision of society governed by a feudal code. Despite the warnings of the Empress, he finds a new “tutor” in Amakasu (Ryuichi Sakamoto), a dashing Japanese diplomat and adventurer. When Japan occupies Manchuria in 1931, Pu Yi is easily persuaded to become emperor of the puppet state of Manchukuo.

Bertolucci's Asian fascists are in many ways a reprise of his Italian ones. For the bourgeois, he suggests,—and, under the swank, Manchukuo is very much a bourgeois court—the temptation is always fascism. We are once again in the Thirties, the decade before Bertolucci's birth that is the setting of The Conformist and The Spider's Stratagem, the period that is always before the revolution. Here, too, as in virtually all of Bertolucci's films, the personal commerce of sexual exchange and betrayal takes place on the dance floor. “Henry” and “Elizabeth” dance among jaded couples in silence; after the music stops, the consort, no less apt a pupil of modernity than her master, says, “I want a divorce.”

Pu Yi is able to hold neither of his women. His consort decamps, while Wan Jung drifts into opium and a spiteful, self-destructive romance with his female cousin, “Eastern Jewel,” who courts her on the dance floor and services her addiction. Eastern Jewel is Amakasu's mistress as well, and, despite her royal status, boasts that she is a “spy” for the Japanese. She offers herself with insulting casualness to Pu Yi, but her real function is to isolate him from any influence but that of his new mentors.

It is not a difficult task. As Pu Yi relapses into his childhood fantasy of omnipotence, he regresses to a prepubertal state as well. He rejects Wan Jung sexually on the pretext that she, like his mother, is an opium addict, thereby negating the most obvious of his imperial functions, the production of an heir. When Wan Jung announces that she has become pregnant for the sake of the throne, he responds with equanimity if not indifference. Shirking paternal responsibility and stigmatizing his marital partner with a taboo image of his mother, he is psychologically if not physically impotent, a eunuch in effect.

The other dimension of Pu Yi's impotence is revealed to him on his return from a state visit to his Japanese counterpart, Hirohito, whom he fancies as a “brother” emperor. This meeting, like the one with his real brother Pu Je in the Forbidden City, results in the discovery that his power is an illusion. In his absence, his personal guard has been disarmed, and his chief minister sacked. Amakasu presents a decree giving the Japanese plenary powers, and demands his signature. This time the tray of ink is Pu Yi's to swallow. Amakasu also informs him that he cannot allow his honor to be stained by the Empress's infidelity. Her lover—Pu Yi's chauffeur—is summarily executed, her baby is given a fatal injection, and Wan Jung herself is spirited off to a “clinic.” Pu Yi chases after her limousine, only to have the palace gates closed a second time in his face.

Bertolucci bypasses the war years, pausing only over the final collapse of the Japanese occupation and Pu Yi's capture by the Russians.6 The film returns to the narrative present of his captivity in China. The former Son of Heaven is forced to clean his slops and to write his name on the floor. At the age of forty-four he must learn to tie his shoelaces, and—he whose feces were once sniffed and sifted like treasure by his eunuchs—to urinate into the communal bucket at night without waking his cellmates.

At first, Pu Yi adamantly maintains that he had been abducted by the Japanese and forced to assume his puppet throne. A propaganda film showing Japanese atrocities appears to shock him for the first time into realizing the nature of his collaboration. He responds, characteristically, by assuming full blame even for events of which, as his exasperated captors point out, he could have had no knowledge. For Pu Yi, the question of actual responsibility does not exist; there is only absolute innocence or absolute guilt, just as there is no question of actual political power, but only of impotence or omnipotence.

Pu Yi finally accepts a new tutor in the camp's governor (Ying Ruocheng), who assumes personal supervision of his case. In a crucial scene, the governor confronts him with passages from Johnston's memoir, Twilight in the Forbidden City, which contradict his account of having been abducted by the Japanese. In reading Johnston's words, the governor symbolically assumes his mantle, patiently leading Pu Yi to the new “truth” he must learn. He adopts the trade of gardener, and habituates himself to his surroundings. After nine years, he is unexpectedly released. The governor calls him forward at a camp assembly, and, like a school principal graduating his prize pupil, gives him his freedom. “You see,” he tells Pu Yi, “I will end up living in prison longer than you.”

The governor's remark soon gets a grim twist. In the following scene, an elderly Pu Yi, now employed in the botanical gardens that were once part of the imperial grounds, is overtaken in the street by a troop of Red Guards brandishing posters of Mao and leading a group of shackled prisoners. Among them, to Pu Yi's horror, is the governor. Prodded by his captors to confess his guilt, he obstinately refuses, upon which he is forced to his knees in a parody of the kowtow. Pu Yi tries to intercede, telling the Guards that they have made a mistake: “This man is a good teacher!” But he is pushed aside, and history goes its way.

For Pu Yi, there is nowhere to go but home. The film's penultimate and climactic scene shows him in front of the ticket window of what could be taken at first for an afternoon movie. It is instead the admission gate to the Forbidden City, now open to all, but, at this moment of China's history, visited by none. Pu Yi wanders alone through the grounds and the palace. Coming upon his former throne, he begins to mount it. He is stopped by a young boy cadet, who seems to materialize from nowhere, and tells him that no one is permitted to climb the throne. Pu Yi explains that this was his chair, and, to prove it, he retrieves from behind the throne a tiny case containing the cricket he had sequestered there six decades before. The cricket crawls out slowly, brown with age but miraculously alive. Pu Yi turns with a smile, and shows it to the boy.

It is a magical moment—reminding us, among other things, of how much Bertolucci owes to Fellini—and one that brings the film to a conclusion that is as artistically gratifying as it seems politically problematic. In The Last Emperor Bertolucci at last lives through the revolution, and comes out on the other side to discover that, although everything has been turned upside down, in a fundamental sense nothing has changed. In Pu Yi, the emperor who is also a revolutionary Everyman, the man who lives the most singular childhood of the twentieth century to become the most anonymous of adults, the extraordinary nonentity who passes, with classic Marxist rigor, from feudal monarch to bourgeois dandy to Voltairean care-taker of what, in Mao's dystopic nightmare, is no one's garden, Bertolucci has found a perfect political analogue for the Freudian human comedy of which, for him, the social order is ultimately a projection. In the end, the emperor has no more escaped his cage than the cricket has; and yet, by the same token, he has always been safe in it. In the palaces at Beijing and Manchukuo, in the Villa Chan in Tianjin, in the Russian and Chinese camps, and, finally, in the open-air prison he shares with a billion fellow Chinese, he is always in confinement: too sacred to be given freedom, too indispensable to be harmed. Whether worshipped by millions as the Son of Heaven or the relict bearer of an identity all but forgotten even by himself, he retains the aura of the last man on earth who has ruled by divine right. It is true of course that this aura is a tinsel absurdity, a fraud; it is enough that Pu Yi believed in it once, and, in his heart of hearts, believes it still.

“May the Son of Heaven live ten thousand years!” This toast, with which Pu Yi is ritually greeted on state occasions, symbolizes the immortality of the dynasty and the empire of which the emperor is the mortal representative. By comparison, the face of Mao, bobbing up and down on a stick in the arms of the Red Guard, seems a precarious parody. Mao is omnipresent, and his retouched image has a counterfeit softness, like an icon worn smooth by generations of worshippers; yet the revolution that has so quickly devoured its “teachers” seems destined not to last. One recalls the moment when Pu Yi rises during the indoctrination film that depicts the Japanese occupation. Hirohito announces Japan's surrender as the camera pans over its devastated cities, and the commentator notes that this was the first time his voice had ever been broadcast. Pu Yi's face seems to register the fact that his brother emperor, too, has been a man in a cage; and yet, at the same time, the film seems to acknowledge that only the emperor has the power of surrender: his voice alone can command where all other authority has failed.7

Such implicit comparisons might seem paradoxical if not perverse, for of course there can be no substantive equation between the world-historical figure of Mao and the figurehead Hirohito. It is striking as well that, in a film ostensibly concerned with the greatest peasant revolution in history, not a single peasant appears; and still more so when one reflects on the glorification of the revolutionary peasantry in 1900. The very essence of fascism in Bertolucci's early films is bad faith and betrayal; but how are we to take the portrayal of a socialist revolution whose only sympathetic representative is degraded for his pains? It is not difficult from this perspective to understand Bertolucci's sudden respectability in Hollywood; the reaction of his Chinese hosts and of his colleagues in the PCI (Italian Communist Party) is likely to be more equivocal.8

In the end, the panorama of Chinese history, as of Italian, serves Bertolucci as a backdrop for his continuing exploration of the Freudian romance. It is not Pu Yi's presence in the history of his time but his exclusion from it that constitutes the real premise of the film. The very richness of Bertolucci's effects belies the claustral nature of his vision. The camera remains almost entirely within Pu Yi's physical perspective; a few brief scenes excepted, what he sees is what we see. The result is a revolution shown not through its heroes and leaders but its jailers, whose fate is to be jailed in their turn, and who are perceived through the eyes of a man born to perpetual imprisonment.

The nature of Pu Yi's condition necessarily makes him the revolution's most intrinsically hostile witness. Yet, while confining himself within Pu Yi's construction of reality, Bertolucci refuses to ratify it. The result is an all-pervasive irony. What Pu Yi might see, if that irony were relented, is a man destined to confinement under every regime and dispensation, a man in a cage who can see nothing but a change of uniform in his guards. But Pu Yi is vouchsafed nothing of the sort. He is a captive who fantasizes his condition as omnipotence, drawing out the universal infantile fantasy of Everyman into the make-believe supremacy of his imperial fortress, a delusion separated from madness only by the conspiracy of those around him to support it.

This “conspiracy of the elders,” Bertolucci suggests, is all that we, as historical subjects, can know of reality; it is the world we are given but are powerless to make. Pu Yi's fantasy of omnipotence is both the measure of his concrete powerlessness and, as for childhood everywhere, its sole consolation. We do not, of course, remain children; we move forward in time to meet our fate, aided by that last illusion, freedom. What we discover, as our fathers pass, is that our history is no more ours to make than it was theirs; we, as they, are condemned to repeat it. Such is the vision The Last Emperor offers. When Pu Yi turns to show the cricket to the boy cadet who is both China's future and his own ageless self, the child in the palace untroubled by the passage of years, he affirms his own sovereignty, passing the scepter of a common destiny over the heads of the generations, the mandate of heaven itself.

It is too rich a gesture to be consummated; Pu Yi turns with his smile, and then disappears. The smile remains, like a Buddha's, fixed in historical memory. It leaves the mystery of authority, which so often abides in the most perfectly powerless, and which can never be quite renounced by those whom it has possessed.

The film ends, then, where it began, with the ancient imperial throne of the Middle Kingdom; and it ends, too, for all practical purposes, with the last emperor beckoning a child to climb it. It is a gesture of renewal, but also one of repetition; a new reign is about to begin, with or without an acknowledged emperor, for what the figure of the monarch symbolizes is the identification of the cycle of history—the collective destiny of all—with the life of one. The absence of monarchy, the overthrow of the old regime, is not, as modern revolutionaries have sometimes naively assumed, the overcoming of the cycle, but only the displacement of its image. The vacant throne, shown in the film's final scene to a tourist group, reminds us silently of the ineluctability of myth.

But Bertolucci does far more than to evoke the commonplace association between the ruler's life span and the historical cycle. By reflecting modern China's history through the man who was its most isolated and yet symbolically implicated figure, and by emphasizing the Oedipal drama as the central theme in that man's life, he offers a strikingly Freudian representation of historical process. Pu Yi signifies the collapse of history into Oedipal fantasy, a fantasy which, since it is shared by all, is retrojected onto the stage of our common life, and symbolized by the figure of the emperor, the immortal child-father of his people.

This representation is all the more effective because it avoids the reductiveness of psychohistory; it offers analogy and metaphor, not explanation. Pu Yi is no Hitler, writing his delusions large on history; his personal life had perhaps less effect on events at the level of agency than that of the humblest soldier in Mao's army. It is, indeed, his very isolation from the historical contest that offers Bertolucci the freedom of analogy. The private and the public realms both retain their autonomy, and no determining reality is accorded either.

In this sense, Bertolucci does not make a “choice” of Marx or Freud in The Last Emperor, but continues to search for ways of evoking the transcendent reality that embraces the vision of each. If what lies hidden in what Arthur Miller calls the “comradely promise” of Marxism is parricide, then the alienation of the Marxist subject of history and the anxiety of the Freudian subject of culture may have a common root too. What is rejected is the millennial aspect of revolutionary Marxism as the final and perfect resolution of history. If it is cynicism to accept the mere historical given, it is folly, Bertolucci now suggests, to attempt the transcendence of history as such. The permanent revolution can only be a revolt against mankind itself.

To maintain one's footing among such issues is no small accomplishment, and to depict a Pu Yi without slipping into bathos or condescension, to render both the crippled human being and the indefeasible symbol, is artistry of a special order. The Last Emperor is perhaps not a great film, but it is an important one. It signifies a new maturity in Bertolucci, and suggests, in its ability to reconcile the tragic and the ridiculous, what may finally be the making of a major comic artist.


  1. Quoted in Tony Rayns, “Bertolucci in Beijing,” Sight and Sound, 56, 1 (Winter 1986/87), p. 38.

  2. For more extended comments on Bertolucci's early work, see my “Bernardo Bertolucci, or Nostalgia for the Present,” Massachusetts Review, 15, 4 (Fall 1975), 807–28.

  3. Cf. Robert Burgoyne, “The Somatization of History in Bertolucci's 1900,Film Quarterly, XL, 1 (Fall 1986), 7–14, for a perceptive discussion of these issues.

  4. 1900 also marked the beginning of a disturbing tendency toward self-piratization in Bertolucci's films. The film opens with a young partisan who has assumed the name and identity of its martyred hero, Olmo, confronting the villainous padrone, Alfredo, at the moment of liberation. This scene precisely inverts the plot of The Spider's Stratagem, whose hero, Athos, journeys backward in time to discover that his heroic father was a traitor and a fraud. The partisan is permitted to keep his illusion in 1900; thus, what was emplotted as satire in The Spider's Stratagem returns, unmediated, as romance. Similarly, as Pauline Kael has pointed out (The New Yorker, November 30, 1987), the brutal squashing of the cat in 1900 is replicated in Pu Yi's squashing of his pet mouse in The Last Emperor. Bertolucci's work abounds in self-reference and self-quotation—inevitably, perhaps, in a project such as his—but the manipulation of symmetrically transposed images, symbols, and situations for radically different ends raises serious questions of control and integrity.

  5. Cf. the association of trains and terminals with circularity, immobilization, and temporal regression in The Spider's Stratagem. Trains figure prominently in The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris as well.

  6. Pu Yi's abortive attempt to escape by plane in this scene (the Russians, who descend by parachute, swarm aboard and capture it) underscores the symbolic significance of the train which brings him into captivity—chronologically the next scene in his life, although not in the film's narrative order.

  7. A similar point is made earlier when Amakasu presents Pu Yi with the decree that strips him of his power. Pu Yi has no choice but to sign it, of course, but Amakasu himself wears a pinned sleeve: he has lost an arm. On one level, the scene foreshadows the ultimate collapse of the Japanese empire, but in another, it underlines the ironic dependence of even the most brutal power on even the most spurious legitimacy: Amakasu directs Pu Yi's pen, but it is the emperor's hand alone that can effect the “transfer” of even a power he never possessed.

  8. The Chinese had rejected Bertolucci's first project, Man's Fate, on the grounds that it portrayed the revolutionary struggle too negatively.

Paul G. Pickowicz (review date October 1989)

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SOURCE: Pickowicz, Paul G. Review of The Last Emperor, by Bernardo Bertolucci. American Historical Review 94, no. 4 (October 1989): 1035–36.

[In the following review, Pickowicz argues that Bertolucci ignores important issues of Chinese history in The Last Emperor.]

Bernardo Bertolucci spent 25 million dollars making The Last Emperor and won nine Oscars for his effort, but historians of China, with few exceptions, refuse to take this lavish production very seriously. Among other things, they object to the invention of some episodes, such as Pu Yi's attempted suicide in 1950, and the inexplicable omission of genuinely important moments in his life, such as his five-year imprisonment in the Soviet Union in the late 1940s.

But a more serious difficulty is that the story is based primarily on the notoriously unreliable “official autobiography” published by the Chinese government in 1963 after Pu Yi had undergone nine years of “reform through labor” in a Chinese prison for “war criminals.” The film, like the autobiography, views the last emperor's life through Communist party-approved lenses. Of course, Bertolucci had no choice, since some form of government script control is normally a precondition for filming in China. In fact, Li Wenda, the man who “helped” Pu Yi write his autobiography nearly thirty years ago, was brought in to advise Bertolucci. The Last Emperor demonstrates just how risky it is to base visual accounts of history on a written text, especially when the text is seriously flawed.

But why not give Bertolucci the benefit of the doubt by treating The Last Emperor as a work of fiction and ignoring the sort of embellishments one expects to find in commercial films? As a fictional account, does it offer any interesting insights on the social, economic, cultural, and political problems of China in the twentieth century? The answer, unfortunately, is no. Bertolucci, unlike the producers of Reds (1982), does virtually nothing to locate the story of an individual life in a meaningful historical context. The film is trapped by its subject, a powerless and pathetic pawn whose life is irrelevant to the central issues of his time. The problems that preoccupy historians—the 1911 revolution, political and social currents, the May Fourth Movement, the Nationalist-Communist alliance, the Nanjing decade, the rise of the Communist party during World War II, and the Cultural Revolution—are never introduced in a coherent way. The audience, like the emperor himself, is kept in the dark about events in China. There is only interminable chaos and confusion.

The Last Emperor is biographical in the narrowest sense of the word. It is an account of Pu Yi's lifelong imprisonment that manages to imprison the audience by never allowing the viewer to see the complex and dynamic Chinese world that lies beyond the Forbidden City in Beijing, the imperial residence in Changchun and the labor camp in Fushun. The contribution of the film is limited to a portrait of an emperor who has no realm and is manipulated first by aging imperial consorts and corrupt eunuchs, and later by Japanese militarists and Communist revolutionaries.

Bertolucci had a chance to break new ground on the truly interesting issue of the relationship between Pu Yi and the Japanese in the 1925–1945 period, but his treatment of the Japanese amounts to little more than a recasting of the crude, one-dimensional caricatures of Japan that have appeared time and again in Chinese films since 1937. The subject of Communist labor camps offered Bertolucci another opportunity to make a contribution, but his representation shows conditions that are far better than the ones that existed in the network of hellish labor camps that were so busy in the 1950s.

Although The Last Emperor has virtually nothing significant to say about the major issues in modern Chinese history, the first portion of the film, which begins when the three-year-old monarch enters the Imperial Palace in 1908 and ends when he is forced out in 1924, twelve years after his abdication, is both visually stunning and of considerable ethnographic interest. Bertolucci did what Chinese filmmakers have never been allowed to do, that is, go inside the Forbidden City to re-create in meticulous detail richly textured images of court life. These include breathtaking treatments of the arrival of the three-year-old emperor-designate in November 1908, his coronation in December 1908 and his marriage to Wan Rong in 1922. Perhaps more interestingly, they also portray things such as the emotional relationship between the boy emperor and the wet nurse who breastfeeds him until he is ten years old, and Pu Yi's use of Republican troops to expel 1,500 eunuchs (who depart with testicles in hand) from the Forbidden City in 1923.

Unfortunately, non-specialist viewers, denied any meaningful information about the historical backdrop, are likely to be attracted to these gorgeous re-creations for the wrong reasons. By electing not to introduce relevant historical themes, Bertolucci is reduced to cataloging fascinating “oriental exotica.” In short, his film won nine Oscars not because it broke new cinematic ground but because it departs in no significant way from a familiar Hollywood formula that insists on treating Asia as mysterious and unfathomable.

Sean French (review date winter 1990)

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SOURCE: French, Sean. “The Road to Morocco.” Sight and Sound 60, no. 1 (winter 1990): 66–67.

[In the following review, French offers a negative assessment of The Sheltering Sky.]

Nicolas Roeg was reportedly disappointed when Bernardo Bertolucci finally managed to make a screen version of Paul Bowles' novel The Sheltering Sky, since this was a project he had been aspiring to do for some years. This is puzzling as he had already adapted the novel—albeit obliquely and partially—back in 1978. In Bad Timing, arguably Roeg's masterpiece as well as his last noteworthy film, the free spirit Milena (Theresa Russell) is seen at one point somewhat improbably reading a first edition of the novel. Then she and her lover Alex (Art Garfunkel) leave for a holiday in Morocco that strikingly resembles early chapters of the book. The rest of the film could suggestively be seen as Roeg's variations on Bowles' theme of an American couple destroying each other in a doomed relationship while adrift abroad.

By curious chance, the producer of Bad Timing was Jeremy Thomas, who was brought in by Bertolucci to produce his own large-scale, big-budget—and in my view considerably less interesting—screen adaptation of the novel. The screenplay for The Sheltering Sky (Palace), written by Bertolucci with his brother-in-law Mark Peploe, is consistently faithful to Bowles' original vision of a sort of D. H. Lawrence of Arabia. Port Moresby (John Malkovich), an unsuccessful composer, and his wife Kit (Debra Winger) arrive together with a handsome young socialite, Tunner (Campbell Scott), in Tangier in 1947 in search of spiritual adventure. They think of themselves as travellers not tourists. Port is immediately unfaithful with a local prostitute, Kit with Tunner. Then they travel inland, where enticing decadence is replaced by genuine danger, squalor, poverty and disease. Conflict and tragedy separate the trio, and the book's climax focuses on Kit as she has an intense, virtually wordless affair with a nomad with whose caravan she has hitched a ride.

Bertolucci has made few obtrusive changes. Kit is no longer a blonde but a short-haired brunette, closely resembling Paul Bowles' wife, Jane, who inspired the character. And Paul Bowles himself appears in the film as the narrator, ironically observing the characters in various Tangier bars and making sage observations on the action.

But for the most part Bertolucci follows the original to an almost undiscriminating degree. It now seems difficult to imagine that he was one of the cinema's major Marxist directors. He had the genius and arrogance not just to make major European films, but to appropriate and rework the most cherished American icons. Once upon a Time in the West, whose script he worked on, was the first Western in which the protagonist turned out to be the proletariat. In Last Tango in Paris, he collaborated with Marlon Brando in an extraordinary attempt to dismantle one of America's most adored screen personae.

It is disconcerting to compare the subversive playfulness of the early work with the stolid spectacle of his new film. Of course the portrait of Morocco is visually striking, photographed by Bertolucci's old collaborator, Vittorio Storaro, one of the greatest cinematographers in the world. But the novel, which at least in certain episodes has dated cruelly, remains disappointingly unexamined. It followed a long tradition of works in which civilised Westerners face the horrific chaos of alien cultures. The Moroccans in the book—and in the film—are not individuals, but represent the dark, violent, unknowable side of life and sexuality.

Port's contention that the trio are not tourists now seems absurd, and one might expect Bertolucci to convey some sense of a functioning society into which the Americans uncomprehendingly blunder. But the Third World exists here, as so often before, only as a place in which Westerners learn lessons about themselves.

Bertolucci also takes over the book's more meretricious attractions, in particular a view of exotic sexuality that derives more from old Rudolph Valentino movies than a close scrutiny of nomadic customs. In Last Tango in Paris, anonymous sex is seen in all its facets of excitement, desperation and fear. The ludicrous affair between Kit and Belqassim (as he is in the novel; he is not named in the film) is an erotic fantasy straight out of an ignoble tradition, the white woman sexually satisfied by the potent Bedouin, lubriciously and uncritically endorsed in Bertolucci's picturesque images. This is the Middle East as sensual playground, with Debra Winger constantly seen nude, illuminated by rays of light filtered through shutters and screens.

Bertolucci's only fully successful use of an English-speaking actor has been in Last Tango in Paris, where he appeared simply to have turned Marlon Brando loose. In The Sheltering Sky, he displays the same cloth ear for English that was so regrettable in the work of Truffaut. Two fine actors, Timothy Spall and the late Jill Bennett, are allowed to give crude, shallow reworkings of the traditional English abroad that seem to belong to another film and another era.

At 140 minutes, the film is a good half-hour too long. It is not that there is too much incident, but that sequences go on far too long and the main actors are greatly indulged. Bertolucci has always had a weakness for the operatically overstated, and the central scene of Port's fatal illness is wildly over-long, and over-acted by both Malkovich and Winger.

When Bowles' novel was first published in the late 40s, it was, rather like Brideshead Revisited, a tonic to wartime austerity. In its modish pessimism, there is also an excitement that Americans were able to travel again. But what is Bertolucci's film for in 1990? I suspect that the director was attracted because the subject is the price of sexuality. The story shows that there is no such thing as an escape, and that exoticism is a dangerous mirage. But this is hardly news. In its portrayal of the Middle East and our illusions about it, The Sheltering Sky is a definite step back from Lawrence of Arabia, and that's saying something.

Bernardo Bertolucci and David Gritten (interview date 9 December 1990)

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SOURCE: Bertolucci, Bernardo, and David Gritten. “His Just Desert: Director Bernardo Bertolucci Turned from the Epic Sweep of The Last Emperor to the Arid Alienation of The Sheltering Sky.Los Angeles Times (9 December 1990): 23.

[In the following interview, Bertolucci discusses the making of The Sheltering Sky, how the film differs from The Last Emperor, and his relationship with his film crew.]

It's fair to say that if Bernardo Bertolucci believed in omens, he would never have embarked on The Sheltering Sky, his $22-million epic film adaptation of the 1949 Paul Bowles novel.

The Italian director, unquestionably one of the world's few great filmmakers, was of two minds about making The Sheltering Sky when he went to visit Bowles in Tangier. He was preoccupied by his wish to follow the astonishing success of his previous movie, The Last Emperor, which became both a commercial and critical hit, sweeping the board at the 1988 Academy Awards with nine Oscars.

“I was mugged by a guy with a knife in Tangier,” says Bertolucci, shrugging casually. “I saw an incredible fear in him. I really saw death in his eyes.

“That was when I decided to do this movie.”

Excuse me? “Well,” says Bertolucci, “it was like a sign to me that there was something wrong going on here. It was like … a challenge. And the film has been a challenge.”

Indeed. After Bertolucci committed to filming The Sheltering Sky, he auditioned almost every bankable actor and actress of the right age in Hollywood before choosing his two leads—William Hurt and Melanie Griffith. “And then,” he says picturesquely, “they both got pregnant. They asked me to delay the picture for six months because we were shooting in the North African desert, and they didn't want the babies to be born there. But it wasn't possible.” Another bad omen.

Still, Debra Winger and John Malkovich were recruited to step into the breach, and shooting started. After a spell in Tangier, the crew moved inland to Erfoud, an oasis town. “It hadn't rained for seven years,” Bertolucci recalls dolefully. “The day we arrived, it rained an incredible amount.”

It rained so hard that roads and bridges were swept away, leaving cast and crew members stranded in three groups, unable to communicate with each other. More bad omens.

In Niger, where the crew was due to fly for the last three weeks of production, a government minister denied their plane permission to land, insisting that they use an aircraft of Air Niger. “It was hard, but I shot The Last Emperor in China and Manchuria, which was hard too. Exciting, though,” Bertolucci says.

The great man has come bounding from producer Jeremy Thomas' small office, smiling, ebullient and eager to talk. At 49, he looks mellower and less wild-eyed than in days gone by. Word is that Bertolucci—Marxist, Freudian, Verdi fanatic, art lover and unreconstructed egoist—can still rant and rave in interviews if he dislikes the tone of questions. But today, in a navy blue sweater and corduroy shirt, he is casual and relaxed.

He throws out his arms wildly in a gesture of greeting—and knocks a cup of black coffee being brought to him by one of Thomas' assistants over her white blouse. But enough of omens.

“Friends of mine like Mark Peploe (his co-writer) had talked to me about The Sheltering Sky for years,” he says, settling at last and sucking on tiny licorice pellets he shakes from a small ornate tin. “They spoke of the book with all the arrogance of the members of a secret society, and I was irritated by that. When I did the Chinese movie (The Last Emperor) I took the book with me. And I was haunted.”

But the rights to the book belonged to the estate of the late director Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen,Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?). After completing The Last Emperor, says Bertolucci, “there was the usual question—quoi faire? What to do next?”

He met with Aldrich's son Bill, “and in a very short time we decided we could do it together. I conceived of The Sheltering Sky as a kind of anti-Last Emperor, as a completely private project. This is a story about two people in the desert, instead of a movie with 20,000 extras. The Last Emperor was talking about history in capital letters. This was a film about intimate, private destinies.”

The Sheltering Sky is the story of two Manhattan sophisticates, Port Moresby (Malkovich) and his wife, Kit (Winger). He is a blocked composer; she is obsessed by omens. Their 10-year marriage is at a low ebb, and they undertake a journey into the desert wilderness in an attempt to rekindle their passion. But their reconciliation is thwarted, first by sexual dalliances, then by harsh physical conditions as they travel inland from Tangier, and lastly by despair and sickness.

When he got mugged in Tangier, Bertolucci was on his way to ask Bowles the extent to which the story was about him and his novelist wife, Jane. “Paul refused to admit any coincidence between their lives and the book,” he says. “I didn't believe him then, and I don't believe him today.”

Other attempts had been made to write screenplays from The Sheltering Sky, but all had met with failure. “The book is very literary,” says Bertolucci. “It is full of interior voices, even interior dialogues. People think one thing, and say something else.”

He and Peploe did seven or eight revisions of their script. “The major effort,” says Bertolucci, “was breaking the veil of literature to see the simple truth of the story. Finally, I was in Tangier two or three weeks before shooting started, and I began to think that we had gone too far. There was no trace of ‘literature’ in the script. This was too much.”

Thus Bertolucci hit upon the device of employing Bowles, now 80 years old, as a physical presence in the movie, observing the story's beginning and end in a Tangier bar, and doing some narrating in voice-overs. The device is already a major topic of discussion among adherents of the novel who saw The Sheltering Sky at the London Film Festival last month.

How does all this bode for the success of The Sheltering Sky? Warner Bros. has a major stake in the film, and the studio hopes Bertolucci and Jeremy Thomas have again spun the same magic that made a risky, unlikely big-budget venture like The Last Emperor a crowd-pleasing Oscar winner.

As if to protect himself from these pressures, Bertolucci has reunited all but one of the team that so gratified the Academy voters—himself, Thomas and Peploe; Vittorio Storaro (cinematography); James Acheson (costume design); Gabriella Cristiani (editor); Ryuichi Sakamoto (music), and Ivan Sharrock (sound). The film is remarkably beautiful in certain passages; Storaro and Bertolucci may have done more for desert vistas than any filmmaker since David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia.

But The Sheltering Sky may be a daunting marketing prospect. For one thing, its tone is resolutely downbeat. “The hardest thing about making this film,” says Bertolucci, “was living with these desperate physical circumstances, and then having actors able to stand the weight of this very painful love story.” Some scenes are also explicitly erotic—a factor which may deter more conservative audiences, not to mention Academy members.

Then again, for what is essentially an intense, private love story, The Sheltering Sky is conceived on an epic scale, full of wide-angle shots of the desert landscape. It is also 138 minutes long. “Well, if you say it's an epic, OK,” says Bertolucci. “I like to think of it maybe as an epic of the sentiments. It took a long time for me to deliver this film, but when I did I was quite satisfied with it.”

Bertolucci is also buoyant about the relationship he has forged with Jeremy Thomas. “We have found a nice formula,” he says. “We are doing independent movies. That usually means first movies or low-budget films, but we are proving we can make big-budget movies and be competitive with Hollywood.

“When we did The Last Emperor, Jeremy had to go to banks to raise money, because no one believed in the project. But at least it means I don't have to go through the sometimes painful process of discussing the screenplay or the casting with the big brains in the studios.” He winces a little.

Speaking later by phone, Thomas confirmed that The Last Emperor had been hard to sell. “Bernardo had not made a film for quite a few years, I hadn't had a big success, there was the problem of shooting in China. We suffered from a big credibility gap.”

Thomas describes The Sheltering Sky as “quasi-independent” because of Warner Bros.' financial stake, adding that the studio's backing and the success of The Last Emperor made money-raising a simpler prospect. “We discussed the material,” he says of Warner Bros., “and they left us alone to make the movie.”

The studio did not ask for the movie to be shortened, said Thomas, who also denied reported speculation that Warner Bros. had forced Debra Winger on him and his director.

In fact, Bertolucci is highly enthusiastic about his leading lady—if a little concerned. “I have never seen an actor so obsessed with her character,” he says. “She steals from her life to make a character richer. But then she steals from her characters for her life. There's a confusion between her and her character.” After the 17-week shoot, Bertolucci says, Winger was unable to come out of character, pack up and go home to America. Instead she spent a week with Tuaregs, nomadic tribesmen who live in Niger, and actually ventured into even more remote desert regions.

He shakes his head in bewilderment. “But she has the strength of intelligence.”

For once, it seems that Bertolucci, who derisively and memorably referred to Hollywood as “the big nipple” during his Oscar acceptance speech, has avoided a brush with a studio.

This was not always the case. By his early 30s, Bertolucci was already a director of world repute after two brilliant Italian movies—The Spider's Stratagem (1969) and his adaptation of Alberto Moravia's The Conformist (1970)—and his sensational English language debut, the erotic masterpiece Last Tango in Paris (1972). “It was a special period of my life,” he says now. “I could do anything I wanted after Last Tango in Paris. Anything.”

So he did. He made a monumental movie for Paramount called 1900, starring, among others, the young Robert DeNiro and the young Gerard Depardieu. Burt Lancaster joined the cast and worked for expenses simply to be a part of it.

But there were huge problems. Bertolucci's cut of the movie was 5 1/4 hours long. “I always planned for it to be seen in two parts,” he says now, perfectly deadpan. The fingerprints of his Marxist philosophy were all over the movie; 1900, in tracing the rise and fall of Italian peasant socialism in the first half of this century, attempted to give communism a humane face. “It was completely killed by the studio,” he says.

Having confronted the Hollywood power structure and lost, Bertolucci seemed to go into a creative slump. His Luna (1979), with Jill Clayburgh as an opera singer harboring incestuous desires for her teenage son, was received coolly. The terrorism theme of Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (1981), proved to be unpalatable for most audiences.

Amid rumors of artistic burnout and unconventional psychotherapies, Bertolucci retired from the public eye for six years, to mull over making a film from another Moravia novel, and working on a script from Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest. Neither materialized.

Then he and Thomas agreed to make The Last Emperor together. “We had met at film festivals, and we had mutual friends in London,” recalls Thomas. “He asked me to lunch and said, would you do this film with me? I was an enormous fan. I was thrilled and delighted he wanted me.”

In truth, the two men needed each other. Thomas had produced a string of smallish interesting movies, including Nicolas Roeg's Bad Timing and Stephen Frears' The Hit. He wanted to produce more ambitious movies. Bertolucci meanwhile, knew The Last Emperor would be hard to make because of its location and sheer scale; Thomas had successfully produced the movie Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence from a remote South Pacific location. Thus the partnership was formed.

However The Sheltering Sky fares, Thomas believes Bertolucci has put behind him any suggestion that he is a tempestuous maverick, impossible to work with. “I think he's completely mainstream,” he says. “The studios want to work with him, I know that for a fact. He's simply one of the most important directors in the world.”

And despite Bertolucci's reputation as being ego-driven, Thomas notes: “He shares the film a lot, which is very unusual. He has his team around him, and they have a shorthand. They can tell what they all want with a simple look. You can work more efficiently like that. He's enjoyable to work with.”

For his part, Bertolucci admits his past has haunted him. “I felt I was looked at in Hollywood as somebody who was 50–50 risky—but someone who could possibly make a big success, like Last Tango.

“I was very happy at the first screening of The Last Emperor in Hollywood, when several executives came up to me, and said—‘thank you, seeing this movie is like going back to why I'm in cinema. Not for the business, not for the money.’ In everything they said, I felt a kind of sincerity.”

Now, ironically, Paramount is talking to Bertolucci about showing his cut of 1900, all 311 minutes of it. “They are talking about a limited distribution, what they call a classic distribution, in a very few theaters,” he says with a satisfied grin. “It's strange that it should happen now—now that (communist) red flags have become so unpopular all over the world. Because there are red flags all over that film.”

These days, Bertolucci lives a varied life, as befits an international director. His base is still Rome, but he also has a home in London, where he stays with his English wife, filmmaker Clare Peploe, Mark's sister. “It's not good living in one place all the time,” he notes. “You can get bored.”

He claims to dislike contemporary life. “In China, it felt so good to be away from the West for eight months. In the desert, too. I believe in culture, and I believe it's made up of a lot of little, ancient cultures which are in the process of being destroyed. I hate this monoculture which is taking over everywhere.”

Thus for his next project he is toying with the idea of a film about Buddha, to be shot in India. Would the project be with Thomas? “Of course. But it's such a major commitment,” he sighs. “I feel too ignorant in what I could say.”

He is told he sounds tentative. “Yeah, I know,” says Bertolucci. “I don't do many films, you know. I only do one once every three or four years. So I take a long time to decide.” He spreads his arms wide. “I have a long love affair with my movies.”

Sheila Benson (review date 11 January 1991)

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SOURCE: Benson, Sheila. “Bertolucci's Desert of the Soul.” Los Angeles Times (11 January 1991): F12.

[In the following review, Benson offers a negative assessment of The Sheltering Sky.]

The New Yorkers of The Sheltering Sky (throughout San Diego County), Port and Kit Moresby, are expatriates of the late 1940s, aware that they are living through the dying fall of their marriage as they travel the world with no urgency about their return, or about anything else for that matter. Disinterested now in America, they've sailed to Tangier, with crushing amounts of luggage and the hope of finding the enlightenment that has eluded them on their other exotic treks.

When Paul Bowles created the Moresbys in 1949 in his novel, which soon reached cult status, Port and Kit and their desultory rush toward oblivion in the North African desert hit a nerve with more than a few readers. Here was their latter-day Scott and Zelda: Port, a composer, Kit a playwright/diarist, worldly and “artistic,” drawn to the abyss with the inevitability of lemmings and the elegance of tango dancers.

Little wonder Bowles' ascetic, unadorned prose, which ended in a blaze of precisely recorded sensuality, held readers. His story mirrored both existential and universal pain: a couple whose “sentimental bonds” weren't enough to hold together a marriage in shards. Then too, there was the teasing wonder of how close the novel came to Bowles' private life with his high-strung, talented wife, short-story writer/playwright Jane Bowles, who lived in an impenetrable thicket of fears and melancholies.

Bowles called The Sheltering Sky “an adventure story in which the adventures take place on two planes simultaneously: in the actual desert and in the inner desert of the spirit.” And in that inner desert, “sexual adventures fail to provide relief. The shade is insufficient, the glare is always brighter as the journey continues. And the journey must continue—there is no oasis in which one can remain.”

Tricky stuff for film. But Bernardo Bertolucci—with his impeccable production team, especially his great mind's eye, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro—almost has it within his grasp. As the Moresbys, John Malkovich and Debra Winger are superb at suggesting a couple quiveringly attuned to each other's needs and neuroses after a decade of marriage, yet tragically unable to connect.

And from the film's first moment there is a sense of place both terrifyingly vast and stifling. It's unthinkable that one could even cast a shadow on this Sahara, much less imprint oneself on its landmark-free expanses, while the inky tunnel-like passageways of its old villages promise danger at the every turn.

The Sheltering Sky, however, is a story of the loss of identity, the disintegration of the personality in the impersonal otherness of the North African desert. The sexual odyssey that seals it must be absolutely soul-obliterating. Bewilderingly, Bertolucci—of all directors—and co-screenwriter Mark Peploe have sentimentalized and softened this section so that the movie crumbles into a lofty soft-core travelogue with madness for its fade-out.

The movie may work for the reader who has just put down Bowles' novel, with all the tensions and intrigues of its subtext still freshly in mind. To others, Kit, Port and Tunner, their upper-class, not-overbright traveling companion (newcomer Campbell Scott), may seem querulous and exhausting.

The three form a triangle of sorts, with a vile English travel-writer mother and her son (Jill Bennett and Timothy Spall) as overripe comic relief. Tunner, who has money and the indefatigable cheer of a summer-stock juvenile, is dazzled by Kit, pursuing her without any sense of what life with a high-maintenance neurotic entails.

Kit functions each day from an elaborate system of omens; a scraped knee or a spilled glass of water is a sign for something else, rarely anything good. Port is used to humoring her, holding her hand through her encyclopedic fears, rubbing her tummy on demand. But when Kit explains away their separate bedrooms to Tunner, airily saying, “The first rule of marriage is never confuse it with sex,” she's also defining the gulf between her and her passive, sexually blocked husband.

The most telling scene between Port and Kit is their attempt to lose themselves in lovemaking, after bicycling to a high desert ridge outside the village of Boussif. With part of the desert shadowed beneath them like a spreading ink blot, they try desperately to obliterate their separateness, but it's as sharp and distinct as the stones they're lying on. Miserably, they pull apart, and not even their mutual assurances of love can take away the pathos or the emptiness. (This and other explicit sexual encounters and the film's unabashed nudity are reasons for its R rating.)

Eluding Tunner, the Moresbys find catastrophe in their path: Port's passport is stolen, they run into a black rain of flies, illness dogs them. But the fervor with which Port rushes them deeper and deeper into the Sahara makes it clear that whatever their destiny is to be, the Moresbys are racing forward to embrace it.

When fate separates them, Kit stumbles onto the traveling caravan of the blue-turbaned Tuareg tribesman Belquassim (Eric Vu-An), but it's the film that loses its way. In the novel, Belquassim's unquestioned sexual authority and Kit's submission to it were obligatory steps toward the shattering ending. Bertolucci, full of “the ecstasy of improvisation,” has declared that Bowles was fantasizing and has created a prettified, delicate sexual fantasy in its place for Winger and Bejart ballet dancer Vu-An.

This, from the maker of Last Tango in Paris? It's unfathomable. Not even Bertolucci's use of the sad-eyed, 80-year-old Bowles himself, interacting with his own characters, is as disastrous a misstep—although it comes close.

Bertolucci and Bowles are in any case an odd pairing: the elegantly spare writer whose eye is fixed on a finite point of nothingness and one of the screen's most swooningly lush sensualists. The wonder is that as much of The Sheltering Sky works as well as it does.

Chris Wagstaff (review date September 1991)

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SOURCE: Wagstaff, Chris. “Theatre of Memory.” Sight and Sound 1, no. 5 (September 1991): 14–17.

[In the following review, Wagstaff examines the middle period of Bertolucci's career, focusing on The Spider's Stratagem and The Conformist.]

In the reign of Augustus, Horace admonished poets to seek a judicious balance between edifying and pleasing their readers. In 1970, Bernardo Bertolucci (born into a family of poets) came to the end of a painful search for that balance, and shot two films in the same year, La strategia del ragno (The Spider's Stratagem) and Il conformista (The Conformist). Both films tell of the assassination of a prominent anti-fascist in the 30s; in both films the surface level of that story covers a ‘latent’ Oedipal rivalry, in which a son figure comes to doubt the political integrity of the anti-fascist father figure; in both films the relationship of the son figure and the wife/mistress of the father figure is pivotal. And then both films are uncannily pleasurable to watch.

But the achievements of this fruitful year did not come easily to Bertolucci. After a precocious start as Pasolini's assistant on Accattone (1961), and a literary prize for his volume of verse, In cerca del mistero (In Search of Mystery, 1962), his first film as director had been La commare secca (The Grim Reaper) in 1962, followed by his much admired Prima della rivoluzione (Before the Revolution) in 1964. Then had come a period of self-questioning, in which he had made documentaries and shorts, and written the subject for Sergio Leone's C'era una volta il West (Once upon a Time in the West), before making Partner in 1968. No one seemed to like Partner—even friends would avoid discussing it with him—and Bertolucci describes himself as having been confused in this period.

Nowadays, Bertolucci is fluent on the nature and cause of his confusion. But we need to hear him closer to the time, in answers to questions put to him by Amos Vogel at the 1970 New York Film Festival, where his two latest films were showing. Vogel says that Before the Revolution is a cult film for the few, while The Conformist is acceptable to a wider audience, to which Bertolucci responds: “I like that very much.” Vogel: “That it has become a cult film?” Bertolucci: “No, that with The Conformist I can now speak to a wider audience … In this sense, Victor Fleming was a very fortunate person … he made Gone with the Wind … [laughs] Fleming communicates with everybody.”

The town in which the action of The Spider's Stratagem is set is called Tara, named after the river Taro that flows near Sabbioneta, the town in which the film was shot. But of course, Tara is most of all the name of the plantation to which a character in Gone with the Wind yearns to return—“Tara is the cinema, Tara is Gone with the Wind,” says Bertolucci. He was delighted when an American academic pointed out that these were also the initial syllables of the name of a well-known spider. Pressed further by Vogel, Bertolucci says he fears the bourgeois aestheticism of the avant-garde, “because I know very well that I can make a film about the quality of the wind … the essence of wind which is nothing … and it will make festival audiences happy.”

Until The Spider's Stratagem, Jean-Luc Godard had been Bertolucci's mentor. In later years, he would talk about how the influence of Godard led young filmmakers to believe that audiences ought to kneel in sackcloth and ashes before their films; how this sadistic attitude towards the viewer began to make him feel uncomfortable; and how he grew to desire “a dialogue with the public, communication.” Indeed in The Conformist, the Professor Quadri who is assassinated lives at Godard's Paris address and telephone number—Bertolucci ‘kills’ one of his many artistic father figures (the others are, in this period, his actual father, the poet Attilio Bertolucci, and the poet, political writer and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini). The influence of Godard had entailed a strong tilt towards the Horatian utile, with scant concern for the public's dilectum. It was didactic cinema: “I understood that the cinema I had been involved in up to then was gratifying and protective, a cinema of defence, ungenerous.”

There was no obvious solution. Partner had deployed theatrical procedures learned from Artaud and Brecht to insist that the film is a representation, and to deter the viewer from any illusions about its continuity with reality—all in the Godardian cause of politicising representation (as opposed to making realist films with political messages). In some ways, however, an uncompromising stance against such features of mainstream cinematic communication as projection, identification and fantasy went against Bertolucci's personal grain, and already in The Grim Reaper and Before the Revolution his elegiac lyricism was apparent (for example, in the latter, the episode by the river with the aristocrat Puck).

Self-mockingly, but only just, he has the executive producer of Before the Revolution, playing a walk-on role, say: “Une Femme est une femme is far more engagé than all the films of De Santis and Lizzani, in a certain sense even of Franco [Francesco] Rosi, I insist. Cinema is a matter of style, and style is a matter of morality.” Bertolucci himself said, in disappointment at the achievements of his political documentaries: “There is no effective alternative distribution circuit. The cinema rebels against being treated as a mouthpiece, against being used like a mimeograph machine; a more intense political charge is carried by certain commercial films than by films made in a rigorous, politically ‘correct’ manner.” How was he to retain the honest admission of theatricality (that a film constructs a spectacle), to continue his analysis of the confused political identity of the Marxist Italian bourgeoisie of his generation, and to communicate and give pleasure to a wider audience, all at the same time? Where was he to find the financial input and the distributional outlet that would enable him to reconcile these goals? Partner had been made with state subsidy, and had done poorly at the box office (as had the earlier two features).

In 1964, the Italian state broadcasting corporation, RAI, had received figures that showed that together with news broadcasts, films were what viewers most appreciated on television. So they started a systematic programme of filmmaking at a number of levels: serials, telefilms, experimental films, and full-length feature films directed by new talents (Ermanno Olmi, the Taviani brothers, Liliana Cavani, Gianni Amelio, Miklos Jancso, Jean-Marie Straub, Marco Leto). The feature film programme really took off in 1970, and Bertolucci was one of the first directors they approached: “Once they had accepted the screenplay [of The Spider's Stratagem], which they did straight away with the first version, the RAI never interfered in the production. So I must say that so far [1970] it is the best producer I have ever had: a producer present economically and absent physically: hence complete freedom.”

At exactly the same time, he entered psycho-analysis (in February 1970; the film was shot in July and August). It is important to understand how his enthusiastic embracing of the dream as a representation of psychic reality offered Bertolucci at least a partial solution to his formal problems. For him, watching films was like dreaming: the viewer desires, gazes upon what is desired, and watches himself or herself desire. As a director, he no longer needed to fear that he might mystify the audience by passing off constructed images as reality, if his theatrical representations were a mise en scène of fantasies. The spectacle offered the viewer was not just the “essence of wind,” but could be grounded in the psychic reality of the unconscious—our desires acquiring form in dreams. He could reconcile his portrayal of the ambiguities of the Italian bourgeois left with the pleasure of Gone with the Wind.

More than that, he could almost remake Partner in another key. For example, the concern with the artificiality of representation and with the theatre was amply met in The Spider's Stratagem by the location he selected to represent the realm of the Freudian unconscious, and of memory: the town of Tara. Sabbioneta is an extraordinary piece of planning, built 500 years ago in just over eighteen months by Vespasiano Gonzaga. The director and the lighting cameraman (Vittorio Storaro) lit it to look like a theatre, and posed figures in it to look like extras. The whole town at the end is wired for sound, and broadcasts Verdi's Rigoletto; the whole town is the theatre in which Athos senior performs his script in order to preserve the memory of the anti-fascist struggle.

The story and location of The Spider's Stratagem offered Bertolucci further scope for portraying the psychological splitting of the protagonist. In Partner it had been an alter-ego double, bringing about a splitting apart of the impotent thinker and the anarchical man of action; in The Spider's Stratagem, father and son (played by the same actor) are fused into one, the father an ambiguous anti-fascist of the 30s catching in his web a son who is striving to achieve adulthood in the inaction and confusion of middle-class Italy in the 60s.

So whereas Bertolucci and many of his critics have depicted The Spider's Stratagem as a complete turning point in the director's artistic career, and a rejection of the past, we can better understand it in terms of a continuity with the past, but made possible by a new approach to the material conditions of filmmaking, and a new formal freedom offered by a surrender to the eroticism of cinema. Before, Bertolucci edified his viewers by denying them pleasure; now he gives his viewers pleasure by means of the images he uses to edify them.

There is a stubborn integrity in Bertolucci's position. He rejected the category of art cinema as being meaningless for an artist whose job was to please and instruct his public, and for an Italian filmmaker who wanted to confront Hollywood on its own terms, rather than to carve out a protected European art house corner for himself. He made The Conformist with Paramount's money, Last Tango in Paris with Paramount and eventually United Artists, and 1900 with Paramount, Fox and United Artists … Perhaps he has now got himself into another impasse, but we need not doubt that it will be worth waiting to see how he breaks out of it.

The RAI had no coherent scheme in which to frame the relations between television and the cinema; it simply co-opted filmmakers to feed its screen. It had no plans for theatrically distributing its films after broadcasting them, and it did not impress upon filmmakers any particular approach to the television medium. In approaching The Spider's Stratagem, Bertolucci and Storaro adopted a strange, but perhaps prescient, attitude. Bertolucci accepted the implications of the television public, but director and cameraman rejected at least partially the technical implications of the medium.

Television requires close shots, with figures prominent in the foreground; they photographed everything from a distance, with small figures moving slowly through large architectural compositions. Italy at the time broadcast only in black and white; they made the film in colour, and refused to hold contrast levels low, as required for the cathode ray tube, but rather made sharp tonal contrasts the leitmotiv of the film. The Spider's Stratagem was Storaro's first colour film, and Bertolucci conveyed to him the dreamlike atmosphere he wanted by showing him Magritte's painting L'Empire des lumières, where a warm yellow light shines from the centre of a blue landscape at dusk: the contrasts are those of the intensity of the light, and of the ‘temperature’ of the colours. This tonal quality pervades the film, and one of its characteristics is echoed in the composition: shots frame characters in or against buildings, with windows and doors that give on to other windows and doors, so that we are always looking right through buildings, just as at one moment we see ‘through’ an outdoor cinema screen to the landscape behind it. Everything has mysterious, but perhaps vacuous, depths, which is in tune with Bertolucci's aim to create with Tara a “realm of the dead,” the world of the unconscious, the memory of the past and the suggestion of the future. The present, active, adult world is excluded; the town is populated only by old men, some of whom act like little girls, and by children of ambiguous gender.

Yet some sequences have the warm intimacy of the televisual, as when the witch-like Draifa (played by Alida Valli, star of the late 30s and part, therefore, of the ‘memory’ that the film evokes) is shot just in head and shoulders while she strains to manoeuvre the drugged Athos' deckchair on the veranda, while in the background plays a 30s-style sentimental ballad.

Perhaps the slow-moving camera makes good television too—what Bertolucci has called the “tracking shot that works like a rural milk train,” stopping here and there and then catching up with the protagonist who has moved on meanwhile, or else discovering someone or something we were not expecting. The long sequence shots (Athos' farewell to Draifa is a shot lasting three minutes and eleven seconds) and the frequent 360 degree pans are also effective. The sound is recorded direct (not dubbed, as is usual with Italian films), and the intensity of the green foliage combines with the swelling chant of the crickets and the occasional zap of a mosquito hitting the microphone to bring even to the small screen the sensual tranquillity of what Bertolucci recalls as an enchanted summer, in which he relived the rural Parma in which he had grown up.

The Spider's Stratagem was broadcast on RAI's first channel on Sunday evening, 25 October 1970, after the main news, and again (such a repetition was almost unheard of) on the following Friday. The Sunday audience was assessed at 4.5 million, and audience approval at 49 per cent, which is relatively low. (The film was not theatrically released in Italy, to the best of my knowledge, until 1972.) Bertolucci watched it: “For a cineaste like myself, used to making films for a restricted audience of intellectuals, it raised new problems. Together with the awareness of the fact that my language was still not perfectly clear, the knowledge that my film was watched by millions of people gave me a sense of responsibility that I had never had before.” He had chosen a fairly straightforward ‘mystery’ narrative, and he had tried to make a transparent parable out of it. Nevertheless, he took the film in hand once more, and re-edited the final sequence.

Originally, the ending had just been the close-up of Athos junior delivering his speech at his father's commemoration. Bertolucci altered it by inserting scenes from the story we had just followed, together with four of those ubiquitous inserts of the town seen from outside across a cornfield, like an oasis in a desert. “While I was doing it, I said to myself: good heavens, it looks like a trailer for the film; but finally I realised that if it had in the end come out a little didactically, on the other hand I seemed to have made a generous gesture towards the television public, unused to a rather elliptical, mysterious film like this … The ending of the film seemed, and still seems, to me to help people to understand the central problem of the traitor and the hero.”

Parma, and so Tara, is the world of his father, the poet before him, who reviewed films for the local paper and took his son to see them. The cinematic dream is Oedipal, as the son unmasks the father. Bertolucci fuses his representation of a personal past, and of a universal Oedipal conflict between generations and between artists, with a representation of the politically ambiguous identity that history has thrust upon the bourgeois, Marxist, intellectual, male Italian of the 60s. He achieves this with montage, with that ability to play with time that the cinema confers upon the artist.

Athos junior is gradually fused with the past and with his father, as the montage progressively becomes more audacious. Bertolucci uses film to manipulate time: with the tracking and the panning of the camera; with the pulling of focus (from foreground to background, as in the re-enactment of the murder in the theatre); with parallel editing; with illogical continuity (Beccaccia, the old fascist, rediscovered in an ever-changing theatre box); and with a mise en scène that juxtaposes past and present in the same shot (Draifa addressing the son in the present by looking towards the camera, in a shot that has the 1936 father standing in the background).

Borges' story plays with, and rejects, time; Bertolucci plays with and adores time. But this Oedipal shock has its own historical punch. Bertolucci's bourgeois Marxist generation is defined, and rendered impotent, by its historical conditioning, and by the ‘memory’ of the past: the myth of the Resistance, of its heroism and of its political purity. “In so many bourgeois Italians the decision to oppose fascism came about for libertarian, individualistic, cultural, anarchical reasons: even for reasons of good taste … Hence the fragilities, the compromises … In the figures of bourgeois anti-fascism there is always an element of ambiguity.”

In The Spider's Stratagem Bertolucci makes this point sweetly and lyrically; in The Conformist he makes it surgically and ferociously. In all his films, he is analysing his own identity and that of his generation, trying to find out what space there is for effective action. The Spider's Stratagem marks the discovery of a space and an artistic form in which it was possible for him to communicate with a cinematic audience, and ushers in one of the most glorious ‘middle periods’ an artist could hope for.

Yosefa Loshitzky (essay date winter 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9881

SOURCE: Loshitzky, Yosefa. “More than Style: Bertolucci's Postmodernism versus Godard's Modernism.” Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts 34, no. 1 (winter 1992): 119–42.

[In the following essay, Loshitzky explores how Bertolucci's work has come to define postmodern cinema and the ways in which his films are an answer to the modernism of filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard.]

Any attempt to discuss Godard's and Bertolucci's styles1 invites an engagement with one of the most absorbing issues in contemporary discourse, the quarrel between modernism and postmodernism. The modern/postmodern debate is broached in various areas of contemporary thought ranging from hermeneutics, neo-Marxism and poststructuralism to cultural studies, psychoanalysis and feminism. In each of these currents the concept of postmodernism has been either valorized or devalorized, depending on the relation to its counterpart modernism. I do not intend to resolve the debate,2 but rather to use some of the issues it raises regarding the two directors' different styles, and to examine some of the implications of the appeal they make in their work to gender-oppositions.

The importance of appropriating the presuppositions of the modern/postmodern dispute for the investigation of Godard's and Bertolucci's work goes beyond “style,” because style itself may be used as an explanatory model for, and is part of, the social dynamics involved in the reception of cultural products. As a cultural practice, style is intertwined with issues of popularity, the commodifying of culture, and pleasure, which are at the core of the modern/postmodern debate. Style is not only “a movement between sign and design,” or a “surplus of narrative treatment,” as Bordwell suggests,3 but is principally, to use Fredric Jameson's term, a “cultural dominant” operating within a whole network of social production, dissemination and consumption. Style could, moreover, provide a certain explanation of the critical and commercial success, or lack of success, of Godard's and Bertolucci's films.

Despite the varied positions held by the major theorists of postmodernism from Jameson and Habermas to Lyotard, Rorty, Jencks, Greenberg and others, there seems to be an agreement that the terms of modernism and postmodernism signify not only different socioeconomic phases but also two sets of stylistic phenomena reflecting, as well as constructed by, these phases. Indeed Jameson was the first thinker on the left to suggest a link between the economic base of what he calls “late Capitalism” (after Mandel's eponymous book) and its stylistic superstructure, which came to be known, at first in the field of architecture, as postmodernism.


In terms of formal patterns, the modernist aesthetic is perceived as “pure” because of its austerity, minimalism and lack of ornamentalism. Modern architecture coined the term “International Style” to characterize its “obsession” with the utopian ideal of rational and functional urbanism charged with “fantasies” of “purity” modeled on Euclidean geometry.4 Abstraction (some would claim to the verge of sterility), antinaturalism and formal repetitiveness became the characteristics of the International Style and the urban landscape (the “cognitive mapping,” to use Jameson's term) it created. This minimalist search for austerity and purity was emblematized by the modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's slogan, “less is more” (later ridiculed by Robert Venturi's slogan, “less is a bore”). Mies van der Rohe's dictum can be taken as modernism's credo, and the manifestation of its ideological program what Habermas calls the incomplete project of modernity.5

In contrast to modernism's emphasis on purity, the postmodernist style is very often regarded as “impure.” Crucial to its impurity, according to Guy Scarpetta,6 is the “post-apocalyptic” context of its operation and its awareness of the “death of art.” Although the rhetoric of modernism, and especially that of the historical avant-garde, was motivated by an anti-art impulse, its ultimate goal was to create a new art uncontaminated by the burden of the past. The major, constitutive features of postmodernist impurity are excess, ornamentalism and use of quotation. In contrast to modernism's urge to create an epistemological break with the past, a view of modernism as in Octavio Paz's words “tradition against itself,” postmodernism has advocated a productive dialogue with the past or, in Umberto Eco's words, with “the already said.” The historicism of postmodernism, characterized by its playful quotations and nostalgic homages, is perceived by Jameson as incorporation of the past rather than a “quote” “as a Joyce or a Mahler might have done.”7 Nostalgia8 is the main mode of this historicism, and it is viewed negatively by Jameson who warns against what he perceives as the dangers of “the nostalgia mode”: “pseudo-historical depth, in which the history of aesthetic styles displaces ‘real’ history.”9

It is of great importance for my argument that within the category that he calls the “nostalgia film,” Jameson includes, among others, Bertolucci's Il conformista. Jameson claims that The Conformist, along with Polanski's Chinatown, approaches “the ‘past’ through stylistic connotation, conveying ‘pastness’ by the glossy qualities of the image, and ‘1930-ness’ … by the attributes of fashion.”10 The postmodernist surplus of “stylistics,” what we might call its ornamentalism, or, to use Dana Polan's term, its “will-to-spectacle,”11 stands in sharp contrast to modernism's austerity and its total rejection of any form of excess or, to use again Jameson's imploded language, “the hysterical sublime.”

Most interesting is the underlying psychoanalytic structure of the language used to describe the antinomy of modernism and postmodernism. The austerity of modernism, Andreas Huyssen suggests, is also “resistance to the seductive lure of mass culture” and “abstention from the pleasure of trying to please a larger audience.”12 Hence the underlying psychoanalytic structure of the modern/postmodern dichotomy is that of unpleasure/pleasure.13 Although artistic modernism challenged bourgeois, technological modernity, it retained, as Huyssen notes, an attachment to that society's reality principle rather than to the pleasure principle. Postmodernism, on the other hand, is very often (if not always) associated with kitsch and mass culture, the “culture industry” in the degrading language of the “Frankfurt School,” and their pleasure-producing effects.

Recently, an important argument which inscribes gender considerations has been added to the modern/postmodern debate. According to this argument, best exemplified by Andreas Huyssen's work, historical analysis of the perception of mass culture shows that it has commonly been referred to as feminine, thus implying immanent inferiority and providing ideological justification for condemning and devaluing it.14 By contrast, high art, especially its modernist phase as embodied by the historical avant-garde, has traditionally been described as masculine.

The very choice of words in the modern/postmodern debate is especially telling. Of all the words and concepts associated with postmodernism the most degraded is that of ornamentalism, implicitly if not explicitly associated with femininity by Western culture as well as by the terminology and sets of evaluations used by the students of the debate. A latent association of ornamentalism with devalued femininity is revealed in Calinescu's discussion of the rejection of the highly ornate architecture of La Belle Epoque by the proponents of modernism: “the ornament revealed its true parasitic and antifunctional essence. What it symbolized was status-seeking, conspicuous consumption, and display. Decoration and, more generally, expression, the modernists thought, was socially and morally objectionable, intellectually indefensible, and aesthetically corrupt. … To such bad taste and bad faith, modernism opposed its ascetic, utopian, and rationalist aesthetic.”15 To this discourse, embedded with gender-oppositions which link “masculine” values of rationalism, utopianism and asceticism with modernism and “effeminate” values of display, decoration and consumption with ornamentalism, we could add Jameson's condemnation of the “hysterical sublime” (hysteria associated with femininity), and the ubiquitous rejection of spectacle with its feminine connotations of display and light entertainment by major currents of thought in contemporary film theory, including the feminist one.16

In her book Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine, Naomi Schor argues: “To focus on the detail and more particularly on the detail as negativity is to become aware, as I discovered, of its participation in a larger semantic network, bounded on the one side by the ornamental, with its traditional connotations of effeminacy and decadence, and on the other, by the everyday, whose ‘prosiness’ is rooted in the domestic sphere of social life presided over by women.” Hence she concludes that the dissemination and elaboration of normative aesthetics is “not sexually neutral” but rather “carrying into the field of representation the sexual hierarchies of the phallocentric cultural order.”17

The tendency among theorists such as Huyssen and Patrice Petro to associate mass culture with effeminacy in an attempt to provide a sociocultural explanation for the traditional devaluation of the latter is joined by ventures on the part of some feminist critics to show how feminism is compatible with postmodernism, and in some areas is even an instance of postmodern thought. Postmodernism, Alice Jardine argues, adopts “feminine writing,” what Helene Cixous calls “écriture feminine,” which does not necessarily signify writing by a woman but rather the process whereby “the male poet must ‘become a woman’” in order to write. The imaginary feminine as such becomes one of the modes of postmodernist writing.18

Another focal issue of the modern/postmodern debate, that of elitism versus popularity, is also invested with the traditional sexual binarism.19 In fact, as Calinescu and others argue,20 modernism may be characterized by two contradictory impulses. On one hand it was presided over by the seclusionist, elitist and almost obscurantist orientation of its high priests, such as James Joyce, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot in the field of literature, who belonged also to the political right. On the other hand it was governed by the historical militant, left avant-garde such as the Russian Constructivism and French Surrealism whose program was subordinated to a utopian, anti-elitist project. The tension between these two incompatible impulses resulted not in a merger but in the promotion of elitism.

By contrast, postmodernism has been seen as motivated by the urge to be popular, and by mass-appeal. Jencks “makes the crucial point that while modernism depended on the elite coding of professional architecture, postmodernism's primary distinguishing characteristic is that it is ‘double-coded,’ respecting both the professional and popular codes simultaneously, thereby speaking a ‘language’ that can be understood by two quite different groups through its uses of signifiers accessible to both professional and layman.”21 Scarpetta even talks about “overcoding,” and Calinescu, elaborating on the essentially “quotationist” quality of postmodernist aesthetics, as opposed to the minimalist quality of modernism, claims that this multiple coding is the result of postmodernism's playful dialogue with the past, what Jameson condemns as the “nostalgia mode.”

We may conclude this brief exposition of the modern/postmodern debate by arguing that the three major components of modernism—purity, unpleasure and asceticism—can be defined as the parameters of a masculine aesthetic while their postmodernist counterparts constitute a feminine aesthetic. In this essay I use the dichotomy of modernism/postmodernism, and in particular its binarism of pure/impure, unpleasurable/pleasurable, ascetic/eclectic, to offer a new avenue for reconceptualizing the aesthetics and styles of Godard's and Bertolucci's works, and the history of reception of their work. Hence, Godard's ascetic modernism explains his failure to appeal to the masses and his success with the critics and academics, while Bertolucci's postmodernism explains his popular success at the expense of his acceptance by critical and politically militant circles. I should, however, emphasize at this point that my use of the notion of femininity with regard to Bertolucci's style should not be confused with the concept of feminism. Bertolucci's films, despite their “effeminacy,” are far from being feminist or even rendering feminist sensibilities. What is more important for me, however, is to problematize the concept of “feminine aesthetics” or “feminine writing” as a cultural construct.


For most film critics Godard is the modernist filmmaker par excellence. The critical consensus asserts that his counter-cinema epitomizes modernism. In practice the critics try to find traces of the historical modernist movements in his work. Thus Julia Lesage points out “certain techniques reminiscent of the Absurdists” and mentions his Ionesco-like preoccupation “with the problems of translation and the cultural devaluation of words, the banality of language, the accumulation and intensification of symbolic visual details.”22 She also points out his often farcical dialogue a la Beckett and his brutal use of violence, recalling Adamov and the Surrealists. His intensive use of letters and numerals, she adds, recalls Brechtian techniques, as well as “visual artists from Expressionism and Dada to Pop Art and concrete poetry.”23

Robert Stam goes even further back, to the late-nineteenth-century roots of modernism, and suggests that we see Godard as the “terrible” grandchild of Ubu. Godard, he asserts, “did for the ‘well-made film’ what Jarry had done for the ‘well-made play.’ He perpetrated aesthetic transgressions which shook the confidence of the reigning system.”24 Like Ubu (and much silent film comedy), Godard treats physical violence comically in the “tradition of carnivalesque violence which informs both traditions.”25 Thus for example, in Tout va bien (1972) Godard simulates the violence of the Parisian police aimed at the rebellious May '68 students in a fashion that recalls both the Keystone Kops of silent film comedy and the presentation of military confrontations in the Ubu trilogy.

The incorporation of the aleatory in his art is another of Godard's debts to the Surrealists and the Dadaists who were the first to exploit systematically aleatory techniques in order to generate artistic texts. The element of chance is introduced in Tout va bien, for example, by the pair of workers who play with the ball near the toilet. Their appearance is completely unmotivated in terms of traditional narrative. It is comic, absurd and arbitrary and as such it draws attention to the deliberate artificiality of the mise-en-scene and the process of narrative construction.

The fragmented structure of Godard's films reminds one of Futurist and Cubist collages. However, in his political films the structure is episodic in a Brechtian manner and each episode is an autonomous unit. The violation of classical narrative principles and procedures is related to Godard's modernist premise, which breaks with the traditional molds of the past. This modernist tendency was always present in his work. During his radical period (and especially during the days of the film collective Groupe Dziga Vertov) his modernism was tinted with political overtones manifest in his attempt to revolutionize the language of cinema and “to make politically a political cinema.” The idea of a revolutionary form inseparable from revolutionary content is a conviction that Godard, like many post-May-1968 revolutionary directors, borrowed from Vertov the constructivist and from Brecht. The radical spirit of this generation opposed the artificial distinction between form and content; the assumption was “that one therefore cannot make a politically advanced work without it also being a formally advanced one.”26

Central to Godard's modernism is the relationship between sound and image, and his utilization of camera work, editing and color. In traditional Hollywood narrative, image is privileged over sound. In Godard's films the tyranny of the image, if not completely overthrown, is at least challenged. Godard's use of sound in his films is contrapuntal.27 It revives the tradition of Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Alexandrov, who called for distinct nonsynchronization of sound with the visual images. Godard exploits sound to derealize rather than intensify and complete the impression of reality offered by the image. Instead of amplifying the mimetic illusion of film by complementing the image with sound, Godard uses sound for anti-illusionist ends. Thus, in several scenes in his films we hear a character speaking, and we see him on screen. However, the character's lips are not moving, and what he says does not bear any relationship to the image. Hence sound decreases the realism of the image and forces the spectator to pay attention to itself as an independent entity. This aesthetic is based on the Brechtian principle of the “separation of elements,” and is noteably purist in its insistence on the radical incompatibility of the materialistic elements that compose the cinematic means of representation.

Another of Godard's evident modernist techniques is his economic use of camera movement. This economy is noticeable mainly in his politically radical films. In Tout va bien, for example, all the shots are static with the significant exception of three lateral tracking shots. The three formal repetitions of tracking shots create a visual motif functioning for polemical purposes. The first reveals to the audience that the Salumi factory is not an authentic location, but an enormous two-story set with a missing wall. All the factory's rooms, the spectators realize, are part of a doll's house, and they are all houses in this enormous structure. In a film like Tout va bien, which reduces its cinematic codes to a minimum, the spectacular tracking shots especially stand out. They almost become “excessive” in a film that is visually so ascetic.

Violation of rules of continuity editing and especially the employment of “false matches” (mismatches) is another modernist device used by Godard in order to foreground the filmic text as a discontinuous discourse. In fact, as Robert Stam suggests, Godard's career consists of a series of systematic assaults on classical, invisible editing, and A bout de souffle's famous jump cuts were the beginning of his ongoing struggle against conventional editing. Like the use of tracking shots, which draw attention to their status as mediators, as means of representation, the mismatches function in a similar way. Their violation of the integrity of time and space emphasizes the status of editing as another construction device in a narrated event.

Another typical characteristic of the editing system in Godard's films is the lack of point-of-view or reverse angle shots. The suture system, so prominent in Hollywood cinema, is non-existent in his work. I would interpret its absence as a conscious theoretical and practical protest on the part of Godard against the suture system. I assume that a theoretical elaboration on the ideological determinators intrinsic to the suture system influenced Godard in his conscious rejection of the reverse angle shot pattern.28 Godard as a modernist who adheres consciously to an anti-illusionistic aesthetic had to combat the three ideological “sins” of the suture system (which also correspond to Brecht's main theoretical preoccupations): identification, passivity and representation. Brecht referred to these three concepts on the fictional level. Yet Godard, given the theoretical constructs of the suture system, had to exorcise these “demons” (culturally associated with the male construct of femininity as is evident from Freud's article “Femininity”), not only from the fictional level constructed by the narrative (identification with characters, emotions, etc.), but also from the level of enunciation.

Godard's use of colors is perhaps the best evidence for his ascetic aesthetic. Edward Branigan's excellent analysis of the use of color in Deux ou trois choses que je sais d'elle29 is applicable, to a large extent, to most of Godard's films, especially to his radical ones. Godard often, like Piet Mondrian, uses red, blue and yellow, the primary colors. The use of primary colors has three consequences according to Branigan: (1) the isolation and discontinuity of color based on the absence of transitions; (2) a creation of tension between color areas and especially between reds versus blues, the so-called warm/cool opposition; (3) the iteration of these few primary colors forces the spectator to perceive color as a material and artificial element.

The colors of Godard's films cannot be read in terms of character psychology, symbolic expressiveness or verisimilitude. Colors assert their independence, their existence as an element of equal significance with other elements of the film such as sound and camera movement. Certain compositions are segmented by horizontal and vertical lines, further emphasizing this point; because colors appear in blocks which destroy natural contours, they signify their status as both artifice and material.

Godard's use of sound/image, camera movement, editing and colors, as well as his other aesthetic devices such as interruptions in the narrative, intrusion of authorial presence, and poetic and philosophical digressions, expresses his search for new forms, a search which fits into the modernist tradition's zealous insistence on creating a break with the past. The Godardian modernist rupture is thus responsible for the elaboration of a structuralist-materialist cinema whose “vocation” is to explore its own means of representation, and to make the spectator aware of the film's process of production, its narrative construction and its “ideological sins,” if any.


The quotational quality of Bertolucci's filmic text constitutes one of the major components of its impurity. Nevertheless, in a postmodern spirit the nostalgic citations in his films are invested with the knowledge that the invoked past (either the historical past, or the past of the cinema) can never return. Therefore this past is revisited “but with irony, not innocently,”30 thus recalling Umberto Eco's definition of the postmodern “literature citationelle.” Although most of Bertolucci's films, with the exception of the epic films 1900 and The Last Emperor, can be correctly defined as melodramas (a formerly inferior and despised “woman's genre” which has been critically “rehabilitated” only recently),31 traces of other genres or homage to popular genres can easily be detected in them. Thus, for example, Last Tango in Paris (1972) is a complex pastiche32 of the classical American genres, the Hollywood musical and the protest melodrama of the '50s, as well as a parody of the French Nouvelle Vague and Cinema Vérité.

In Bertolucci's mature films (from La strategia del ragno,The Spider's Stratagem [1970], which signifies his departure from a modernist Godardian discourse) the formal dimensions of filmmaking, such as camera work, editing and colors, are characteristic of the postmodernist discourse and its eclectic and highly nostalgic aesthetic. In contrast to Godard's “flat” camera style,33 Bertolucci has developed and elaborated almost an obsession with composition in depth and very complicated, arabesque-like tracking shots. Composition in depth, as Brian Henderson observes, “projects a bourgeois world infinitely deep, rich, complex, ambiguous, mysterious.”34 Bertolucci is a well-known admirer of Orson Welles, the greatest composition-in-depth director, and in some of his films—The Conformist in particular—he was consciously trying to “revisit” the iconography of the studio-system film and to produce a strong effect of nostalgia about both cinema past and an “historical past” invented and constructed by the Hollywood film. The complexity and “ornamentalism” of the camera style of Bertolucci's films opposes Godard's flat frames, which according to Henderson assault and demystify the bourgeois world-view and self-image.

The same ornamental, rich style is manifested also in Bertolucci's treatment of colors. In most of his films he uses two dominant colors: gray, and opaque gold. The gray is dominant in the outdoor scenes, while the gold is prominent in the indoor scenes. In Godard's films colors are not used symbolically, psychologically or realistically. Unlike Godard, in Bertolucci's films they may be symbolic, as in the sodomizing “didactic” scene in Last Tango in Paris, where Brando, dressed in a red sweater indulges in “red” rhetoric; or psychological/expressive, evoking a certain mood or feeling. In fact both the empty apartment in Tango and the Forbidden City (signifying the m/other) in The Last Emperor, were lighted to attain an effect, to underscore what Bertolucci terms a “uterine” stage.

The imagery of most of Bertolucci's films is inspired by paintings, thus adding another layer to the “thickness” and “depth” of his works. I am using the word “depth” here not judgmentally, but rather as a descriptive register of Bertolucci's style, which is carried over also to the thematic level and its “fixation” with the “psychology of depth.” Tango, for example, is influenced by the disturbing images of Francis Bacon's work, whose canvases are displayed below the film's opening credits and whose vision was consciously assimilated into the film's visuals. Bacon's vision is characterized by images of pain and physical mutilation, and prefigures Tango's visual style in its emphasis on body language and its psychological perspective.

Some of the scenes in The Conformist, and especially the asylum scene where Marcello meets his father, are inspired by Giorgo de Chirico's metaphysical paintings, whereas the dance scene in this film invokes Gino Severini's Bal Tabarin (1909). The Spider's Stratagem refers to René Magritte's paintings, 1900 starts with a canvas by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, a late-ninteenth-century Italian post-Impressionist, and the scene of the soap salesgirl in Partner is inspired by Man Ray's photograph “Frames from Emak Bakia” (1927).

The Godardian mileu—with the noticeable exception of Pierrot le fou and some remarkable nature shots in Hail Mary, which suggest transcendence and create a spiritual effect at odds with so materialist cinema—is very often urban or industrial, thus following the historical avant-garde which generally was not much interested in landscape, a genre associated with pastoral and sublime notions. By contrast, the Bertoluccian milieu is associated with a romantic vision of nature and with decadence and stylistic excesses of cultural over-refinement. This romantic antinomy of nature/culture, a recurrent fascination of decadence with primitivism, is most evident in 1900. There Bertolucci seems influenced by Pasolini's heretic ideas concerning the sacaralita (reverence) of primal pre-industrial and pre-bourgeois reality (existing today according to him only among peasants and in the third world), and by Gramscian Marxism, which acknowledges the prime importance of the peasantry in the revolutionary struggle. 1900 glorifies peasant culture but at the same time celebrates decadence through the seductiveness of the visuals by which it is represented.35 This yoking of primitivism with lavish imagery is itself an example of decadence, which, as Naomi Schor reminds us, is traditionally associated with attention to details, with femininity, and is “perhaps the most persistent legacy left to us by Classicism.”36

Bertolucci's “effeminate” style (ornamental cinematography, composition in depth, romantic/decadent imagery, and indulgence in nostalgia) indeed creates the impression of “depth” and complexity associated, as Henderson suggests, with the bourgeois world. Yet this impression of “depth” is the result of Bertolucci's conscious acknowledgement of a “bad conscience” peculiar to those middle-class artists (“delicate flowers of the bourgeoisie,” as Pasolini calls them) who are committed to a radical cause. This conflict between attachment to the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie and the urge to destroy the bourgeoisie is absorbed and elaborated upon in all of Bertolucci's films.37


Central to the critique of postmodernism are the notions of spectacle and nostalgia. The tendency of contemporary film theory and culture studies in general is to criticize what the situationists and Guy DeBord call the society of the spectacle, and Baudrillard describes as the simulacrum.38 Spectacle is ideologically suspect because it reinforces entertainment values and cultivates and increases reification of consumerism. In what follows I attempt to recast the meaning of cinematic spectacle and nostalgia within a different theoretical and critical perspective. I will focus on their use in The Conformist and The Last Emperor.39


Typical of the anti-spectacle position is Dana Polan's discussion of the “will-to-spectacle” which he sees as the qualifying attribute of most films. To illustrate his point he analyzes the scene in Godard's Les Carabiniers in which Michel-Ange visits the cinema for the first time and is filled with delight. As a naked woman proceeds to take a bath, he runs to the screen and tries to look over the edge of the tub. Finally, however, “he leans too far and accidentally tears and bursts through the screen, only to confront a grimy wall beyond it. As he faces the wall, the impenetrable barrier before him, Michel-Ange suddenly turns and looks out in panic at the projector and us, as the film continues to run on his face.” According to Polan, this scene “makes explicit the difficulties of film's attempts to qualify its spectacle through another kind of cognition—a nonspectacular, critical one.”40 Godard, says Polan, succeeds in calling “for the necessity of critical work on and in the cinema—for the transformation of the image through a knowledge that puts fictions inside quotation marks of analytic distance.”41

Indeed, Polan's advocation of critical nonspectacular cognition in cinema did materialize in Godard's work, especially in that made during his radical period.42 This is, of course, another modernist aspect of Godard's cinema. It locates him within the modernist tradition and its movement from an age of creation to an age of criticism. Right from its beginning, the modernist temper was characterized by the blurring of the distinction between practice and theory, the work of art and aesthetic criticism. As a modernist Godard has always seen criticism and filmmaking as compatible and overlapping.43

Despite Polan's repudiation of spectacle as non-critical—a repudiation which invokes the argument that epistemological concerns dominate modernist writing, whereas postmodernist writing is dominated by the ontological—Bertolucci's work contains examples of spectacle which, nevertheless, are critical and reflective in terms of cognition and analytic distance. For Bertolucci, the liberation from the repressive influence of Godard so evident in his early films—Partner in particular—implies the rejection of the austere and critical Godardian style in favor of spectacular and even visually indulgent cinema. Bertolucci accepts his role as “autore di film-spettacolo” (spettacolo means “a demonstration for a public, a notion situated somewhere between entertainment and spectacle”).44 This acceptance, however, does not necessarily lessen the critical dimension subsumed within the spectacles he creates. This is most evident in The Conformist. There cinema is a modern Plato's cave, a spectacular allegory. This is an invocation of the dialectics of Platonic enlightenment, one which critiques the privileging of vision as the prime source of knowledge in Western epistemology.45

Another self-reflexive critique of cinema as a modern Platonic cave is represented in The Last Emperor's spectacle and, in particular, in a scene that, to a certain extent, is similar to one analyzed by Polan from Les Carabiniers (and perhaps, given Bertolucci's consistent reference to Godard in all his films, even alluding to it).46 In this scene Pu Yi, the last emperor, watches with other inmates in the “re-education center” the documentary film about his coronation in Manchuko and Japan's war atrocities. When his image appears on the screen, Pu Yi jumps, and the camera, like in Les Carabiniers, reveals the projector which illuminates him from behind, as the film continues to run on his face. Although in Emperor Pu Yi is represented as a man who lives and experiences his life as spectacle, and history is represented as a “stage” upon which individuals “perform” as “stars,” the situation described here is not aimed at splitting the points of view, but tries to unite them. Thus how Pu Yi sees himself and how he is seen by others intersect in a confusing moment of crossing looks.

From the film's didactic point of view (Bertolucci revising the Western notion of “brainwashing” and replacing it with the notions of reeducation/analysis),47 the documentary film is very important. It provides “information” and historical “facts,” but, more importantly, it becomes an external mirror to Pu Yi and shifts the narrative focalization from his subjective point of view to an omniscient one, allowing the spectator to analyze and judge more “objectively” the psychohistoric “facts” represented in the narrative. Hence, the dialectic of enlightenment, the process of the spectator's participation/nonparticipation in what the protagonist sees/knows, reaches its climax.

This scene, like the scenes in The Conformist which display through spectacle the contradictions inherent in the epistemology of seeing, demonstrates that spectacle as a category of cognition does not necessarily exclude the production of knowledge or analytic distance. Godard's dialectical argumentation, whose aim is to undermine the “impression of reality,” and to foreground the cinematic means of representation as ideologically- and culturally-charged codes, is not the only way of achieving critical cognition in cinema.


The repudiation of nostalgia, so central to Jameson's anti-postmodernism, recalls the traditional devaluation of the genre of melodrama for its appeal to “sentimental identification” (mostly on the part of the female audience), and its exploitation of what seems to be an “excessive emotionalism.” The rejection of nostalgia, like the prior rejection of melodrama, seems to be invested with gendered biases, since the feeling of nostalgia is sentimental, and sentiment is associated with “femininity.” When Jameson accuses films such as The Conformist of aestheticizing politics through the use of nostalgia, he refers to the latter as a mode of style invoking a certain mood or atmosphere through its beautiful and pleasing quotations of past styles.

The Conformist, Bertolucci has said, is a reconstruction of the past not through “historical facts” but through “the memory of movies.”48 Stylistic “excesses,” and generic intensifications emphasize the self-conscious and artificial, lush visual tone of the movie and turn it into a pastiche of eclectic cinematic and artistic styles. For example, the sequence where Clerici visits his fiancee Giulia is, as Kolker suggests, an exaggeration of film noir style which “goes beyond classicism, beyond the inhibitions of an American director in the '30s or '40s.”49 The enormous neoclassical architecture, the large, empty spaces in the Italian fascist minister's office, the geometrically composed white marble seats in the asylum where Clerici's father is institutionalized, are in a type of De Chirico style. These stylistic “excesses,” borrowed from the visual rhetoric of Mussolini's fascist aesthetic, dwarf the characters and become visual signifiers of their subordination to the fascist state. The Italian fascist style is contrasted with the art nouveau style in Paris in the Hotel d'Orsay and in the dance hall. The atmosphere of '30s movies is invoked through the period decor as well as through the highly expressive lighting and chiaroscuro effects “quoted” from the films of Ophuls, von Sternberg, and Renoir. This pastiche of styles, however, transcends an empty formalism or sheer nostalgia by implying that, to use Marsha Kinder's and Beverle Houston's words, “style must express the politics of society and emotion.”50 According to Kinder and Houston, in The Conformist “the dazzling compositions and visual effects seem to comment on the concern for surface beauty; which parallels Marcello's desire for the appearance of normalcy. Thus Bertolucci uses empty visuals in order to mock empty visuals, ironically making them meaningful after all.”51

Bertolucci affirms the role of the movies as a reservoir of imaginary “collective memory,” thus positing an indirect statement of the power of cinema to emplot52 history and to fill its enigmatic gaps through the process of narrative construction. This brings to mind Freud's reflection in Moses and Monotheism on the treatment of tradition by creative artists: “If all that is left of the past are the incomplete and blurred memories which we call tradition, this offers an artist a peculiar attraction, for in that case he is free to fill in the gaps in memory according to the desires of his imagination and to picture the period which he wishes to reproduce according to his intentions.”53

Bertolucci's approach also brings to mind Hayden White's view (partially indebted to Lacan) of “narration and narrativity as the instruments by which the conflicting claims of the imaginary and the real are mediated, arbitrated, or resolved in a discourse.”54 For White, who studies the relationship between narrative and history, “narrativity, certainly in factual storytelling … is intimately related to, if not a function of, the impulse to moralize reality.” Hence, every story “is a kind of allegory” which “points to a moral, or endows events, whether real or imaginary, with a significance that they do not possess as a mere sequence.”55 In The Conformist the narrative in a self-reflexive manner, through nostalgic quotations, surpasses the boundaries of realism and “history” and becomes a moral drama on fascism. This kind of “moral drama”56 explains why Bertolucci told Joan Mellen that “The Conformist is also in the present, but it's the present dressed as the past.”57

In preferring the imaginary to the real, Bertolucci not only questions “the very distinction between real and imaginary events, basic to modern discussions of both history and fiction”58 but also renders the “discourse of desire” and consciously expresses the impulse “for moral meaning, a demand that sequences of real events be assessed as to their significance as elements of moral drama.”59 The spectatorial experience of The Conformist as such is not confined to the diegesis alone but is both alluding to and constructed through the imaginary collective memory of the movies. The self-reflexive dimension subsumed within the “nostalgia film” critiques both the past and the present, thus acknowledging that history is as much a constructed narrative as fiction is. Consequently what Jameson refers to as the flat historicism of the postmodern “nostalgia film” is indeed an analysis of the “deep structure” of film and history as different modes of narrative or, to put it in Bertolucci's words on Emperor, of “history refracted by imagination.”60


  1. The choice of Godard as the representative of modernism in contemporary cinema is almost self-evident. In this I follow many other film critics (see below “Godard's Modernism: The Masculine Text”). My choice of Bertolucci, however, in relation to Godard has many reasons. One can argue that Bertolucci (since The Conformist) and Godard are the “founding fathers” of two competing paradigms of radical cinema which emerged in the aftermath of the May '68 upheavals. The term “founding fathers” is misleading, since the paradigmatic rivalry between Godard's and Bertolucci's cinema is rooted in the Oedipal scenario, “père Godard” being, as Robert Philip Kolker suggests in Bernardo Bertolucci (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), both mentor and tormentor to Bertolucci, “I'enfant terrible” (or “l'enfant prodige”) of the militant Marxist cinema of the '70s. Given this, Kolker argues (rightly in my opinion) that Bertolucci's work should be considered as an ongoing aesthetic and political struggle with the French director, the rebellion of the son against the father (see particularly Kolker's first chapter, entitled “Versus Godard”).

    Bertolucci himself has said in an interview with Marilyn Goldin, “The Conformist is a story about me and Godard. When I gave the professor Godard's phone number and address I did it as a joke, but afterwards I said to myself, well, maybe all that has some significance … I'm Marcello and I make Fascist movies and I want to kill Godard who's a revolutionary who makes revolutionary movies and who was my teacher.” (“Bertolucci on The Conformist,Sight and Sound 40 [1971]: 66).

  2. The bibliography on postmodern polemics is beyond the scope of this essay. I recommend to the interested reader the following references as valuable contributions to the subject in terms of summarizing and clarifying the major positions of the modern/postmodern dispute: Matei Calinescu, “On Postmodernism (1986),” Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1987), 265–312; Philip Hayward and Paul Kerr, “Introduction,” Screen, 28, no. 2 (Spring, 1987); Jonathan Arac, ed., “Introduction,” Postmodernism and Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986). The theoretical demarcation lines of the debate are determined by political alliances either to the left or to the right, as in the case of Habermas's attack on the French poststructuralists, but also transcending them, as in the repudiation of postmodernism by a Marxist thinker like Frederic Jameson, in “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review, No. 146 (July–August, 1984), 53–92, and a neo-conservative critic like Hilton Karmer in “Postmodern Art and Culture in the 1980s,” The New Criterion 1, no. 1 (1982): 36–42.

  3. David Bordwell, “A Cinema of Flourishes: Japanese Decorative Classicism of the 1930s,” a lecture delivered as part of the Tokyo Broadcasting System Chair of Japanese Broadcasting, Media, and Culture in Tisch School of the Arts, New York University (September 29, 1989).

  4. For a critique of the “International Style” by postmodernist architects, see Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, (New York: Rizzoli, 1977), Late-Modern Architecture, (New York: Rizzoli, 1980), Post-Modern Classicism: The New Synthesis (London: Academy Editions, 1980), and Current Architecture (London: Academy Editions, 1982); Paolo Portoghesi, After Modern Architecture, trans. Meg Shore (New York: Rizzoli, 1982) and Postmodern, The Architecture of the Post-industrial Society, trans. Ellen Schapiro (New York: Rizzoli, 1983); Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1972) and Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1977).

  5. The notion of “the incomplete project of modernity” was developed by Jurgen Habermas in “Modernity versus Postmodernity,” New German Critique 22 (Winter, 1981): 3. For a critique of this article (first delivered by Habermas as a lecture upon receiving the Theodor W. Adorno Prize from the city of Frankfurt in 1980) and the controversy it provoked (with Andreas Huyssen in New German Critique and Lyotard and Rorty in the French Journal Critique) see Arac, “Introduction,” xv–xx, and Calinescu, 273–5.

  6. Guy Scarpetta, L'Impureté (Paris: Grasset, 1985). Pasolini, Bertolucci's first mentor and cinematic father-figure (before Godard) is presented by Scarpetta as an example of a postmodernist artist whose work is “impure.” I am, however, more inclined to associate Pasolini's work (except for his deliberately populist choice of the “triology of life”: The Decameron,The Canterbury Tales, and The Arabian Nights) with that of Godard's modernism, despite the difference in their styles.

  7. Jameson, “Cultural Logic,” 55.

  8. For an interesting essay on the psychoanalytic aspects of nostalgia see Harvey A. Kaplan, “The Psychopathology of Nostalgia,” Psychoanalytic Review 74.4 (Winter, 1987): 465–86. On nostalgia and postmodernism, see George Stauth and Bryan S. Turner, “Nostalgia, Postmodernism and the Critique of Mass Culture,” Theory, Culture and Society, 5.2–3 (June, 1988): 509–26.

  9. Jameson, “Cultural Logic,” 68.

  10. Idem.

  11. The term “will-to-spectacle” is used by Dana Polan in his article “‘Above All Else to Make You See’: Cinema and the Ideology of Spectacle,” in Arac, ed. Postmodernism and Politics, 55–69. According to Polan, the “will-to-spectacle” “asserts that world only has substance—in some cases, only is meaningful—when it appears as image, when it is shown, when it exists as phenomenal appearance” (60).

  12. Andreas Huyssen, “Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism's Other,” in Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture, ed. Tania Modleski (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 198.

  13. Matei Calinescu (“Modernity and Popular Culture: Kitsch and Aesthetic Deception,” unpublished paper delivered at Indiana University, March 27, 1985) points out that Lionel Trilling in his essay, “The Fate of Pleasure: Wordsworth to Dostoevsky” (1963), argues that “modernism has drastically dissociated high art from the principle of pleasure” (1). As Calinescu rightly observes, Theodor Adorno's position is “one of the strongest and sternest examples of the modernist rejection of pleasure” (Ibid, 6). Postmodern theory, on the other hand, has not only legitimized pleasure but has also advocated the production of pleasure, what Roland Barthes calls “Le Plaisir de Texte.” Where Godard and many of the '68 generation denied pleasure, Bertolucci openly embraced it in his mature postmodernist period. To quote Bertolucci himself on this matter:

    And the ultimate goal, anyway, is still the pleasure. So, for many years I've been not allowed even to think about pleasure, because the left consider, or used to consider, pleasure a right wing feeling because there is this convention that, for example, la raison est froide, et le coeur est chaud, rationalism is cold and the heart is warm. I am sad that now my Italian friends of the left are completely drowning in the strategy of pleasure. Underground I was looking for pleasure, but I didn't have the courage to admit it in the Sixties. It came later. In fact it came when my movies became more communicative. Because the pleasure, in fact, takes two, you and somebody else—real pleasure.

    (interview with Bruce Sklarew, “Free Space,” Delos [Spring, 1989], 106)

  14. A similar argument is advanced by Patrice Petro in his article “Mass Culture and the Feminine: The ‘Place’ of Television in Film Studies,” Cinema Journal, 25.3 (Spring, 1986), 5–21. In contrast to Huyssen, Petro's argument is meta-critical. He claims that, when describing the differences between film and television viewing, theorists and critics employ gendered metaphors and oppositions.

  15. Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity, 281.

  16. An exemplary article is Polan's (see note 11). Laura Mulvey's “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” Screen 16.3 (Autumn, 1975): 6–18, is a most important theoretical study in feminist film theory, and the first to introduce the psychoanalytic paradigm into feminist film criticism. Mulvey rejects spectacle and the pleasure it causes because the latter induces mechanisms of male fetishism and voyeurism in order to disavow the threat of castration invoked by the image of woman. According to Judith Mayne, “The Limits of Spectacle,” Wide Angle, 6.3 (1985): 4, “However diverse the manifestations of spectacle in the cinema, they are all sooner or later about men looking at women. … Or put another way, it is through the terms of spectacle that the cinema puts forth its version of sexual difference.”

  17. Naomi Schor, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine (New York and London: Methuen, 1987), 4. It is of great interest to note that both Jameson and Schor use the same artist—Duane Hanson—in order to reinforce what I read as different, if not opposing, arguments. Schor never refers to Jameson's article (although she cites, in a different context, his book Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature) and she rarely uses the notion of postmodernism. Yet her book is rich in implications for the continual appeal to gender-oppositions in the modern/postmodern debate. For Jameson, Hanson's statues are a manifestation of what he calls “the hysterical sublime” and their simulacra, according to him, causes the world momentarily to lose its depth (depth is a valorized notion in Jameson's conceptual framework). By contrast, for Schor, Hanson “is the Balzac of twentieth-century American sculpture” (131). Through the attention he pays to the most minute details, and the uncanny impression created by his hyper-realistic statues, Hanson, says Schor, transcends the vulgarity of realism and becomes a conceptual artist whose works comment on their own means of construction/deception. The different reading of the same text (Hanson's sculptures) by female and male theorists exposes the hidden agenda of the postmodern debate. It is even more telling, to my mind, that the two are not engaged in any deliberate debate but, “incidentally” and seemingly for different theoretical/argumentative reasons, choose the same example of textual practice, but judge it completely differently.

  18. Alice Jardine, Gynesis, Configurations of Woman and Modernity (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985). A similar, if not identical argument is raised by Huyssen. Luce Irigaray, after observing and demonstrating woman's plural sexuality, asks: “Is this the way culture is seeking to characterize itself now? Is this the way texts write themselves/are written now?” (This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985], 28).

  19. According to Helen Cixous, binary oppositions “are heavily imbricated in the patriarchal value system: each opposition can be analysed as a hierarchy where the ‘feminine’ side is always seen as the negative, powerless instance.” Cixous at this point is heavily indebted to Jacques Derrida's work, She continues: “Western philosophy and literary thought are and have always been caught up in this endless series of hierarchical binary oppositions that always in the end come back to the fundamental ‘couple’ of male/female … it doesn't much matter which ‘couple’ one chooses to highlight: the hidden male/female opposition with its inevitable positive/negative evaluation can always be traced as the underlying paradigm” (discussed in Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory, [London: Methuen, 1985], 104–105). This patriarchal binary thought Cixous calls “phallogocentrism,” a conjuncture of logocentrism (Derrida's concept describing the Western modus of thinking which privileges the Logos, the Word as a metaphysical presence) with phallocentrism (a system that privileges the phallus as the prime signifier of power).

  20. See, in particular, Calinescu's chapter on the avant-garde. According to Natan Zach: “Indeed broadly speaking, one may distinguish two conflicting impulses at work in much of early twentieth-century poetry: the purist aesthetic of the images, with its aversion to rhetoric and non-artistic concerns and its elitist disposition, and a democratic creed of expression and representation, with its emphasis on the human condition, on art as involvement, and its mystically heightened sense of communion” (“Imagism and Vorticism,” Modernism: 1890–1930, ed. Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane [Sussex: Harvester Press, 1978], 239). Zach argues that “hardness” is the key concept of the aesthetics of Imagist poetry as opposed to the “softness”—of textures, materials and language—typical of Symbolist and Decadent poetry. As a poet, Zach applies this hardness to his “lean and masculine” poetry, generating a revolution in modern Hebrew poetry by “purifying” it from excessive ornamentalism and “surplus” decoration characteristic of his predecessors Avraham Shlonsky and Natan Alterman.

  21. Philip Hayward and Paul Kerr, 21 (see note 2 above).

  22. Julia Lesage, “Visual Distancing in Godard,” Wide Angle 1 (1977), 13.

  23. Ibid.

  24. Robert Stam, Reflexivity in Film and Literature: From Don Quixote to Jean-Luc Godard. (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1985), 177.

  25. Ibid., 181.

  26. George Lellis, Bertolt Brecht Cahiers du Cinema and Contemporary Film Theory (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982), 15.

  27. The subject has been exhausted by critical literature; therefore, I deal with it very briefly. For an excellent analysis of the operation of contradiction on the level of sound and image, see Kristin Thompson, “Sawing through the Bought: Tout Va Bien as a Brechtian film, 43–44” Wide Angle, 1. 3 (1979): 38–51; and Alan Williams, “Godard's Use of Sound,” Camera Obscura 8–10 (Fall, 1982): 199–204.

  28. The suture theory was first introduced in Jean-Pierre Oudart, “La suture,” Cahiers du Cinema 211 (Avril, 1969), 36–39; 212 (mai, 1969), 50–55. The suture system, according to Oudart, creates a false illusion of reality, because the film seeks to create the impression that there is no camera shooting each shot but real, unified and coherent space. The reverse angle shot system also encourages the passivity and identification of the spectator and intensifies the “impression of reality” rendered by film representation.

  29. Edward Branigan, “The Articulation of Color in a Filmic System: Deux ou trois choses que je sais d'elle,Wide Angle 1. 3 (1977): 20–31.

  30. Umberto Eco, “Postmodernism, Irony, the Enjoyable,” Postscript to the Name of the Rose (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Janovich, Inc., 1984), 67.

  31. Peter Brooks, in The Melodramatic Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), challenges the widely-held prejudice against melodrama's simplicity of articulation and excess. He has taken on the task of rehabilitating what has long been considered a minor genre. Even a bare-bones bibliography on melodrama and especially on its “critical redemption” (not only from a feminist point of view) would be too extensive to include here, but the following items are recommended: Jane Feuer, “Melodrama, Serial Form and Television Today,” Screen 25.1 (January—February 1984): 4–16. Feuer's article is a brief but excellent summary of critical positions regarding melodrama. For a more detailed and historically oriented analysis see Michael Walker, “Melodrama and the American Cinema,” Movie 29/30 (Summer, 1982): 1–38. See also E. Ann Kaplan, “Feminist Criticism and Television,” Channels of Discourse, ed. Robert C. Allen (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 211–253; see her suggestions for further reading on p. 252. Another valuable recent source on melodrama is Screen 29.3 (Summer, 1988). This issue is devoted to the study of “Melodrama and Transgression.” Central to the theoretical positions that “rehabilitate” the formerly “inferior” genre of the melodrama “is the concept of melodrama as creating an excess, whether that excess be defined as a split between the level of narrative and that of mise-en-scene or as a form of ‘hysteria,’ the visually articulated return of the ideologically repressed” (Jane Feuer, “Melodrama, Serial Form and Television Today,” 4–16).

  32. For Jameson (“Cultural Logic,” 64–65), pastiche is a typical postmodernist strategy “amputated of the satiric impulse,” which characterizes parody as its modernist counterpart.

  33. The notion of “flatness” as a register of non-bourgeois camera style is elaborated in Brian Henderson, “Toward a Non-Bourgeois Camera Style,” Movies and Methods I, ed. Bill Nichols (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 422–37.

  34. Ibid., 436.

  35. It is of some interest to note at that point that Matei Calinescu observes that “Postmodernism's refined eclecticism, its questioning of unity, and its valuation of the part against the whole in the fin de siecle may remind one of the ‘decadent euphoria’ of the 1880s. But the popular code that it conspicuously uses can also make postmodernism look very much like kitsch or camp, with which its adversaries deliberately identify it” (Five Faces of Modernity, 312). Indeed many features of camp, especially those listed in Susan Sontag's famous essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’” seem to be taken from the vocabulary of the nineteenth-century French Decadence, such as the aestheticist attitude, the preference of artifice to nature, the love of exaggeration, the fascination with the androgynous and so on.

  36. Schor, Reading in Detail, 22.

  37. Prima della rivoluzione (1964) explicitly articulates this painful inner conflict, and one of its last sequences epitomizes it. For a detailed analysis of this sequence, see Kolker, 49–53. In Before the Revolution, the conflict is expressed in the epigraph from Talleyrand that opens the film: “He who did not live in the years before the revolution cannot understand what the sweetness of living is.” Here Bertolucci uses Talleyrand's nostalgia for France's bourgeois pre-revolutionary past to reflect upon his own “nostalgia for the present,” which is the acute neurotic syndrome of Fabrizio, the film's protagonist and Bertolucci's semi-surrogate. The present of Bertolucci is the bourgeois present, the sweetness of living which he both loves and hates and which expresses the anomaly of his situation.

    His nostalgia expresses a sense of yearning for the cinema before the “French revolution” begun by Godard and which Bertolucci at the beginning of his career hoped to carry on in Italy, thus echoing the “Italian/French connection” of Stendhal's La Chartreuse de Parme, the text which inspired Prima della rivoluzione. But whereas Talleyrand's words express healthy, normal nostalgia born of the present (the French Revolution), and directed toward the past (the pre-revolutionary stage in French history), Bertolucci's nostalgic sentiment, projected upon his protagonist Fabrizio, is a “sickly” one because it springs from the present and is aimed at the present.

  38. Guy DeBord, La Societé du Spectacle (Paris: Editions Buchet-Chastel, 1967); Jean Baudrillard, “Simulacra and Simulations,” Selected Writings, trans. Mark Poster (Devon: Photo-graphics, Honiton, 1988), 166–84. It is interesting to note that Naomi Schor presents Baudrillard's and Barthes's approaches to ornamental detail as diametrically opposed. According to her, for Baudrillard the role of the ornamental detail is essentially negative: “The detail which adorns a mass-produced object—and the mass produced-object is always ornamented—is designed to mask its ‘mass-produced reality,’ to convince the consumer that the mass-produced object is in fact a ‘model object’” (56). By contrast, Barthes, in The Fashion System, “enthusiastically praises just the sort of detail despised by those who yearn after the lost ideal object” (Schor, 57). Baudrillard's position, to my mind, recalls that of the Frankfurt School in regard to what they perceive as the “culture industry” and its concern with the “predominance of the effect” without regard for the integrity of artistic form. Through “standardization,” “pseudo-individualization” or marginal differentiation of cultural artifacts and rationalization of promotion and distribution techniques, the “culture industry,” according to the Frankfurt theorists, masks the commodified and exploitative nature of its products. A recent example of the concern with spectacle in film studies is found in Wide Angle 11.4 (October, 1988), an issue devoted to spectacle.

  39. The relationship between blindness and knowledge and allusions to the Oedipus myth, are the controlling metaphors of both movies. Indeed Emperor is linked to the Conformist through a complex intratextual network of allusions.

  40. Polan, 66. See note 11 above.

  41. Ibid., 67.

  42. See, for example, his interview in Rolling Stone: “I think very strongly now that the more spectacular you are, the more you are absorbed by the things you are trying to destroy. You don't destroy anything at all, and it's you who are destroyed because of the spectacle. Some real examples are the films done in Hollywood about the Che Guevera and Malcolm X” (20).

  43. “As a critic I thought of myself as a filmmaker. Today I still think of myself as a critic and in a sense I am more than ever before. Instead of writing criticism I make a film but the critical dimension is subsumed within it. I think of myself as an essayist, producing essays in novel form or novels in essay form: only instead of writing, I film them” (Jean-Luc Godard, Godard on Godard [New York: Viking, 1972], 171). In fact, in this respect, Godard is a descendant and follower of the French rationalist tradition, which goes back to the eighteenth century Encyclopedists and especially to Diderot—it seems to me quite relevant to mention here that Roland Barthes wrote an article on the affinity between Brecht's gestus and Diderot's tableaux vivants (Roland Barthes, “Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein,” Image/Music/Text, trans. Stephen Heath [New York: Hill and Wang, 1977], 69–78.

  44. Gideon Bachman's translation in his interview with Bertolucci, “Every Sexual Relationship is Condemned,” Film Quarterly 26 (1973): 6. In this interview Bertolucci admitted that “perhaps part of my process of liberation was the acceptance of the fact that I had always wanted to create a spettacolo.

  45. Dana Polan comments that “if Plato in The Republic gives central prominence to sight in the constitution of an epistemology, then we can say that the cinema, modern cavern in which images parade before enraptured spectators, realizes a return to Plato's cave, as Jean-Louis Baudry has well analyzed” (60).

    For discussions of the use of the Plato's cave myth in The Conformist as a self-reflexive critique of cinema, see Kolker, 87 and 96, and T. Jefferson Kline, Bertolucci's Dream Loom: A Psychoanalytic Study of Cinema (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987), 98–99. Bertolucci himself said: “when you read the Cave of Plato's, the cave is exactly like the theater and the background is the screen and Plato says there is a fire and people walking in front of the fire and the fire projects the shadows in the background of the cave. It's the invention of cinema” (“Bernardo Bertolucci Seminar,” Dialogue on Film 3.5 [July, 1974].

  46. The sense of allusion is reinforced by the fact that both films use newsreel footage in a fictional film. In Les Carabiniers Godard punctuates the story by authentic newsreel footage of battles and corpses, in an attempt to question the generic and the epistemological distinctions between fiction and documentary.

  47. As a psychohistorical film, Emperor treats the history of the individual as if he were a patient in analysis and the political and historical events are rendered through his neuroses (or pathologies). Yet Bertolucci himself (in an attempt to revise the Western view of brainwashing) described the analysis that Pu Yi goes through as pscicanalisi forzata (forced analysis). Bertolucci said: “You know, the Chinese have quite a lot of sympathy for Pu Yi, even though he was a very cruel person. He was imprisoned, forced to endure a sort of psicanalisi forzata. He had to change, and he did. I think the movie will be a success if it makes acceptable the notion of brainwashing. Mao said, if you can wash your hands, you can wash your brain. I am not talking about Korean war-style brainwashing with lamps, but about a change that is far more subtle. And that is the transformation faced by the last emperor. Write this down again and again—He changed, Lui e cambiato!” (quoted by Allen Kurzweil, “Out to Lunch with Bernardo Bertolucci,” Vanity Fair (December 1986): 160.

  48. See “Bertolucci Seminar,” 17.

  49. Kolker, 94.

  50. Marsha Kinder and Beverle Houston, “Bertolucci and the Dance of Danger,” Sight and Sound 42 (1973): 188.

  51. Kinder and Houston, 188.

  52. The notion of “emplotment” was coined by Hayden White, in “The Historical Text as a Literary Artifact,” Clio 3 (1974): 273–303.

  53. Sigmund Freud, “Moses and Monotheism,” The Origins of Religion. The Pelican Freud Library, vol. 13 (London: Penguin Books, 1979), 314. Bertolucci himself, discussing Emperor, cited Cocteau who once said “I've always preferred mythology to history. History is truth that becomes an illusion; mythology is an illusion that becomes reality.” Bertolucci continues, “Concerning Pu Yi, the last Emperor, one cannot ignore the mythology” (Bernardo Bertolucci, “Billions of Emperors,” Film Comment 23 [December 1987]: 34).

  54. Hayden White, “On the Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” W. J. T. Mitchell, ed., On Narrative, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981), 4.

  55. Ibid., 13–14.

  56. Millicent Marcus, Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), reads the insertion of the allegory of Plato's cave in The Conformist as a “way of appropriating the moral teaching of Plato's myth” (300).

  57. Joan Mellen, “A Conversation with Bernardo Bertolucci,” Cineaste 3 (Summer, 1972), 24.

  58. White, “On the Value,” 5.

  59. Ibid., 21.

  60. Bertolucci, quoted by Cheng Jing, “‘Emperor’ Conflict of Reality,” China Daily (October 16, 1988).

Jonathan Romney (review date 4 February 1994)

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SOURCE: Romney, Jonathan. Review of The Conformist, by Bernardo Bertolucci. New Statesman & Society 7, no. 288 (4 February 1994): 41–42.

[In the following review, Romney discusses the obscurity of Bertolucci's The Conformist.]

It's not uncommon to come across films that completely bypass understanding. What is rare is a film that eludes it—a more troubling, devious matter altogether. Bernardo Bertolucci's re-released The Conformist is such a film. It tells a story (albeit one that we have to reconstruct from complex flashbacks) and it has a point to make about psychology and politics. Yet, much as it might make perfect sense on one level, on another—what it's like to watch—it doesn't make the sense we want it to. It's remarkably obscure: not surprising for a film whose central metaphor is to do with blindness and darkness, but a little more surprising when you realise that the dominant visual tone of the film is a saturated, unbroken whiteness.

For whatever reason, this 1971 film has been somewhat forgotten; because of the vagaries of distribution, because its popularity was eclipsed by the succès de scandale of Last Tango in Paris and because its predecessor, The Spider's Stratagem, seems in many ways more satisfying. So The Conformist comes to us now with the force of a genuinely alien discourse.

It looks and feels like a film from another planet, which indeed it is. It's from a time when films this complex seemed routine, when there was an audience for, and a way of talking about, the experiments of Resnais, Godard and Antonioni. Viewed from a world in which David Lynch is as far out as we get, it looks as foreign, archaic and sophisticated as cave paintings.

Bertolucci's film cultivates its own unreadability. It baffles us even when it plays a game of making perfect sense. For all its narrative dislocations, it makes a simple point: the confluence between sexual repression and fascism. Based on a novel by Alberto Moravia, it is set in 1930s Italy and tells the story of Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a young man who lives in the shade of a childhood trauma.

He's convinced he killed a homosexual chauffeur (Pierre Clementi) who tried to seduce him as a child. Horrified, he takes refuge in what he thinks of as normality: conformism stretched to its extremes. He marries Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), whom he despises, because he sees her as the very model of bourgeois empty-headedness. He signs up as a fascist agent and spends his honeymoon tracking down and killing his old professor.

Taken simply as a pathological explanation of fascism, the film would be banal. But it short-circuits its obvious meaning at every step. Where Moravia's novel is linear, Bertolucci shuffles the events so that rather than just looking at Marcello, we're at once caught up with him and far outside him, desperate for a purchase on the big picture.

The film is structured as a nest of flashbacks within the frame of Marcello's drive in pursuit of Quadri, the man he is to murder. Marcello also hopes to save Quadri's wife Anna (Dominique Sanda), whom he has apparently fallen in love with and who has attempted to seduce Giulia. A series of sequences “explain” how Marcello got where he is. They apparently take place in his memory, which casts a dubious light on their reliability.

Marcello talks to his blind mentor in fascism, Italo; explores a strange, marble mausoleum of a fascist HQ; visits his drug-addicted mother in her crumbling mansion and his demented father in his asylum; calls on Giulia in her apartment, a cluttered domain of stripes and window-blinds. And, in a sequence Bertolucci originally cut and is now restored, he attends a pre-nuptial party at which all the guests are blind.

Added together, these scenes tell a clear story of who Marcello is, what he's doing and why. But the construction means that scenes undermine one another's claim to be reliable. There's also an overload of visual stylisation, which hints at some hidden rhetoric that we can't quite pin down. Marcello's visit to his mother, for example, takes in a dramatically canted camera angle; a sweeping tracking shot upward at an unexpected moment; an extremely artificial ground-level shot of a sudden dramatic surge of leaves in the wind. What we see is simple enough, but why it's done in this way is not immediately apparent. Yet in some inscrutable way, it works.

There is the lighting, too. White dominates—the marble expanses of the fascist palace, the bleached vista of the asylum, the snow through which the car rushes and in which the film's climax takes place. There's also the pale lighting of Sanda's broad Dietrich features: a blank page as inscrutable as Marcello himself. The stylisation comes in the acting, too, undermining any consistent notion of character. Marcello, picking up his gun from a contact, suddenly breaks with the nervously scuttling figure we've seen up to now and adopts a series of flamboyant gangster poses. It's one of the film's many reminders that it is a film—as if Trintignant has suddenly taken time out from the narrative to oblige the stills photographer with some saleable shots.

You invariably end up picking out such details, partly because the film is so rich in them but also because it's so wilfully diffuse. In this respect, it is completely unlike The Spider's Stratagem, which is equally dream-like but more complete, with the claustrophobic, eating-its-own-tail quality of the Borges story that inspired it. The Conformist is much more a film about fragmentation. and is itself an act of fragmentation.

Cinematic allusion also gets in the way of concluding that The Conformist is “about” anything other than film. A red light advertises Clair's La Vie est a nous in the very first shot, a still of Laurel and Hardy is glimpsed in a window and Marcello's coat and icy demeanour relate him to the souless loners of Jean-Pierre Melville.

Bertolucci's desire to tell a story—and his willingness to work with Paramount, thereby shocking his contemporaries on the left—brings him into conflict with Godard's purist anti-narrative stance of the period. He effectively snubs Godard by making the film's climax a homage to Truffaut (the snow scenes in Shoot the Pianist) and gives the marked man Godard's own address. And cinema is implicit in the film's central metaphor. Marcello and Quadri discuss Plato's image of the cave, in which shadows flicker before people's eyes to be taken for reality. It's an evident image not only for cinema, but for fascist Italy and its illusions.

But if this is a political film, it is only in the most abstract sense. Its sexual politics are questionable, with Giulia and Anna presented as being at once Marcello's fantasy creations and absolutely tantalising objects he cannot control. They embody two extreme fantasies, a narcissistic one and a paranoid one. That paranoia extends to homophobia—the lesbian encounter between the two women, and the predatory role assigned to Clementi's hermaphroditic chauffeur. It's hard to tell whether these fears are simply presented as part of Marcello's make-up or if we're invited to share them. They certainly make their presence felt in the film's sense of unease and also recall the style of “decadence” that was a very modish factor in 1960s and 1970s fantasies of the 1930s.

If the film is political, there is no sense of a world in which politics exists. Fascist order is embodied in vacant architecture; Rome seems unpeopled and only in Paris do we get the sense of a world with real people. Fascism seems abstract; only when Mussolini falls and crowds march in triumph through the Roman streets are we given any suggestion of a reality beyond Marcello's head.

The Conformist, then, is more about the politics of solipsism. Its hero adopts a position because it suits his psychological makeup. That's what the title really means: not that Marcello wants to conform to society, but that he wants society to conform to him. Hence the disruption that this apparently orderly man casts into the world. He wants to be the only observer of the world-movie that's running in the cave of his head,

Bertolucci remarked at the time of the film's release that, after May 1968, he “wanted the revolution not to help the poor but myself. I wanted the world to change for me.” This realisation leads to The Conformist's demystification of right-wing idealism and to the suggestion that, in a cinema of the left, you can't have Marx without having Freud.

The banal Freudian “explanation” is given cursory treatment here, but the sense of erotic stylistics, the fascination with surface, dominates the film. That lushness and complexity may deruse its ostensible lesson about sexual and political repression; but it deruses it to make the question more complex. And The Conformist demonstrates a different kind of stance towards political narratives: that cinema is not to be a lesson, in which we're led by the hand to a point, but a fascinated wandering through analytical wildernesses.

It's a wonderful reminder of the all-but-forgotten potential of borderline obscurity.

Bernardo Bertolucci and Chris Wagstaff (interview date April 1994)

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SOURCE: Bertolucci, Bernardo, and Chris Wagstaff. “Bernardo Bertolucci: Intravenous Cinema.” Sight and Sound 4, no. 4 (April 1994): 18–21.

[In the following interview, Bertolucci discusses his relationship with his audience, his experience with Buddhism, and how he attempted to portray Buddhism in Little Buddha.]

Bertolucci's Little Buddha makes a very different address to a very different audience from that of his films of the 60s and 70s. His earlier films (Before the Revolution,Partner,The Spider's Stratagem and The Conformist) confronted the situation of a Marxist intellectual in contemporary Italy in the form of an Oedipal struggle with a fascist historical past and a bourgeois present, and earned him a position as one of Europe's foremost young art-film directors. With 1900, he attempted to address a wider public by embedding his themes in melodrama. The film was structured as a family saga, projecting a vision of Italian history as something formed by a popular mythology, the socialist peasant culture of Emilia. Problems of distribution partly frustrated him in this aim, but his address to the audience was a more direct and accessible one (in other words, the film was easier to understand and follow) than hither to. With La luna, he came right into the open about his desire to give pleasure to the audience, and exploited psychoanalysis for an even deeper exploration of the genre of melodrama. He then combined this genre with his political study of Italian generational conflicts in Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man.

Bertolucci's cinematic style is characterised by its lyrical employment of long, graceful, sinuous camera movements and a systematically expressive use of colour temperature (warm oranges contrasted with cold blues) together with a narrative style that plays with time, twisting it back on itself to create a perpetual dream-like present for the viewer. All these features, together with the Oedipal melodramatic approach to drama, characterise The Last Emperor, where he took the history and culture of recent China as the background for his study of a man deprived of identity by the social and historical forces operating on him—a study similar to that of his earlier films. By now he was working with the British producer Jeremy Thomas, having at his disposal enormous budgets. In our conversation he lamented the way the size of these budgets loaded him with too much responsibility, while confessing that they also reminded him how the nature of cinema is intimately bound up with money, and how money could function as a stimulus to creativity. He pointed out how his artistic career began at the age of 16 with a wind-up 16-mm camera, and insisted that “In my hand winding the spring, there was the same tension as there is now that I have big crews and large budgets. My relationship with the camera remains the same; what has been changed is the structure around. My inner, deep, mysterious motivation has always been a very personal desire to find a language which belonged to me and was not completely inherited from my father.”

This “language” informs Little Buddha, with its slow, lyrical camera winding through Bhutan, or swirling through Jesse's house in the US, with its conscious manipulation of colour temperature (oranges for Tibet, blues for an economically threatened Seattle), and with its poetical mise en scène used to provoke effects in the memory which the director refers to as “intermittances du coeur or déjà vu.” Time is his plaything in this story of Tibetan monks coming to Seattle to find the boy who they are convinced is the reincarnation of their dead master. They give the boy, Jesse, a story book from which he learns the legend of Siddhartha acquiring compassion and becoming the Buddha, and the story he reads is related in flashbacks throughout the narrative of the search for the Tibetan lama's reincarnation.

I asked Bertolucci about the way he filmed the house where the lamas discover the young boy, and he said: “The house where Jesse lives has to be special. It is a house where I know that three solitudes have been united in an Antonioni-like way: the father, the mother and the son. It is an empty house. But the arrival of the lama changes the significance of the emptiness, because when I say ‘empty’ in a film of Antonioni's, I mean an existential emptiness. When the lama enters, he says approvingly ‘very empty’ and then he adds ‘and very beautiful.’ It is a great quality of that idea of a house.”

[Wagstaff:] Around 1970, when people asked you about Before the Revolution and The Spider's Stratagem, you said that your goal was to make a film for a wide public like Gone with the Wind rather than films just for the art-cinema audience. That was the area in which you had to compete in cinema. You said: “I could make a film about the wind, and festival audiences would love it,” as if to say that this is just a small, converted audience.

[Bertolucci:] That was perhaps the big turning point in my life as a filmmaker, the end of the 60s, after I went into a deep depression because of Partner and before that Agonia, and when I started my analytical therapy. I realised then that all these movies—my movies and my friends' movies, which were sometimes excellent movies—were inachevés; they were unfinished because they didn't have the last part of the process, which is the pleasure of the audience. At least half of the masterpieces of cinema are inachevés, because they never had an audience to complete them—which doesn't make them less masterpieces than they are. I felt very strongly what I think is my own personal truth: I want desperately to communicate. I don't want to pursue a monologue, I want to have an exchange. I want to switch from monologue to dialogue. But I demand so much from this relationship with the audience, I want it so badly, and am so nervous about it, and afraid that I won't get it, that I prefer to stay in a safe zone, which is the zone where we all were, and where many have remained, a zone, let's say, in the Godard galaxy. I felt I should risk more, and in that period I decided to do so.

My problem is that I can love the movie I saw in Rotterdam last week by Tonino Di Bernardi, an Italian filmmaker from Turin who makes movies like in the 60s: black and white, two screens, no sound, live music—fantastic, beautiful, instant experimental ecstasy. I can equally love Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the whole machinery of Hollywood. I don't know if this is a fault, but it is possible to love the whole of cinema, with its splendours and its miseries. At a certain point I became aware of this, but I suspect that underneath I was always like this without being able to express it, because in the 60s I would have been considered a traitor. I am talking openly with you about this because I think that this is the moment to clarify my relationship with cinema. I don't want to hold myself up as an example to anybody else, which is why I feel embarrassed when I am asked to give seminars or lectures or to have discussions with students, because I feel I could create confusion in their minds. Young people who want to be cinéastes might be in some way misled by hearing about my love for all aspects of cinema, even the vulgar things. That's why I am a bit cautious.

So you feel they may be made afraid by the notion of not discriminating?

When you are young you need to exercise your faculty of discrimination, because it is in this way that you create your identity. Once you have a solid identity you can stop discriminating and become more generous and open. I remember I used to think I could almost die or kill for a shot of Godard or Mizoguchi.

I think people will find it easy to understand your talking about a desire to communicate. What they will wonder is: where does the dialogue come from? It is easy to see your side of the communication. But what do you get back?

There are two things. There is an imaginary collective answer, and there is the real, practical collective answer. The imaginary answer is the one I am more interested in. I put it together through pieces of information or crumbs of news I hear, like a letter from somebody, or a friend who calls me from Bolzano saying he was watching Little Buddha in a movie theatre when a child stood up behind him and said, “Oh, this is death. I am not afraid of death any more.” Or discovering that in Gela, a little town in Sicily where they only go to see films a luce rossa [porn films], they went to see Little Buddha and it was a big hit. I put together all this information and get a kind of audience response, which in fact is, I think, not only more interesting but at the end of the day more accurate than if I sit in front of an audience that speaks to me, because at that point you have just the few people who have the courage to speak, and they are in general the more narcissistic ones, so they talk about themselves and not about the movie—still interesting, but … It works sometimes. It happened in Pordenone with the audience of a heroic group called Cinema Zero, because they were able to create a good context for film buffs and it was really very interesting. Everybody from grown-ups to children was asking interesting questions and forcing me to give new answers. But that's very rare.

You sound as though you are imagining yourself projecting the film straight into the public's imagination, like putting probes into their brain.

Yes, there is a bit of that. The passivity of the cinema audience in the darkness is total, and a film can have a kind of hypnotic effect and jump all the normal conditions of dialogue, so that it is a bit like speaking with the unconscious. I feel that when I go see a movie it gets straight into my vein—it gets to my vein through my eyes and ears, but it gets to the vein.

Intravenous cinema. What you are describing is your wanting to know what is going on in the imagination of the people who are seeing your film.

What is important is to know that you are getting into the system of the people. After that, it's impossible to know the effects that you have created or provoked, because they are so different. Stop ten people coming out of a movie theatre and ask them all the same question about the film and you will have ten different explanations, even about basic things like the plot. I don't think there exists only one reading of a film. When ten different critics say ten different things, they are all right, because I think a film is the most polymorphous creature.

Do you mind about this unpredictability?

No, “unpredictable” is the highest compliment I can receive. Each one of us takes himself as a metre. For me, I couldn't be happier than when I see a movie that surprises me. Every time I am surprised, I have a little orgasm. One of the reasons why I like The Piano is that I have been surprised many times seeing it, by many things. The surprises can come from the plot, from the psychology, and then from the mise en scène, and then because you weren't expecting what you saw, and the surprise opens your brain to different possibilities. Maybe that's why I am so amazed when people are not happy about being surprised. Every time I make a movie they are surprised, because the movie is different from what they were expecting. With Little Buddha I found many people who were surprised, not always pleasurably. And this made me think that maybe people like less and less to be surprised in life. In the past, we used to say: “Oh, a great film, so unique and original!” Today I have the feeling that because of a horrible neo-conformism, which has been imposed on us by television and by the fact that the many cultures are becoming one culture, the words “unique” and “original” are becoming insults instead of compliments. And the originality that made the success of a movie is now a danger for it.

Is Little Buddha intended for a young audience?

Oh yes. That's clear from the first words pronounced, “Once upon a time.” That is a declaration of war, or of intention, let us say. And the fact that children are among the protagonists, if not the protagonists of the film. And the choice of the fabula. The story of Siddhartha is nothing but a fairy tale which a grandfather tells his grandchild. But then I thought: aren't we all children when we watch the story of Buddha in a movie theatre? We know nothing about Buddha. So we are in the same position as children. Also, I thought, aren't we all children when we look at a film in general, quite apart from the story of Siddhartha? My strong desire to find a wavelength on which children can enjoy a film has been part of the problem some people have had in accepting the film as it is, because they find it too simple, simplistic maybe, too elementary. They cannot accept the ideological choice behind the film: of finding a tone of voice accessible to children.

Why? Because, I think, they cannot accept it from me. There is a certain kind of prejudice, in that people expect certain things from me and not other things. Some viewers come out of the film deeply touched—they are moved but they are not sad—while others are scandalised. They don't judge it in terms of what I was trying to do, they refuse it completely, in toto. And so there isn't even discussion. What I find strange is that people who refuse the ideological choice of the film, the decisions that lie under the film, are so disoriented or disconcerted that they cannot see that there is another level, the level of the manufacture of cinema in the film, which at least they should be able to get.

Behind the film lay also a very simple idea: I always try to become part of the subject I am talking about. If I shoot a film in China, I have to see Chinese movies, because cinema is my instrument for exploring and gaining knowledge. So if I talk about a period 2,500 years ago, about a young prince, a palace and a small kingdom in northern India, I cannot avoid diving into Indian oleography, Indian popular cinema, Indian kitsch, together with the sublime cinema of Satyajit Ray. But especially what they do now. I can't help thinking Michael Powell was an orientalist, in a way, when he made Black Narcissus, or when he made The Thief of Bagdad. And I cannot help thinking that kitsch is an essential part of talking today about Siddhartha; it is the resonance of the present in the past, just as we have the resonance of the ideas of Buddha—the ideas of somebody in the past—in the present. It is this exchange that I find so interesting. If cinema is, as we have read 25,000 times, la mort au travail, it is also la vie au travail, which is the same thing from another point of view. I think one has to be aware of the nature of a movie as something constantly in progress and developing, something created and yet still in progress even when it is in front of the audience, because the audience's reactions change the movie and make it different. It is a much more sensual affair than the major companies think, in Hollywood, where they believe movies are like cars. Cinema is much more dynamic in its nature, and a film is never as finished as some critics think.

Your characters find the forces that drive them, their life forces, in the past. Forwards lies death, generally—there are often powerful emblems of death in your films. So your films challenge the linearity of time towards death by running time backwards, by using time as something circular. Little Buddha is an apotheosis of this circular movement in time on every level; it tries to define time as a circle and to exorcise death. The birth of another child to Jesse's parents is associated with Lama Norbu's death in a way that gives the ending of the film something of the characteristic of the horror genre. Nothing is stated. The mother is pregnant, and there is that little bowl of ashes on the waves. It's like the hand that comes out of the grave at the end of the horror film, suggesting that the story hasn't finished.

About death, I am reminded of some children in New Jersey who saw the film. First of all, I found out that children are terrified about death today. When we were children we didn't have this feeling of death. Death was maybe some old uncle dying, and very few died during my childhood. Children felt themselves to be immortal. Today they see dead children on television in Sarajevo or in Somalia, and they are afraid of death. So not only were they ecstatic at the idea of reincarnation, because it was a way of fighting death, but also when I asked them, “But isn't it sad that this nice Lama Norbu dies at the end of the film?,” they replied: “Oh, but he's coming back.” “What do you mean, he's coming back?” I asked. “He's in the belly of Jesse's mother.” Which frankly wasn't really the idea. They were ecstatic because the Lama was coming back, death wasn't the end, everybody was coming back, the Lama was already there; he would be a very nice brother or sister for Jesse.

But you were talking about the bowl full of ashes, slowly approaching the Seattle skyline, and about a horror film … I can accept that. But for me it is more a dangerous image. It made me think of what Freud said when he landed in the United States. He said: “You welcome me, but I come bringing the plague.” The plague was psychoanalysis. So there was an element of danger in this great thing which was coming. And in fact I thought that this little bowl with a few ashes in it held the potential danger of something very important arriving, a new world, a new energy, a new philosophy. And I even imagined there being an immigration officer on the beach saying, “What is that? We shall have it analysed”—you know how strict they are when you enter the United States, they ask you “Are you carrying any fruit, any salami … ?” But that idea is so exciting. It is the flow of continuity, the message arriving.

Little Buddha depicts an ideal childhood, where the son is deluged with fatherly love, protection and authority, and yet is at the same time omnipotent. Is this a dream of an impossible utopia?

But this is a very accurate description of the position of a tulku—a found reincarnation. Before the shooting of Little Buddha I saw a movie called The Reincarnation of Khensur Rimpoche, directed by Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin, a beautiful documentary about a monk who goes to Tibet, smuggles a child out of Tibet, takes him to the Dalai Lama and to the oracle, and is told: “Yes, this is the reincarnation of your master.” He takes the boy to his monastery in southern India, and the whole movie is informed by the relationship between the tutor and the boy. It shows a man who becomes for this boy father and mother. He gives the boy food, he washes him and he plays with him. At the same time the boy is the reincarnation of his teacher. So he is tremendously respectful of this boy. And I thought: but isn't that the perfect relationship we should have with children? Affection and respect. In Tibetan Buddhism it is respect because the children are the masters. But we should translate that into western terms.

There was a line in Before the Revolution which came back to me the other day. When Fabrizio goes with Cesare to the Festa dell'Unità, which for him in 1964 was a kind of celebration of reformism rather than revolution, he says, “a world in which sons may be the fathers of their own fathers.” In some way I am trying to simplify everything you said … I mean, not to simplify it but to move the aim from the psychoanalytical approach you had: the child being in some way fed in his omnipotence by all this fathering. I am trying to see it from another point of view, which is the point of view of tutor and tulku. The point of departure for the position of the boy and the other characters is very much based on what is traditionally the relationship between the first searcher lamas of an incarnation—they call them bounty hunters—and the children.

You have been describing the response that pleased you in the audience as being an emotional one rather than a philosophical one. So presumably this love and respect, combined with an acceptance of the authority of the child, is directed at the public on an emotional level, and that is how you want them to respond. I asked you the question in a psychological way, but you responded to it in a historical and theological way, which doesn't entirely tally with the way you have been describing your address to the viewer.

Yes, because I was trying to explain it. I wanted to explain my effort to be invaded by material from the original world of Tibetan Buddhism. I think we should always try as much as possible to be inspired by things that come from that world and from that culture. Not just that culture described by me, a Westerner with all my background, but made to sound through me. I become like a speaker which is enriched by things that belong to that culture and so plays back its sound. I feel like a mouthpiece, a servant of that reality and of that culture.

I want to see how this would work on the level of dialogue, which is the communication you are setting up between yourself and the audience. Let's say, your imaginative recreation of the relationship between Lama Norbu and Jesse is an object of pleasure, and is a sort of emotional stimulus to the audience. Now, how are you imagining this? As a sort of nostalgia in the audience? I don't think so, because you project it as almost didactic—as an aspiration, an ideal.

Yes. To a certain extent I was thinking a lot of Rossellini's TV movies, which were very didactic. Rossellini was a teacher who was trying to teach in his way, because he thought that television had the great potential of being a school. I think television could be the greatest university, but it prefers instead to be a moral supermarket. But since I don't like to be a teacher, I was also thinking of steering around the problem, of avoiding as much as possible teaching Buddhism and trying much harder to give back to the audience, or better to share with them, the emotion I felt in discovering Buddhism.

I'll give you an example. I spent time with an old Tibetan meditator who didn't speak any English, while I didn't speak any Tibetan, and we just sat in front of each other. The only communication was through the eyes, and through the graceful mudra which he made with his beautiful hands. We meditated together, and we looked at each other. And suddenly I felt that I was living at that very moment what Buddhism is reminding us of all the time. Our culture is based on duality: conflict, good and evil, god and the devil, the victor and the vanquished. Here we had another duality, the master and the pupil. Suddenly, and you know how suspicious I am of spiritualistic, mysterious things, I felt that there was a kind of communion between us, and that there was no more duality. No longer master and pupil, but a unity. And afterwards—it was one or two months before shooting—I was obsessed with how I could make a film that would convey that sensation, for it was a sensation, and not an action. I feel there is a moment in the film when you get a strong feeling of something like that towards Lama Norbu, and it is during his meditation and death. That is the feeling I had when I was shooting the death of Lama Norbu.

And that is the relationship which is set up between the lama and Jesse's father?

The dying lama is the metteur en scène of the enthronement, because when the father comes into the lama's room he sees the old lama closing his eyes and smiling, imagining the enthronement of the children, which is the accomplishment of his mission. The lama is meditating and dying, and Jesse's father sits with him, watching him, and I wanted the father a bit sleepy beside the meditating lama. He dies, and the monks all chant the Heart Sutra in his honour. Then time passes. The father enters the gompa (church) where the children are, and the children see the lama. The lama is there with them, but the father can't see him.

Here I was trying to let myself be taken over by that culture, and by the feelings that my experience with the great meditator had aroused in me, and trying to pass them on in an immediate way. I was unable to film the bardo, which is the lamas' way of dying, and which is described in the Tibetan Book of Death. The heart stops; there is no pulse, no breathing, and they can stay for 15 days in the lotus position without their body rotting. Nobody knows why. The Tibetans say, because the mind is still in the body. Then after a while the mind decides to leave the body and the body remains like an old rag. It is very important that it is the mind, not the soul; all religions talk about the soul, but Buddhism talks about the mind because it is not a religion, it is a philosophy.

It is difficult for me to believe that the mind leaves the body and goes into another body. My relationship with Buddhism is that of an amateur—I would be a liar or an imposter if I called myself a Buddhist. I draw on Buddhism. But I believe that the whole business of reincarnation in Tibetan culture is a metaphor for a kind of mysticism of continuity, expressing the fact that we are not lost when we die; something remains, perhaps our energy, or neurones that are never disturbed, perhaps our ideas, or our work. It is a celebration of continuity and interdependence. Interdependence is another important Buddhist concept, and so when Siddhartha watches the cremation of the dead body and begins his long process of awakening, we hear Lama Norbu's voiceover saying: “The day he saw suffering and discovered compassion, he was made of them and they were made of him.” That is the concept of interdependence. Interestingly, when I saw the film later (and not when I had the lama speak these words), I thought it sounded familiar. It is the last line of The Spider's Stratagem, when Athos' son has to make a speech to the old men of the town and says: “A man is made of all other men, and the others are made of him,” which is a quotation from Sartre. When we say tout se tient, that is interdependence.

You are projecting this film with so much hope that people will …

The aim is low key. My hope is to open the eyes for a glimpse of something, my hope is to trigger a curiosity about something. I can't teach or ask anything more than just for others to participate in my emotional discovery of Buddhism. When I made 1900, or when I made political movies in the 60s and 70s, at first I thought: “Oh, people will come out of 1900 and run to the nearest branch of the Communist Party and become members,” and I laughed. It is not like that. Everything is part of a wider cultural flowing movement. In the same way that I never hoped to convert people of different political persuasions to become Communist militants, so I don't think I can push people to become Buddhist. I just want them to become curious about Buddhism.

A film is a representation. You are describing it as your attempt to represent your seduction by Buddhism, by a culture and a way of approaching the world and reality. And so the more successful you are in representing its attraction for you, the greater the pleasure for the audience, and its only effect must be to do the same to them—which is a hope, isn't it? It's like trying to reach out and pull them on board.

Right. And that's why, taking all that into consideration, I was determined that the movie should try to be accessible to as many people as possible. That's why I chose the fairy tale, and children, and this kind of absence of ponderousness. There is a major mystery in it, but I think there is a lightness to the film which makes it acceptable. The film could have been threateningly philosophical, but that's what I wanted to avoid. However, I wanted the viewer to feel, if he or she wanted, that behind it lay a fascinating philosophy.

So there is a philosophy there.

The most all-embracing one. Not only that—and I am answering you before you ask me a question that I have been asked quite often … How could I move so easily from Marx and Freud into Buddhism? I think there is a complete consistency in this itinerary, because what Marx and Freud have in common is that they both place man at the centre. Buddhism came in the context of millions of Hindu gods, and said: “We have finished with God, now we have man.” The Tibetans are a mountain people like any other mountain people in the world, and yet they alone have developed this extraordinary, sophisticated philosophy which derives from the enormous pleasure they take, a joie de vivre, in philosophy. That has been an incredible discovery for me, and I know that I've been able to represent just a tiny part of it. Buddhism saved me from a big depression at a time when I had been deprived of the right to dream of utopias after the fall of the Wall.

You have described periods of difficulty in your artistic life as periods of depression more than once, and in the past you found images in your films to express an angry struggle against the forces that frustrated you.

After various patricides (the father in The Conformist was killed), there has come a new phase, there has been a change, and now there is less urgency to react against this aggression, because there is less aggression. But when I am asked whether I feel I have changed after this Buddhist experience, I find it difficult to give an answer. It is difficult to tell through me, but you can tell through the movie whether I have changed or not. This movie—granted that the camera is more or less the same, the eye is the same, and the mise en scène—is the first movie I have made that is not completely structured on psychological conflicts, which is not completely exploiting a dramaturgy of conflicts (whether they be psychological conflicts between men and women, between fathers and sons, or political conflicts between fascists and anti-fascists, there are atrocious conflicts in my films). The challenge was to become at one with the subject I am talking about. Also the construction of the film was based on an attempt to see, or maybe on the illusion of seeing, whether it was possible to have a dramaturgy without conflicts, one that is held up by the pillar of a feeling, the feeling of Buddhism.

Chris Wagstaff (review date April 1994)

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SOURCE: Wagstaff, Chris. Review of The Conformist, by Bernardo Bertolucci. Sight and Sound 4, no. 4 (April 1994): 53–54.

[In the following review, Wagstaff traces how Bertolucci's The Conformist communicates its major theme and how the reinsertion of a deleted scene affects the overall message of the film.]

Few people can resist considering Il conformista Bertolucci's masterpiece. He has constructed from Alberto Moravia's novel an Oedipal story of enormous complexity, both thematically and stylistically, reordering a chronological narrative into a dream, in which Marcello's psyche is gradually penetrated as though in a psychotherapy session during the cocooned car journey to Savoy. Marcello is driven by anxiety about his sexuality, by his sense of having been betrayed by his ‘fathers’ and by a fruitless search for a position of ‘normality’ in the social order. Quadri is an idealist living a hedonistic life in Paris while the struggle against fascism in Italy is the material one of the class struggle. A young man in 1970, Bertolucci questioned the credentials of middle-class anti-fascism, and killed his own father figures. The address and phone number at Quadri's apartment were in fact those of Jean-Luc Godard, and Quadri's account of Plato's myth of the cave can be understood as an expression of Godardian cinematic asceticism, in which images must be unmasked as purely images. Bertolucci opened on a sign advertising Renoir's La vie est à nous to manifest the need to make films that were accessible to a wide cinema-going public. To hide behind an austere idealism was to fail to engage with the real cinema audience. In the figure of Quadri, generational, political and cinematic issues are fused.

How well has Il conformista achieved its task of communication? The sheer mastery of the telling, the beauty of the images and of the camerawork, the control of the soundtrack, and the intensity with which the characters convey powerful psychic energies have all mesmerised audiences. Though much admired it remains slightly obscure. The title offers an interpretation: conformism. Marcello is an example of conformity, and the destruction it wreaks; fascism is conformism. The extent to which the film develops much more subtle themes than that can be overlooked. At the Berlin film festival in 1970, Bertolucci was persuaded to remove a four-minute episode, that of the pre-nuptial party, and the film has hitherto been distributed without this sequence. In this scene, Italo, blind and gay, says that he and Marcello share a sense of being ‘different’ from others. Normality is to enjoy the sight of a woman's behind. People need to feel part of a group. Marcello butts in: “Like a true fascist.” This scene has now been restored. It may confirm viewers in the ‘conformist’ interpretation. But Marcello says “Like a true fascist” with an expression of disdain, and then removes himself from Italo's reach; the scene is shot with a basement window in the background, through which we see the legs of female prostitutes soliciting outside. Every time Marcello is confronted with reality, it turns out to be other than the ‘normality’ he seeks: the minister is a philanderer, Giulia the mistress of an old man, his mother a junkie, Anna a lesbian, the secret police a collection of neurotic bunglers, anti-fascism a bourgeois confidence trick. … The way in which the film depicts fascist ideology as just a prolongation of bourgeois idealist fantasising is only comprehensible when you conceive of a materialist, Marxist alternative to that middle-class ideology. Communists in 1970 could call upon a whole culture, for example that mixture of Freud and Marx that we find in Marcuse and the Frankfurt school, that would offer a devastating critique of Quadri's complicity in an ideology he shared in part with fascism. So is it the repressed, conformist Marcello wiping out the relaxed, freedom-loving Quadri? Is this how today's post-communist audiences will view the film? Will the restoration of the pre-nuptial party scene clarify matters, or will it reassure viewers in a banal interpretation of a film whose ambiguity previously forced them to work for a less simple interpretation?

Thematically, the scene offers plenty: blind people dancing and arguing about politics. The whole film plays on seeing what is not there, not seeing what is there, looking for what you want to see, having to see what you don't want to look at, looking at your own desire, trying not to see your own desire, screens, windows and objects that obstruct one's vision. … And the dialogue between Marcello and Italo with the prostitutes behind them is visually powerful and full of suggestion. But the dialogue itself clumsily brings out into rational discourse, and therefore reduces, what is elsewhere expressed by movement, sound, gesture and suggestion. Part of the scene is cluttered in a way that no other scene is; and it appears in the film without the subtle threads of transition—words, puns, sounds, images—which so effectively weld together the mosaic-like fragments of which the rest is constructed. Perhaps they were not so misguided at the 1970 Berlin film festival.

Kenneth Turan (review date 25 May 1994)

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SOURCE: Turan, Kenneth. “Buddha: Terminal Bliss.” Los Angeles Times (25 May 1994): F1.

[In the following review, Turan offers a negative assessment of Little Buddha, complaining that the film lacks drama and convincing dialogue.]

When the editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, one of the few journalists allowed on the set of Little Buddha, the new Bernardo Bertolucci film, wrote about her experience, one question continued to trouble her. What was the word Little doing in the title?

None of the filmmakers, it turned out, could give her a satisfactory answer, but now that the picture itself is here, the reason seems obvious. Despite its illustrious pedigree, Little Buddha turns out to have the sensibility of a children's film, the most elaborate and expensive “Afterschool Special” ever to make it to the big screen.

Being a children's film, of course, is not necessarily a negative thing, and aspects of Little Buddha do linger pleasantly in the memory. But what lingers as well is the suspicion that this is a children's film at least partly by default, the product of too much goofy New Age reverence and too little nuance and sophistication.

Those who remember such Bertolucci films as The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris may be surprised at this turn in his career, but those pictures are deep in the director's past. More recently we've seen the likes of The Last Emperor, which, its many Oscars notwithstanding, is best remembered for how everything looked, not for what anyone said.

In fact, especially when, as here, Bertolucci collaborates with Vittorio Storaro, one of the world's preeminent cinematographers, the director has a tendency to become a prisoner of his own particular gift for luscious images, to assume that the dramatic side of things will more or less take care of itself.

Story, however, can be neglected only at great risk, especially when two parallel tales are being told. The first begins in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in modern-day Bhutan, where Lama Norbu (Chinese actor Ying Ruocheng) gets a telegram he's been waiting for for nine years, a message that soon puts him on a jet headed for Seattle.

Though all Buddhists believe in reincarnation, only Tibetan Buddhists believe that specific people, invariably great teachers, can be identified in their next incarnation. And Lama Norbu has reason to believe that his own teacher, admittedly a man with a hell of a sense of humor, has been reincarnated as an 8-year-old American named Jesse Konrad (newcomer Alex Wiesendanger).

Not surprisingly nonplussed by this news are Jesse's parents, Lisa (Bridget Fonda) and Dean (singer Chris Isaak), a sprightly young couple who don't quite know what to make of all these robed and shaven monks appearing suddenly in their lives.

They don't object, however, when Lama Norbu gives Jesse a child's life of the Buddha. This little book forms the basis of Little Buddha's second narrative strand, a film-within-a-film set in Asia 2,500 years ago that details how the fun-loving Prince Siddhartha transformed himself into a great spiritual being.

Though it plays at times like an infomercial on Eastern religions, this half of Little Buddha is the most successful. For one thing, this is where Storaro's photography and James Acheson's production and costume design are at their best, making good use of the never-before-seen streets of Bhutan and creating opulent set pieces.

And though eyebrows and even entire faces were raised when it was announced that Keanu Reeves was going to play Siddhartha, in fact, he does what the part calls for as the golden youth shielded from misery and death who takes the path to enlightenment. Hewing closely to traditional texts, this part of Little Buddha comes off closest to the fable quality the filmmakers were apparently after.

In the modern half, however, the lack of texture that is the film's weakest link is most evident. The Mark Peploe and Rudy Wurlitzer plot, from a story by the director, seems determined to take the drama out of every situation, while the accompanying dialogue is invariably hollow and unconvincing.

Being blissed out may be an enviable state for a human being, but it is not necessary the best one for a film.

Philip Strick (review date June 1994)

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SOURCE: Strick, Philip. Review of Little Buddha, by Bernardo Bertolucci. Sight and Sound 4, no. 6 (June 1994): 53–54.

[In the following review, Strick offers a mixed assessment of Little Buddha.]

Continuing the symmetry of The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky, Bertolucci completes his oriental trilogy with [Little Buddha,] another tale of innocents abroad. While it will doubtless come as no surprise to committed Buddhists, the journeys of Pu Yi and the ill-fated Moresbys from lives of useless luxury to the informative extremes of destitution turn out closely to parallel the path taken by Siddhartha, whose serene childhood—lotus flowers sprouting at every footfall—left him ill-prepared for the inevitabilities of adulthood.

Conveniently, Bertolucci's own preference for privation, venturing where no camera has gone before in his attempts to evade Western consumerism, echoes the same learning process, the need for reassurance growing more acute with the advancing years. Borrowing from Paul Bowles, he concluded The Sheltering Sky (where survival proved more valuable than death) on a note of gloomy hope, recommending that we savour every minute of the final countdown. With Little Buddha, in effect a post-countdown story of the after-life, he puts his faith in recycled humanity, with rebirth on the agenda as a comforting, if necessarily unproven, prospect. In his final images, which for a moment seem set to repeat the miraculous (and confirming) instant when Siddhârtha's bowl flows against the current, he offers reincarnation like a kind of plague dust, destined to convert us all to the living dead.

In aiming his film at a young audience, on the pretext that we are all like children when learning about Buddha (who also achieved wisdom through innocence), Bertolucci creates an inevitable tension. The fear of death can easily be lifted by the promise of resurrection, but it's the promise that needs substantiating. Up to a point, the world of an adult is authority enough, but beyond that, attainment of enlightenment by the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, the essentials of Buddhism, involves painfully complex, and decidedly non-filmic, considerations. Avoiding complication, Bertolucci has had to resort to simple mythology, staging a pantomime that will excite curiosity but provides no answers. Even so, his self-denial only goes so far; he underpins the splendid melodrama of Siddhârtha with a strange, fragmentary story of his own (plus recognisable grace-notes from Wurlitzer and Peploe) which almost reverses the riches-to-rags legend by taking average all-American boy Jesse on the adventure of a lifetime to be hailed as a near-deity on the other side of the world. This Spielbergian premise certainly achieves the right flavour for juvenile audiences, but at the same time it introduces ingredients for which Buddhism seems more placebo than panacea.

Were it not for the excellent humour with which Lama Norbu and his companion monks conduct their quest, as if fully aware of its more unlikely aspects, the whole exercise would seem irredeemably farcical. Instead, the general tone of incongruity as the small flock of monks tours the museums and monorails of Seattle, sitting on the floor instead of the furniture, acquires a fantastical charm of its own. More dissonant, as a result, is the Conrad family, occupying a house of breathtaking simplicity which sprouts from the ground in a jolt of computerised conjury to survey the entire city like a watch-tower of ominously tinted glass. The Conrads are clearly suspicious of the Tibetans, yet leave their son alone with them for hours, and although the family's financial future seems bound up with the unseen partner, whose death leaves Dean curiously distraught, it is Jesse's mother who stays in Seattle while the boy and his father go to the Himalayas.

Whole chapters of the Conrad story, with its hints of the same incestuous triangle as La luna, seem to have been denied us, leaving unexplained the hovering camera over Dean as he stares suicidally at a motorway or later the intense scrutiny with which he studies Norbu's demise, as if awaiting a major revelation. Played by Chris Isaak in a state of high anxiety, by contrast with Bridget Fonda's immaculate poise as his wife, his concluding appearance as castaway in the Seattle bay seems to leave Buddhism very much at sea. This despite the orange sunset (as we may expect from Storaro, the whole film is a dialogue of blues and oranges) and the implied correlation between Norbu's ashes and Lisa's pregnancy.

The other paradox of Little Buddha is, of course, its own magnificence. Where the eponymous nontheist, reasonably enough after six years as a ascetic, opted for moderation in all things, Bertolucci and Storaro provide panoplies of costume, landscape and construction that are seldom less than sumptuous. The palace home of Siddhârtha is lavish in the crowds and colours of a children's fable, and even when the prince discards the excesses of ignorance and settles for the wilderness, the majesty of the riverside and the gleeful intrusion of special effects lends his mental struggle an overwhelming grandeur. With frequent sky-high shots of patterns and movements, Bertolucci makes spectacle a theme in its own right, celebrated interminably by Sakamoto's drifting score, at first a marvel of foreboding, later a shapeless package of crescendos. As Siddhârtha, Keanu Reeves confronts himself with an affable authority; for a refreshing change, this is a philosophical hero who only has to sit and think, and whether or not his example offers any kind of inspiration, it is unarguably fascinating to watch.

Karl Springer (review date 27 June 1994)

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SOURCE: Springer, Karl. “Counterpunch: Little Buddha's Sense of Wonder Is No Small Thing.” Los Angeles Times (27 June 1994): F3.

[In the following review, Springer defends Bertolucci's Little Buddha in response to Kenneth Turan's May 25, 1994 review of the film in the Los Angeles Times.]

Bernardo Bertolucci's new film, Little Buddha, is an extraordinary achievement by a master director in ways that cannot be seen in Kenneth Turan's review (“Buddha: Terminal Bliss,” [Los Angeles Times,] May 25). The proposition that Little Buddha is distorted by Bertolucci's “New Age reverence” for Buddhism is simply not accurate. It is important to understand that Buddhism is arguably the least monolithic of world religions as there are quite divergent schools that share a common basis but differ in many views and practices. The vajrayana Buddhism of Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal and northern India is the basis for Little Buddha and the filmmakers have studied this tradition well and have presented it authentically.

As a practitioner of vajrayana Buddhism for 25 years and director of the America Bhutan Council, it was of great interest to me to discuss these traditions with Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas and others involved in the film. They had not only delved quite deeply into the subject, but they were also painstakingly careful to consult with the film's technical adviser (a highly respected Tibetan Buddhist teacher who was present at all times) on every point of doctrine or visual representation of the tradition. Although the central Buddhist monk in the film was a professional actor, all others are real-life important vajrayana Buddhist teachers who, in my experience, are just as they seem in the film.

The review questions the meaning of the word little in the title and doubts Bertolucci's understanding of why he used it. This is an interesting point since the use of the diminutive in referring to Buddha has provoked much controversy. In vajrayana Buddhism there is a millennium-long tradition of discovering and training young children who are regarded as incarnations of great teachers. The Dalai Lamas and Karmapas are among the best known of thousands of such children referred to in Tibetan as tulku, meaning buddha or “one who is awakened.” It is a mark of Bertolucci's perceptiveness and sophistication that he does understand this meaning of “little buddha” and applies it correctly to the American child at the center of the film.

Most notably, Bertolucci manages to recount a fascinating story based on real people and events while at the same time conveying to Western audiences an accurate and compelling historical, philosophical and visual experience of a 2,500-year-old tradition. He does this in a ravishingly beautiful display and in only two hours. Quite an accomplishment!

Little Buddha also brings the little-known and magnificent land and people of Bhutan to Western audiences. Bhutan has managed to maintain an ancient and exquisite culture and is the most unspoiled country on the face of the Earth. Surrounded by other Himalayan nations such as Tibet, Sikkim and Nepal, which have fallen to larger neighbors or been overrun by development, Bhutan is engaged in a struggle to preserve its heritage and way of life. The American Bhutan Council was founded to assist Bhutan in the heroic effort to retain its indigenous traditions. Bertolucci's sensitive and authentic portrayal of that culture is a great gift to the world.

Bertolucci has made a magnificent film in a daring and bold attempt to convey something more thought-provoking and uplifting of the human spirit than virtually anything else in cinema today. He has succeeded in creating an artistic gem that deeply touches the heart. Turan's estimation of Little Buddha as being a “children's film” is far wiser than he may know. The profound teachings of Buddhism are all about cultivating “beginner's mind,” about seeing reality with the openness and wonder of a child. That Bertolucci has succeeded in conveying this speaks volumes about the triumph of his skills and his understanding.

Yosefa Loshitzky (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Loshitzky, Yosefa. “The Spider's Sexual Stratagem: Bertolucci's Poetics and Politics of Sexual Indeterminacy.” In The Radical Faces of Godard and Bertolucci, pp. 174–99. Detroit: Wayne State University, 1995.

[In the following essay, Loshitzky analyzes the role of sexuality and sexual ambiguity in Bertolucci's films.]

Bertolucci's fascination with bisexuality and androgyny is a recurrent motif in his work. On this matter he observes, “I would say that I like men who have something feminine about them and vice versa. Absolute virility is horrible. Absolute femininity, also.”1 Yet, as Will Aitken observes, “gay sexuality has never been the central concern of any of Bertolucci's films.”2 Bertolucci seems to be more interested in sexual ambivalence, than in pure and determinate sexual identity. Bertolucci uses one memorable image of sexual ambiguity again and again. In The Spider's Stratagem it is an image of a servant boy who provokes Athos's curiosity. The boy is always wearing a straw hat while smiling mysteriously. When eventually, Athos finds himself alone in the room with the boy, the boy smiles and then removes his hat and a shock wave of dark hair tumbles down revealing the image of a girl. In The Conformist this image is echoed in the seduction scene of the child Marcello by Lino, the chauffeur. Lino first shows Marcello his pistol and then takes off his uniform cap allowing his raven-black hair to tumble down to his shoulders. “Kill Madame Butterfly” Lino orders Marcello. The juxtaposition of the hard/phallic/Fascist symbol of the pistol with the soft/feminine/exotic Otherness of the luxurious kimono and the long silky hair, creates a disturbing poetic image of sexual ambiguity that anticipates the seductive Orientalism of Ar Mo in The Last Emperor (“She is not my wet-nurse! She is my butterfly!” Pu Yi cries after Ar Mo is expelled from the Forbidden City after the incestuous suckling scene). The Conformist's poetics of sexual indeterminacy is expressed through the doubling process and the symmetrical configuration of the characters, as well as through the bisexual inclinations of the protagonists of both sexes (see chapter 2).

In Tango, both Maria Schneider and Brando were selected, partially, due to what Bertolucci saw as their ambivalent sexual identity. One reason Bertolucci chose Schneider (although his first choice was Dominique Sanda, who could not accept because she was pregnant) was his perception of her androgynous quality (and perhaps her alleged bisexuality in real life). Bertolucci was impressed by her feminine upper part and her more masculine lower parts. This choice underscored his longstanding obsession with bisexuality and also matched the androgynous quality that some perceive as peculiar to Brando's grand machismo beauty. The sexy Jeanne exhibits masculine traits as well. She is wearing a mannish suit when she and Paul first meet in the real world on the Paris streets. When she kills Paul with the phallic pistol of her dead father, the colonel, she is wearing her masculine-fashion jacket. It is worth mentioning here that Ingmar Bergman said Tango would have been a much more truthful film had the Jeanne/Maria Schneider role been played by a boy.

In 1900 the homosexual motif is manifested through the twinning/doubling motif of Olmo and Alfredo. There, however, it is immersed with Bertolucci's disturbing view of the working class as the embodiment of virility. This view is inspired by Pasolini and reveals an affinity with Fassbinder to whom Bertolucci feels very close.3 In one of the scenes in 1900 Olmo (Gerard Depardieu), the share-cropper's son, and Alfredo (Robert De Niro), son of the landowner, compare the size of their penises, and Olmo jokingly notes that his is longer because he's a socialist. In The Sheltering Sky, super-virility is attributed to Belqassim, the Other from the Third World. This attribution assumes a visual representation in the set, which was erected as to show a Western fantasized image of Belqassim's harem. In the center of the set a towerlike construction looks like an erect penis, recalling Pasolini's mythic sets for the movies Oedipus Rex and Medea which were shot in North Africa and used Third World natives as extras.

In Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man there are several vivid images of sexual indeterminacy.4 One of them occurs when the camera, through an extremely tight close-up of Laura's feminine lips, reveals a small moustache. The extreme close-up has no apparent motivation other than to reveal to the spectator the “blemish” in Laura's otherwise pretty face. There is also a scene in which two maids in Primo's household are dancing together to the sounds of rock music. One is a full, older woman and the other is a young and slim tomboy type. The spectator discovers that the young girl is a woman only after the camera approaches her bosom. The image of the two dancing women recalls the seductive tango performed by Anna and Guilia in The Conformist. But here, sexual liberation is the domain of the working class (associated with the low form of rock music), and not the dubious privilege of the decadent bourgeoisie (associated with the tango) as in The Conformist. In The Last Emperor although Pu Yi's homosexuality is never explicitly expressed in the movie, Bertolucci hints at it by presenting Lone's face in ways which emphasize its androgynous qualities. The eunuchs, representing the artificial third sex (see chapter 4) in Emperor, push sexual ambiguity into its grotesque limits. They are portrayed by Bertolucci as repulsive creatures and their sexual ambiguity is neither seductive nor sexually attractive.

In The Sheltering Sky, the image of bisexuality resonates in the image of a young, always laughing girl/boy in the Tuareg caravan to whom Kit gives her Panama (colonial) hat, and who resembles the boy/girl in Stratagem. Here sexual ambiguity is associated, as in Stratagem and The Conformist, with the symbol of the hat and its masking connotation. The hat veiling and unveiling the hair alludes to pubic hair, which veils the sexual marks of difference. Kit herself is veiled as a boy so that, paradoxically, both she and Belqassim can enjoy heterosexual relationship. There are also well disguised suggestions in the movie regarding Port's homosexual inclinations. The film, particularly in the beginning, creates an expectation that Port will have an affair with Tunner or with a local Arab boy. Port's soft voice and sometimes his body language seem to invite homosexual relationships. Some of the shots in which he is seen from behind, and others in which he is seen with the repulsive Erick—as well as shots showing him approaching Arabs—provoke homosexual associations. Another image of sexual ambiguity is associated with the veiled Belqassim. When we first see his eyes under the veil we, presumably like Kit, are not sure of his sexual identity. The scene that deconstructs all The Sheltering Sky's sexual ambiguity occurs when the Arab whore pushes a breast into Port's open fly. This image fuses the sexual markers of the opposite sexes.


Bertolucci's openness to the bisexual aspect of human sexuality seems to suggest, if not feminist convictions, then at least sensitivity to the concept, suggested by bisexuality, of a truly liberated human sexuality. Yet, as Barbara Creed observes, the increasing emphasis on the androgynous figure in popular culture and the woman/man in the cinema is neither new nor necessarily progressive. On the contrary, “this postmodern fascination with the androgyne and the ‘neuter’ subject may indicate desire not to address problems associated with the specificities of the oppressive gender roles of patriarchal society, particularly those constructed for women.”5

Bertolucci is perhaps a good reinforcement of Creed's suggestion. He has often been accused by feminists of conveying anti-women sentiments in his work.6 This judgment is particularly evident in many feminist critiques of Tango. Bertolucci said in one of the interviews he gave after the phenomenal succès de scandale of Tango: “I like feminist women watching Tango. They have a primary reaction to this film—that because of the fact that Maria undergoes acts of violence it is therefore an anti-feminist film. That's much too primary a reaction for me.” In the same interview he also said that: “It is not a male chauvinist film. That's too simplistic. It is a film about.” And he added: “The movie is an accelerated course in Wilhelm Reich. … To make moral judgements is not interesting.” Perhaps his most revealing remark in this interview is that “for men this movie is a more traumatic experience than for women” because “the men feel their virility challenged. Marlon takes great risks, and they identify with this.”7 Yet, despite Bertolucci's apologetic discourse, one cannot ignore the disturbing acts of sexual and verbal abuse committed against the character of Jeanne, as well as the representation of the Paul character as the sole bearer of suffering and social anger. The larger than life figure of the Paul character, and the tragic proportions of his agony, overshadow the petit-bourgeois concerns of the Jeanne character. The speech delivered by Paul sitting near the coffin of his dead wife, more than anything else fixes the notion of femininity as enigma, if not treachery, against the world of men. The authenticity attributed to Paul's search for pure sexuality denies Jeanne's subjectivity by embodying male fantasy, which ignores the humanity of the fantasized other.

Tango, Bertolucci's most controversial and disturbing film primarily because of its treatment of sexuality, violence, and death, is perhaps the director's most problematic film from a feminist point of view. In the second chapter I suggest that Tango be read as both a regressive and a progressive text that follows Marcuse's radical reading of Freud's analysis of perversions as the foundation of a better civilization based upon the pleasure principle. Aitken, to cite another example of a critic offering a favorable feminist reading of Tango, claims that the first intercourse between Paul and Jeanne inacts “the prototypical heterosexual male fantasy—pure lusty fucks, no encumbering attachments.” But he adds that the fact that this relationship ultimately fails, “in fact proves fatal for Paul, seemed to indicate that Bertolucci was saying this sort of macho fantasy was over, impossible.”8

Another disturbing aspect of Tango from a feminist point of view is the complete absence from view of Brando's penis, or even partial nakedness. Only in the last tango scene does he mockingly expose his buttocks to the shocked bourgeois audience in a gesture that ridicules the tango as a metaphor for heterosexual relationship and bourgeois respectability by suggesting anality and latent homosexuality. The historic absence of the penis in cinema is a well-known phenomenon and it has allowed, as Chris Straayer suggests, “the male body an independence from sexual anatomical verification.”9 When male sexuality is symbolized as the phallus, “power displaces sexuality rather than delivers it.”10 The displacement of the penis by phallic tyranny is most evident in Tango where Jeanne is asked to worship the phallus and the spectator is asked to admire Paul's transgression of social norms through his incestuous, Oedipal relations with Jeanne. In many interviews Bertolucci has admitted that he identified with Brando to such an extent that he could not show him naked in the final version. “It is also possible that I had so identified myself with Brando, that I cut it out of shame for myself. To show him naked would have been like showing myself naked.”11

In The Sheltering Sky, however, we see Port's penis. Until his penis is revealed, it is difficult to determine if the visible lower parts belong to a man or a woman. The interesting thing about this shot is that the penis is not erect, a rare phenomenon in cinema. Whereas the absence of the penis in Tango only glorifies Paul's machismo, its presence in The Sheltering Sky exposes the problematic status of the phallus. It also alludes to the intratextual relationship between Tango and The Sheltering Sky discovered by Bertolucci, as he confessed to me, during an analysis only after he finished filming the latter.12 In one of the shots of the dying Port in the room (which recalls the empty apartment of Tango) Port is seen wearing a T-shirt alluding to the famous Kowalski's T-shirt worn by Brando in Tango. Even some of the angles from which Port's face is shot during this agonizing scene (his face is seen from a high angle and from behind as if reversed) recall close-ups of Brando's face in Tango. The emphasis on male suffering locates the fictional situation of both films within an existentialist framework that assigns grandeur to male agony.

The representation of the Jeanne character in Tango is particularly difficult. The tragic greatness of Paul vis-à-vis Jeanne's petit-bourgeois worldview is, in a way, a reproduction of the imbalance in the two actors' star status levels. The utilization of Schneider, at that time an unknown actress (although the illegitimate daughter of a relatively famous French actor, Daniel Gelin), only emphasizes Brando's stardom. The collision of international star and anonymous actress created an intriguing yet problematic interaction. The curious thing about the characterization of Jeanne is that Bertolucci inverted Schneider's off-screen image as a young rebel. In Tango she plays the role of the French petite bourgeoise who submits herself to the American rebel. Bertolucci also selected Schneider, apparently, because he was impressed with her free attitude toward nakedness. Yet in Tango he preferred to invest her character with sexual submission and that of Brando with rebelliousness.

The investment of the Brando's character with the grandeur of the rebel is linked to his utilization as an icon of Hollywood cinema. “Why this fascination with the forties?” Tom asks Jeanne. She answers, “Because it's easier to love something that doesn't affect us too directly … something which keeps a certain distance … like you with your camera.”13 The cinematic allusions are clear. Jeanne's answer seems to express Bertolucci's own nostalgic fascination with the movies of the 1940s. Her explanation seems to be his. Jeanne appears at the beginning in a 1940s coat, flowered hat, and modern mini skirt. She appears as the combination of old and new. She is young and identified with pop art, but at the same time she has a special inclination for the old. Jeanne likes to collect antiques that once were revolutionary, because that makes her feel revolutionary. The allusion to Brando is obvious. Jeanne loves Paul/Brando although he is old (significantly, Paul is forty-five in the movie), because he once was a true revolutionary (Brando's movies from the 1950s are a rebellion against the 1940s) and because even in the present he remains an anachronistic but romantic “revolutionary” type. Brando's romantic image is what attracts Jeanne as well as Bertolucci to him. Tom, on the other hand, is the contemporary Godardian revolutionary who is disgusted by old things despite their revolutionary past:

I don't have to think twice to choose between an antique house and a clean, clear room. You'll see … few pieces of furniture … glass and chrome … light even in the objects, everything new … new things. You are like a film with a technical error. The sound doesn't synchronize with the visuals. We listen to you talking of old dusty things while we see your clean, healthy, modern appearance.14

As a representative of the New Wave and its radical conversion in Godard's cinema, Tom expresses a childish zeal for everything that is new, thus reminding us of Jacques's (Godard's alter-ego in Tout va bien) quest for new forms for his revolutionary cinema.

Freudian psychoanalysis provides additional layers of signification for Jeanne's obsession with old things. Her Oedipal fixation on her father, the colonel with the green eyes and the shining boots (which still give her mother “strange shivers”),15 motivates the narrative progression in Tango. Jeanne, who is defined by Paul as an old-fashioned girl, kills him, finally, with an old-fashioned phallic pistol that belonged to her father, while Paul mockingly wears the colonel's hat. By killing Paul, Jeanne “has also killed the cinematic fantasies which provide identity for all Bertolucci's generation.”16 When Paul offers to marry her it means that the past becomes entirely real and that means “it can no longer provide a vital myth for the present.”17 When the romantic rebel image of Paul/Brando is broken, he cannot be accepted any more. His existence is justified only by his being the epitome of the Hollywood star as rebel hero.

In the beginning scene, Brando, like Schneider, is dressed in a half modern, half old-fashioned manner. Under his elegant 1940s coat, he wears the Kowalski's T-shirt, his on- and off-screen rebel symbol. The semi-rape scene in Tango is an echo of the rape scene in Streetcar Named Desire (1951), the movie adaptation of Tennessee Williams's steamy play which established Brando as Stanley Kowalski as rebel anti-hero associated with class consciousness. We continue to see Kowalski's T-shirt in the following scenes. This shirt, we should remember, was a powerful erotic image in the 1950s. Like the blue jeans and the leather jacket (which Brando as Johnny, a leader of the Blind Rebels Motorcycle Club, wears in The Wild One), to young audiences the T-shirt meant freedom, danger, defiance of authority, and refusal to conform to all established rules including the rigid sexual taboos of the time. Brando, whose roles in the 1950s established him as the rebel against the sexual repression intrinsic to the ideology of romance as elaborated by the movies of the 1940s, was therefore a natural choice for Bertolucci who, in Tango, launches an attack on the self-consuming discourse of romance.

Brando's Method acting during the 1950s also signified a rebellion—in this case against the dead expression typical of the acting style of the 1940s. Brando's relaxed postures, as opposed to the rigidity of the 1940s, represent his anti-Hollywood rebellion. In Tango the opposition of rigidity and free-spirited behavior is symbolically alluded to during the tango sequence. In this scene, Brando, dressed in the style of the great lovers of classical Hollywood cinema, is making fun of the very code he is supposed to obey. Not only does he disrupt and mock the ritualized movements of the dance, he also commits the ultimate gesture of assault on bourgeois/Hollywood respectability, baring his backside to the shocked dancers/spectators. Another facet of Brando's sexual rebelliousness during the 1950s was his tendency to play roles involving sado-masochism, a tendency fully realized by Bertolucci who moves him in Tango through a process of percorso (see chapter 2). Brando's play on the tension between sensitivity and brutality (a typical Hollywood strategy) is also exploited by Bertolucci's use of the American actor as the living rebel icon of the 1950s.

Significantly, in the last three scenes he is wearing an elegant suit. This is also “the first time they are together outside their island. It is their first contact with reality.”18 This is also the first time that Paul confesses his love and proposes marriage to Jeanne. Talking in bourgeois terms, he seems to break up his rebel image. But by the act of exposing his buttocks on the dance floor, Brando reminds us again that he is the eternal rebel, the last romantic cinema idol, “the essentially naive outsider, the romantic who is not a match for a French bourgeois girl.”19 Thus Brando's on-screen image as a rebel is preserved. He is metaphorically destroyed, but his screen image is revived. To reiterate this notion, he dies, curled in a fetal position.20 The image is a quotation from Brando's death in Viva Zapata, where his role as the “essential revolutionary” established him as a hero for Bertolucci.

Whereas the main triangle in Tango retains Hollywood conventions of rivalry (weak male versus strong one), the secondary triangle is a sheer parody of the cinematic norm. We see Paul and Rosa's lover Marcel, sitting in identical red plaid bathrobes given them by Rosa, drinking the bourbon she gave her lover in emulation of her relationship with Marcel, Paul says to himself, in English, after leaving Marcel's room, “I can't understand what she saw in you.” The irony is that in her lover she saw Paul. She tried to make her lover a double of Paul.

This is a reversal of the Hollywood convention of rivalry according to which rivals are supposed to be opposites, and certainly not doubles. The parody is intensified by the atmosphere of the scene. Instead of an outburst of envy and hatred between the husband and the lover, we see a very friendly conversation between two ridiculous middle-aged men. Their discussion also centers around problems typical of middle-aged men, such as being overweight and losing hair. Perhaps it is the first scene in which Brando is shown not as a romantic idol, but as a real person, a human being who is even a little bit ridiculous. He is no more the legendary sexual animal, but an aging man concerned about losing his hair and getting fat, which reminds the spectator of the real problems of the aging Brando and re-emphasizes the question of where Paul ends, where Brando starts, and vice versa.

Paul becomes, despite his efforts to create a new symbolic order, the double of his own padre, a supermasculine figure who epitomizes the oppression of a phallic-centered culture. He also becomes symbolic of Jeanne's father, the ultimate symbol of Fascist oppression (he was a racist colonel who died in the Algerian war). Thus Paul becomes the double of two fathers who are themselves two ghost doubles united by the oppression/repression they inflict on their children (Jeanne and Paul). Despite Bertolucci's identification with the macho figure of Paul, his poetics of sexual indeterminacy complicates an explicit feminist critique of the movie. As much as Paul's character is a culmination of machoism it is also vivid evidence of the failure of macho fantasies.


Luna is the only Bertolucci film introducing a woman as a protagonist. It is about a widowed opera singer who goes to Rome for a summer engagement accompanied by her fifteen-year-old son. She discovers that her son is a drug addict and has a physical interest in her. Her response is animalistic, and she provokes her son to have intercourse with her. Bertolucci said that his inspiration for Luna was developed from the first memory he had of his mother. “I was 15 months or 2 years old. I was in the basket of a bicycle. I was looking up at my mother riding the bicycle, the moon behind her, and in my eyes confused the young face of my mother and the old face of the moon. I started from that memory and it became a story of a relationship between a mother and a son.”21

The association of the mother and the feminine with the moon will be reinvoked in The Sheltering Sky when Kit's destiny after Port's death is controlled by the moon, the mythic symbol of the feminine. It is quite significant that in Bertolucci's only two films in which the protagonist is a woman (Kit is the sole protagonist of the second part of The Sheltering Sky, beginning with Port's death) women are explicitly associated with the moon. When Kit leaves the room after Port's death there is a spectacular shot of a moon in a dark blue sky (one might even find here a resonance to the corny images of the moon in Godard's Hail Mary) and from that moment on Kit is under the sign of the moon. This point was made clear by Storaro himself.

The Sheltering Sky is a recounting of a journey in the lives of two characters, Port and Kit. The first part of the tale belongs to Port, the dominant one, the sun. The second part of the story belongs to Kit, the more submissive of the two, the moon. The fact that the story is set in Africa makes those two natural symbols of light, the sun and the moon, all the more important and the more difficult to ignore. At the beginning of the film it is day and Port is at the height of his powers. Kit is almost invisible, much the way the moon is when in the sky at the same time as the sun. But as Port sickens, the sun is going down. When he dies, it is nightfall. As Kit is left alone in an alien land, her moon begins to rise. It becomes her story. The journey of their lives parallels the journey of the sun and the moon. The sun, of course, represents the hot colours, the masculine colours, the reds and the oranges. The moon reflects the cooler colours, the indigos and the blues. Perhaps it is significant that as a couple, they only come to terms with their relationship as they sit and watch the sun go down, over a vast plain, at the time when the two lights pass each other. It is only then that they find their truth.22

Indeed the red/blue color scheme that dominates The Last Emperor's dialectic of enlightenment is repeated in The Sheltering Sky, which bathes its interiors (the hotels' rooms and the room where Port dies) in yellow/red colors and its exterior scenes in the desert when Kit is wandering with the Tuaregs caravan in blue. Kit is not only under the sign of the moon and the dark blue of the desert night, but the color of her blue eyes (unlike the dark brown color of Jane Bowles's eyes) is made even more salient by her blue clothes (the blue robe in the scene in the first hotel, the blue indigo turban, and finally the light blue dress and the blue sweater she is wearing after being saved and brought back to civilization). Thus, Kit's madness is portrayed as her inevitable destiny as a woman. The moon (itself the mythic symbol of the feminine element as well as the symbol of femininity in Bertolucci's private family mythology) is presented within the film's economy as being responsible for Kit's madness, i.e., for her dubious sexual liberation by the Other and her eventual hospitalization by the representatives of civilization. The moon, femininity, and madness, thus, are interwoven in accordance with an essentialist view regarding the true nature of woman.

The Sheltering Sky opens with an image of the strong and dynamic woman embodied through the famous energy of Debra Winger. In the beginning of the movie, when Kit, Port, and Tunner sit in the station, Kit reads aloud from a newspaper (with an ironic intonation) that the Italians gave the right of vote to women. Yet, in the second part of the film beginning with Port's death, Kit, being under the influence of the moon, becomes a submissive woman whose existence centers solely around her emanicipatory sex with Belqassim. Her self breaks and dissolves after the sexual adventure is over and her story ends in madness. The dissolution of Kit's image of a strong woman begins in fact with the scene of Port's dying in the room. There, Kit is assigned the traditional maternal function of providing a nurturing environment for her man. She feeds Port with hot milk in a simulation of the idealized suckling mother of the oral stage.

It is rather interesting to note here that both Tango and The Sheltering Sky attempt to liberate their protagonists through sex and the rejection of language as a form of human communication. In Tango the negation of language (the “law of the father”) fails and results in Paul's death. In The Sheltering Sky, the communication between Kit and Belqassim is purely carnal and devoid of any verbal or linguistic articulation. Eventually, as in Tango, this effort at achieving an articulate body language also fails.

In Tango, as in The Conformist, women are presented as mediocre, and their petit-bourgeois concerns are ridiculed relative to male existential angst. Marcello contemptuously describes Guilia to the priest during his confession as “petita borghesa” who is “all bed and kitchen.” Yet as Mellen suggests, this view of women can be read differently.

Perhaps taking cues from the actual history of fascism, with its suppression of the rights of women (a correlative to the latent or overt homosexuality of its men) Bertolucci, Visconti, and Petri reveal women under fascism to be either mainly promiscuous whores (Anna in Il conformista, Agusta in Investigation, Draifa in Spider's Stratagem) or “all bed and kitchen,” like Guilia, the mindless girl Clerici marries in his campaign not to be different. “To be normal is to turn to look at the ass of a pretty girl, see that others have done the same, and be pleased,” says Clerici's best friend, the blind Italo—speaking Clerici's thoughts.23

Mellen's view suggests indeed a reading of what seems to be Bertolucci's view of women's inferiority as a critique of the Fascist view of women as sexual servants and procreation organisms. This recalls of course Bertolucci's insistence on reading Tango as about male chauvinism rather than as an expression of it. Yet one cannot ignore the impression that against the rebellious male protagonists in Bertolucci's films women are dwarfed by, if not indirectly blamed for, restricting their men's freedom. Women in Bertolucci's movies (with the exception of 1900) do not have any intellectual interests, they live by animalistic instincts and for sensual pleasure. It is for the Bertoluccian male to suffer at length, and to prolong his suffering through conscious intellectualization of his problems.

The critique of the bourgeoisie in Bertolucci's cinema is immersed with anti-women sentiments correlating to the same strains in Fascist thought. Bertolucci's view of women as the locus of repressive bourgeois ideology is nowhere more evident than in the sodomizing scene in Tango in which the punished female body, as Lynda K. Bundtzen observes, becomes “a pathetic vessel of patriarchal and bourgeois values, a hiding place for ‘family jewels.’”24 The difficulty in criticizing Bertolucci on this issue derives from the fact that this very strategy of sexual indeterminacy is projected to the sphere of sexual politics. Is Bertolucci's depiction of women part of his critique of the Fascist and patriarchal orders? As such is it reflective of dominant patterns of thought in these orders? Or is it an unproblematized mediation of women as seen by him?


There are two types of women in Bertolucci's movies: the domestic type, the petit-bourgeois, such as Guilia, or Celia in Before the Revolution, and Jeanne in Last Tango; and the destructive, neurotic, decadent type such as Marcello's mother, Anna in The Conformist,25 the incestuous aunt Gina, in Before the Revolution, and Caterina, the seductive incestuous mother in Luna. Bertolucci's preoccupation with the surrealist theme of amour fou is joined with the myth of the spider woman, who resembles a destructive femme fatale borrowed from the misogynist tradition of film noir.

Kolker says on Draifa that she “may be the black widow of The Spider's Stratagem.26 Tara, in Stratagem, as Kline observes, is composed of “the first two syllables of the most dreaded of spiders.”27 When Athos junior insults Draifa's sexual prowess, she winds him “into a medical sarape, spinning him around and around, in a gesture that recalls both the action of a reel of film being embobine and a spider mummifying and embalming its prey.”28 In The Conformist the private tango between Anna and Guilia becomes a seductive spider's web that encircles the stiff Marcello. In Luna, Joe as a baby is trapped by a ribbon while his mother and father are dancing. Furthermore, Alida Valli (who plays Draifa in The Spider's Stratagem) plays in Luna the role of Giuseppe's (Joe's father) mother who gets trapped in her own knitting, recalling her spinning of Athos with a medical sarape in Stratagem. Bertolucci, in one of his most famous and quoted interviews said:

In nature it is usually the female that devours. Genetically, over the centuries, some males have understood her mechanisms, have understood the danger. Some spiders just approach the female, but stay within safe distance. Exciting themselves with her smell, they masturbate, collect their sperm in their mouth and wait to regain strength after orgasm. Because that is how they get devoured, when they are weak after ejaculation. Later, they inseminate the female with a minimal approach and thus she cannot attack them in the moment of their weakness. … What can develop (between a man and a woman) is only possessiveness … the destruction of the loved object.29

One cannot avoid comparing Bertolucci's reflection on this biological phenomenon with Simone de Beauvoir's. For de Beauvoir, this phenomenon “has crystallized the myth of the devouring femininity” and foreshadows “a feminine dream of castration.” These biological facts, she emphasizes, create “a proclamation of the ‘battle of the sexes’ which sets individuals, as such, one against another.”30 Freud himself in his famous article “Femininity” gives the spiders as an example “that in some classes of animals the females are the stronger and more aggressive and the male is active only in the single act of sexual union.”31


Bertolucci's consistent preoccupation with the motifs of sexual repression/political oppression, dance, incest, the Oedipal complex, sexual ambiguity, and anal metaphors contain the promise of liberated as well as liberating discourse. Hence, for example, dance sequences in his films have been interpreted as privileged moments of sexual and political liberation32 and the incest motif as a metaphor for social transgression. Bertolucci himself acknowledged that his depiction of the incest in Luna “was supposed to serve as a kind of commentary on the decadence of modern society and the failure of the family as an institution to provide either solace or support.” The reason Caterina and Joe “go so far in the movie,” he said, “is a response to that destruction of values by society. They try to recreate a value even if it is painful. Their act is transgressive—subversive in a way. But through this traumatic experience they go toward a better life. I think there is a political gesture of hope at the end.”33

Anality and sodomy are used by Bertolucci as metaphors for the exploitative, consumerist capitalist society. Yet, the repeated acts of violent sodomy and anal sex forced upon the female figures in his films (and also in Godard's) make it questionable whether these acts can be taken as legitimate symbols of reification of social conditions under Capitalism. The anal motif so pervasive in Bertolucci's cinema is frequently used as a metaphor for the social relations under capitalism (see chapter 2). Perversions, on the other hand, are used ambivalently both as a promise of liberation and as a sign of decadence and degradation (as in 1900). Yet the emancipating potential of the incest metaphor, to cite one example, is never fully realized. In Before the Revolution, as Aitken observes: “The replacement of Agostino by his aunt, Gina, the substitution of one taboo for another—a sort of homosexuality by a sort of incest—ultimately leads Fabrizio, in his quest for an unremarkable life, to ditch Gina and marry a respectable bourgeoisie.”34

There is, then, some ambivalence in Bertolucci's treatment of incest and homosexuality. On the one hand they are presented (as in Tango) as manifesting a rebellion, and challenging bourgeois notions of propriety. In particular they attack the family as the nexus of civilized repression and political oppression imposed on the individual by the capitalist system. On the other hand, as in The Conformist, homosexuality and incest are presented as symptoms of bourgeois decadence regardless of actual political inclinations. Therefore both the Fascist Marcello and the anti-Fascist Anna are found guilty of decadence by Bertolucci.

In many of Bertolucci's movies, his heroes have been involved with women much older than themselves. In Tango this pattern is reversed. In Partner, however, Giacobbe is narcissistically in love with his double. The persistent search for the father in Bertolucci's cinema with its Oedipal overtones is in fact a search for the ultimate tutor. All the tutors (except for Anita, the teacher in 1900) are males. Usually these tutor figures are unmarried or not presented in a family context. In Before the Revolution, at their final meeting, Fabrizio offers to take Agostino to visit his mentor, an older unmarried man, Professor Cesare (who on the film's self-reflexive level alludes to Cesare Zavattini). It is finally Gina and not Agostino whom Fabrizio takes to meet Professor Cesare. And it is here that Fabrizio and Gina read to each other from Oscar Wilde. “This Socratic relationship—older man teaching impressionable youth—runs in an ambiguous refrain from Before the Revolution to The Conformist and gets intermingled with another strain—murder of the father by the son.”35The Conformist like all of Bertolucci's movies is about the quest for the father, the absent patriarch. In The Conformist the Fascist state functions as a father-substitute. Quadri, as a potential spiritual father, is not good enough for Marcello. He is married to a lesbian and presumably derives pleasure from watching her engaged in homosexual acts with other women. The relationship between the Oedipal complex and the tutor motif reaches its climax in The Last Emperor (see chapter 4).


Bertolucci's quest in The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky for the non-Western Other involves as well a quest for another sexuality. Indeed, the two quests are one and the same in the sense that the allure of the Other is, presumably, grounded in his/her promise of different sexuality. In The Last Emperor (see chapter 4) racial otherness is homologous with sexual otherness. Yet, the film represents a fantasy of sexual otherness located within the boundaries of one race (the Chinese) and one class (the Imperial court). The most memorable erotic scene in the film is the suckling scene which foregrounds other sexuality by exploiting and exoticizing racial difference and geographical otherness. The location of Ar Mo in the center of the frame and the fondling and suckling of her breast by Pu Yi entrap the spectator not only because of the visual seductiveness and the voluptuous esthetics of the shot but, also because its composition frames a boundary of pleasure between spectacle and excess.

In the center of the frame are Ar Mo and the twelve-year-old Pu Yi. In the background the concubines are on boats sailing among exotic floating flowers and watching the scene with binoculars. On the right side of Pu Yi the camera reveals his younger brother Pu Chi eating his meal, a regular, normal nourishment. The spectator who looks at Ar Mo as an incestuous object of desire becomes complicit in Pu Yi's and Ar Mo's perversion, hence becoming as well a participant in the perverse pleasure of cinema itself. Moreover, the camera demands that the spectator participate in the concubines' voyeurism and in the mute but seeing presence of Pu Chi, who establishes the normative rules of child behavior by eating a regular meal.

The fetishization of Ar Mo as well as Pu Yi's regression to infantile orality become, to use Julia Kristeva's words, “metaphors of non-speech, of a ‘semiotics’ that linguistic communication does not account for.”36 This type of fetishization also occurs both in the ménage à trois scene between Pu Yi and his two wives, and in the scene between the woman pilot, Eastern Jewel, and Pu Yi's first wife. There fetishization is carried even further, culminating in the punishment of the deviant wife and her expulsion from history and the narrative alike.

In The Sheltering Sky, on the other hand, sexual and racial boundaries are transgressed in the form of inter-racial erotica. Whereas in The Last Emperor's regime of desire the only imagized/eroticized bodies are the fantasized bodies of the Chinese Other, in The Sheltering Sky the protagonists' sexual encounters break racial and ethnic taboos. Nevertheless, Bertolucci's sexual politics do not transgress Western ethnocentrism. The American married couple Kit and Port Moresby are trying to resolve marital problems through a travel expedition through North Africa. Both of them have sexual encounters with natives. Port has an encounter with an Arab prostitute and Kit lives out a voluptuous affair with Belquassim, a Tuareg tribal chief. The film's narrative focalization is the white couple; the natives (Arabs, Africans, and Tuaregs) are used as an ethnic backdrop aimed at magnifying and sanctifying white angst.

A deconstruction of the design of the major sexual encounters in The Sheltering Sky reveals that Bertolucci's sexual politics in this movie are heavily laced with traces of colonial discourse.37 Port has a one-night stand with a Moroccan prostitute. Thus, her character is colonized twice: once as a subject of a colonized country under the French Protectorate and second as a prostitute whose body has been colonized by her pimp and clients. By contrast, Kit becomes the lover of a free subject. Tuareg nomadic culture resisted the Arab influence of the Islamic crusades and the attempts of the French colonization of the Magrheb. Furthermore, Belquassim is the chief of a Tuareg tribe; his status as a young Sahara desert prince counterbalances, to some extent, the inferiority implied by his racial difference.

Whereas the prime region of erotic interest for Port in the Moroccan prostitute's body is her full-breasted torso, Belquassim's sexual interest seems to concentrate on Kit's lower parts with an inclination towards foot fetishism (which is evident also in scenes in The Conformist and The Last Emperor, representing lesbianism). Port and the prostitute engage in phallic-mammal contact leading to Port's orgasm. The prostitute is the active partner in this encounter taking the responsibility for the seduction. She recites Arab love songs to Port with a soothing, musical voice. Like an infant who is reassured by a mother's voice, Port is shown with his head comfortably rested in the woman's full bosom. This pre-Oedipal, pre-genitally organized sexuality does not put any demands on Port's active virility, but expresses, rather, a regressive childish longing to refuse with the mother's body and thereby achieve an orgasm which means death.38 In The Sheltering Sky, Port's desire to escape the fate of the American “lost generation” through fusion with Mother-Nature (“Mama-Africa”) epitomized by the African continent (the origin of humanity according to current scientific thinking) indeed ends with his actual death.

It is worth noting in this context that the whole situation of prostitution is disguised in the film as a display of Oriental hospitality in which—according to the dictates of Arab tradition—tea is served to the guests. This disavowal of prostitution is perpetuated by the fact that no monetary payment is overtly transacted. The stealing of Port's wallet by the prostitute appears almost as a continuation of the disavowal of the act of selling which is taking place in this scene. However, as the prostitute cuddles Port to her bosom, Port takes back his wallet, thereby stealing in his turn, the sexual services he has been provided with. The spectator is put in an uneasy position in which identification oscillates between the exploited Western tourist and the exploited prostitute. When Port shows the wallet to the angry prostitute as he leaves the tent, his face expresses a greater satisfaction than it did during the sexual act itself, thus underlying the social vulnerability and exploitability of the humiliated Arab prostitute.

For a French audience familiar with the history of French colonialism in North Africa, the whole scene can be read as an allegory on French colonialism. Bertolucci, however, utilizes the pornographic potential of the cinema to comment on the exploitative nature of all colonial relations. Hence, Port's return home from a prostitute to the waiting Kit is not perceived as adultery. Rather, it points to the recourse of Port, as the traveler who explores the sexuality of the exotic other, to another sexual regime.

Bertolucci's poetics of sexual indeterminacy in The Sheltering Sky subliminally suggests an ethno-porno iconography. Kit's mimicry (her disguise as a Tuareg boy) allows her to enter Tuareg society. In the private chamber where she is kept confined, both sexual partners unwrap the traditional male Indigo turban. Kit by now has been transvested, her skin blackened. All this camouflage occurs so that Belquassin can enjoy her being sexually other (female) and racially different (white). The ritualistic, worshipping manner in which the African sexual partner tenderly undresses and reverently wipes the desert dust off Kit's body conjures forth an image of the American partner as a sex goddess rather than a sexual slave. Kit's cage/castle provides the couple, temporarily, with an intimate isolation free of the colonial outside world with its racial segregation. However, like in Bertolucci's Tango, the moment the door of this artificially constructed private space opens to the public space marked by racial separation, the couple's private Eden collapses. This recalls Albert Memmi's comment about the illusions of exogamy: there is no space free of socio-cultural contingencies.39 It should also be stressed that, to put it provocatively, the fact that Belquassim does not look like the “Orangoutan husband of the Hottentot female”40 but is stunningly beautiful and delicate, fetishistically assuages the transgression that traverses the text. Indeed, fetishism structures the whole scene that gives back to Kit her white skin and racial supremacy.

The potentially anxiety-inducing idea regarding contact between black manhood and white womanhood is soothed in the film by giving the Western partner an ego-reinforcing focus. Only the white male enjoys orgasm (as in the encounter between Port and the Moroccan woman) and the spectator is kept ignorant about the black male's subjectivity. Is he ravished by the delights of sexual difference, or by the discovery of Kit's white skin? Furthermore, Bertolucci's mise en scène reproduces cultural codes of mastery and submission taken from popular erotica, thereby establishing white racial supremacy. This is most notable in the scene in the private chamber in which Kit is standing on the bed while Belquassim, sitting and kneeling, performs oral intercourse with her.

Both Kit's and Port's respective encounters with the exotic Other lead to sexual practices quite rare in mainstream cinema. Those practices allow the Western man to be nurtured without a display of virility, and permit the Western white woman to enjoy sexuality without phallic penetration. A feminist reading would gladly welcome this less phallocentric representation of human sexuality. However, the fact that, unwittingly or not, this reduction in phallocracy requires the recourse to an exotic Other as a flight from Western alienation is disturbing.

Bertolucci, just like Bowles four decades earlier, is a kind of “colonial traveler” in Said's sense of “displaced percipient.”41 Said describes colonial texts as “encapsulations” of the encounters between Europe and “primitivity” where a “vascillation” between the foreign and the familiar occurs. In The Sheltering Sky Port experiences precisely this kind of vascillation. He enjoys the delights of cultural differences as a freshly arrived American in Tangier but simultaneously disavows these differences by affixing universalist rules governing prostitution to his first North African experience (the encounter with the Moroccan woman). Homi Bhabha's analysis of colonial discourse may suggest a better insight into Bertolucci's fetishization of the Other along lines of race and sex. Bhabha reminds us that skin “unlike the sexual fetish, is not a secret, it is the most visible of fetishes which plays a public part in the racial drama which is enacted everyday in colonial societies.”42 In The Sheltering Sky the blackening of Kit's skin (her newly acquired sun-tan) metamorphoses the white skin of the Western female from a “visible fetish playing a public part in racial drama” into a secret fetish playing a part in private sexual drama. Not only does the scopic economy of the mise en scéne of the sexual drama enacted in the hidden room between Kit and Belquassim establish the idolization of white skin, but also the fetishistic textual regime of this scene leads to the sexualization of what Frantz Fanon refers to as the “epidermal schema.”43

In the same thrust, Bhabha underlines the parallelism between sexual fetish and the fetish of colonial discourse (or of racial stereotypes). The first facilitates sexual relations (“It is the prop which makes the whole object desirable and lovable”).44 The second facilitates colonial or inter-racial relations. In The Sheltering Sky the scene between Port and the North African young woman demonstrates how the sexual fetish (signified by the Arab woman's dazzling erotic paraphernalia) facilitates colonial relations simulating a harem-like erotica. Similarly, the erotic scenes between Kit and Belquassim illustrate how the skin, the “key signifier of cultural and racial difference,”45 facilitates and intensifies sexual relations. Bertolucci's exploitation of racial difference through the revitalization of tired libido (Port) or the investment of libidinal excess (Kit) seems to follow a prevalent tendency of our age of postmodern post-colonialism regarding the representation of sexual/racial relations.46 It can be argued that this trend is triggered by the epidermal fetish which (due to its visibility) offers a tremendous voyeuristic potential to the scopophilic cinematic apparatus by injecting into the sexual fetish a new vitality.

Bhabha argues that colonial discourse is characterized by the holding of multiple contradictory beliefs. Bertolucci in The Sheltering Sky cultivates countless contradictory endemic beliefs about Africa and Africans/Arabs. Africa is both convivial and hostile, hospitable and rejecting, unpolluted and fly-infested. Africans are both ravishingly winsome and grotesquely repulsive. They have healthy, sculpted bodies or degenerate, demonized ones. They are capable of gratuitous, altruistic behavior or can reveal themselves as money-hungry and easily corruptible. In short, Arab/African culture within the economy of Bertolucci's quest for the Other is both utopia and dystopia.

Films, as products of the societies that consume them, give an expression to public consciousness and ideological orientations. As a product of the early 1990s, The Sheltering Sky's latent phobia of inter-racial relations expresses Eurocentrist xenophobic fears of the Other. Questions of socio-cultural and national identity prevail in all their urgency in most countries at the outset of the 1990s. The Sheltering Sky, thus, relate to fears of First World metropolitan masses on both sides of the Atlantic, of being linguistically and culturally engulfed by unassimilable Others viewed as demographically, economically, and culturally threatening. The growing role of exile, expatriation, diaspora, and multiculturalism in the European and American urban landscape is libidinally invested in the textual and scopic organization of The Sheltering Sky in which postcolonialism is revealed both by its reproduction of racial hierarchies of the colonial order and by its nostalgic look at the “good old days of the Empire.”


Despite Bertolucci's complex and sensitive engagement with the themes of male homosexuality and bisexuality, his female characters are represented and perceived exclusively within the boundaries of the sexual domain and are never depicted as able to transcend it (unlike, for example, Susan in Tout va bien). Women are excluded from the utopian vision portrayed in most of Bertolucci's films, and the Last Emperor even goes one step further and exiles them from the narrative.

The influence of Godard on the early Bertolucci is apparent, to a certain extent, in his representation of women as well. In fact, the seeds of all of Bertolucci's films are already planted in his first feature film Before the Revolution, which is a clearly post-Godardian film. The film contains many quotations that pay homage to Godard's New Wave films. Such for example is the beginning scene of the running Fabrizio which recalls Belmondo in the final scene of Breathless—a movie that affected the young, impressionable Bertolucci enormously.47 There are also several allusions to Godard's A Woman Is a Woman. The pick-up scene of Gina by a stranger in the street (the whole scene is voyeuristically observed by Fabrizio) is on the background of a billboard of Una donna est una donna, the Italian title of Godard's film. Later Fabrizio discusses the film with Cesare his spiritual father, the Communist tutor whose first name is the same as Cesare Zavattini's (who was also Bertolucci's father's friend). The billboard with the title of Godard's film is a sort of misogynist statement affirming that women are by definition treacherous creatures.

Bertolucci said in 1981, “When I made my first film in 1964, I considered myself more of a French director than an Italian director. I was influenced by the Nouvelle Vague and their experiments with cinema at the time.”48Before the Revolution is an intertextual film and its plurality of shooting styles is based on a Godardian model. The film contains references not only to the New Wave Godard but also to a whole series of films from two decades of Italian neorealism.49 The subject matter of Before the Revolution is an analysis of a segment of Italian society at a particular historical moment (Fabrizio accuses his apolitical aunt of living outside of history). Cesare, the Communist tutor, tells Fabrizio that “my education started at 45.” Before the Revolution, thus, should be understood as referring to the way this chapter in Italian history has been embedded in the Italian cinema of the twenty years preceeding its making.

As much as Godard created Anna Karina, his first wife, as a new kind of woman to represent an era, so Bertolucci created Gina (played by the actress Adriana Asti, who was his first wife) to function as Fabrizio's other/mirror. Gina is the projection of Fabrizio/Bertolucci's neuroses (the nostalgia for the present, the fear of revolution, and the repudiation of politics) as well as a mirror of a whole generation of Italian intellectuals. The character of the aunt, Gina, an alienated modern woman (associated with Michelangelo Antonioni's woman but also with Roberto Rossellini's), recalls also the Godardian woman of the New Wave period. Her haircut is very French (the Care style), recalling Godard's Luis Brooks type of woman. Gina is a cinematic composition of constructions of female types in French and Italian cinema. Her meaning is created by allusions to cinematic female types and their relationship to trends in film and society (Italian neorealism, French New Wave, Antonioni's modernism) and not by psychological depth. Gina represents the idea of the new Italian woman. She is independent of her family in Milan, the most modern and industrial city of Italy.

Fabrizio epitomizes the contradiction between the power of the bourgeois past and the felt need for the revolution to be carried out by the Communist party. Fabrizio's conflicts with the other characters, each representing another segment of Italian society, turn the film into an analytic metamovie. The major conflict between Cesare (representing the political aspect) and Gina (representing the sexual apolitical aspect) is resolved only in Bertolucci's following films which synthesize Freud with Marx. Before the Revolution is a film “before the analysis” (the beginning of Bertolucci's analysis was in 1969) in which both the political and the sexual are betrayed by the young, immature protagonist. And, indeed, the film not only identifies with Fabrizio but also criticizes him on every level. Fabrizio is criticized by both Gina and Cesare. Gina criticizes Fabrizio for capitulating to bourgeois morality while Cesare criticizes him for being incapable of acting correctly on either the personal or political level. Gina in Before the Revolution (giving voice to the reactionary position from a leftist point of view) argues with Cesare that people cannot change. To support her argument she quotes Oscar Wilde's dictum, “You can't change even one person.” In The Last Emperor, however, (which coincides with the end of Bertolucci's first analysis)50 Bertolucci based his thesis on the belief that man can change. If we take Bertolucci as representing the authorial position of Before the Revolution, then we can take Fabrizio's capitulation as a signifier of Bertolucci's forthcoming career, his capitulation to bourgeois filmmaking. Although the film, through its shifting narrative and character focalization, privileges Gina's and Cesare's positions, Bertolucci's career has followed Fabrizio's path.

In Partner, to give another example of Godard's influence on the young Bertolucci, the scene of the soapgirl invokes the linking in Two or Three Things of female prostitution to consumer society. A more substantial theme in Bertolucci's cinema, which is not far from Godard's representation of women, is the association of the masculine as exterior and transcendental (evident also in Godard's Masculin/Feminin, Numero Deux, and others) in contrast to the association of the feminine with the interior and the immanent. Not even one woman in Bertolucci's cinema escapes this immanence or manages to exist beyond the realms of the senses. The two aspects of the Other as discussed by Erik Cohen are according to him “strikingly united in R. M. Rilke's Third Duino Elegy, in which the lover declares his love for the primeval monster, his mother, in which he himself was ‘dissolved’ in a pre-natal state.”51 This view of the M/Other is not alien to Bertolucci's films and in particular Tango where the apartment assumes the role of the prenatal state similar to that of the Forbidden City in The Last Emperor.

The traditional association of femininity with the forces of nature and sensuality devoid of the grandeur of male existential angst or intellect (evident in particular in the fictional figures of Paul and Port) subverts Bertolucci's utopian attempts to foreground different sexuality. It is particularly disturbing that his two most recent films to date do not show any progress in this respect despite Bertolucci's more recent public pronouncements.52The Last Emperor symbolically annihilates women, while The Sheltering Sky punishes the white woman who was swept away into irrational sexual adventure. Sexual fantasies and political utopias in Bertolucci's cinema seem to be the exclusive privilege of men. What is left for women in his films, as in most of mainstream cinema, is to be gazed upon, to be erotically contemplated, and finally to be possessed and devoured as symbolic objects of desire.


  1. Joelle de Gravelaine, Jean-Pierre Lavoignat, and Christophe d'Yvoire, “Bernardo Bertolucci: La Confusion Magnifique,” Studio Magazine 9 (Decembre, 1987): 60. This recalls Susan Sontag's observation: “What is more beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is more beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.” Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” in Against Interpretation (New York: Dell, Laurel Edition, 1969), 279. The celebration of androgyny is one of the principles of the credo of camp. As a matter of fact many of the features of camp (the aestheticist attitude, the preference of artifice to nature, the love of exaggeration, and the cult of the androgyny) show an amazing resemblance to nineteenth century decadence. Freud discusses the androgynous structure in mythology in his study of Leonardo Da Vinci. See Sigmund Freud, “Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood (1910),” in Art and Literature. The Pelican Freud Library, vol. 14 (London: Penguin Books, 1979), 185–186.

    See also Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, “Cross-Dressing: Transvestism as Metaphor,” in No Man's Land: The Place of The Woman Within the Twentieth Century, Vol. 2: Sexexchanges (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989), 324–376 and Chris Straayer, “Redressing the ‘Natural’: The Contemporary Transvestite Film,” Wide Angle 14, No. 1 (January, 1992): 36–55.

    Angela Dalle Vacche's emphasizes in her discussion of Bertolucci's Spider's Stratagem what she calls “gender confusion and role contamination.” Angela Dalle Vacche, The Body in the Mirror: Shapes of History in Italian Cinema (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), 241.

  2. Will Aitken, “Bertolucci's Gay Images: Leaving the Dance,” Jump Cut 16 (November 1977): 24.

  3. Bertolucci confessed to me in an interview in London, July 27, 1991 that Fassbinder is one of the filmmakers he loves and to whom he feels close.

  4. Bertolucci said: “In Last Tango in Paris, Brando, the father, is confronted by a bisexual and bifocal character represented by Maria Schneider and Jean-Pierre Leaud. In Tragedy … we have the same thing, but in addition, there is a mother who is very active from the beginning while in Last Tango she's dead from the start. Leaud, instead of making love to Maria, films her, just as Adelfo, who before being a worker is a priest, has a platonic, intellectual relationship with Laura.” Donald Ranvaud and Enzo Ungari, Bertolucci by Bertolucci (London: Plexus, 1987), 222.

  5. Barbara Creed, “From Here to Modernity: Feminism and Postmodernism,” Screen 28, no. 2 (Spring, 1987): 66.

    Chris Straayer distinguishes a new sexual type, the she-man, within the context of postmodern performance. The she-man, according to her, “is glaringly bi-sexed rather than obscurely androgynous or merely bisexual. Rather than undergoing a downward gender mobility, he has enlarged himself with feminine gender and female sexuality.” Chris Straayer, “The She-Man: Postmodern Bi-Sexed Performance in Film and Video,” Screen 31, no. 3 (Autumn, 1990): 263.

  6. For a feminist critique of Bertolucci's sexual politics see Robert Kolker, Bernardo Bertolucci (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 225–240. For a critique of Tango, see Joan Mellen, “Sexual Politics and Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris,” in Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film (New York: Horizon Press, 1973), 128–146.

  7. Jerry Tallmer, “The Feminists ‘Will Kiss Me,’” “The Week in Entertainment,” New York Post (Saturday, February 3, 1973): 15.

  8. Aitken, “Bertolucci's Gay Images,” 26. Aitken adds that the last scene in which Jeanne is dressing Paul in her father's military cap and gunning him down is “curiously, touchingly reminiscent of the final scene of Godard's Breathless,” Ibid.

  9. Straayer, “The She-Man,” 262.

  10. Straayer, 263.

  11. Newsweek, February 12, 1973, 56.

  12. In our interview Bertolucci said: “after I finished working [on The Sheltering Sky] I thought that there were strong links between The Sheltering Sky and Last Tango. I thought that the two movies were closer than it seems … both films are about the difficulty of the couple … they both are the most, I think, existentialist of my movies. Both Marlon and John … have an aura of danger, they are both dangerous men. Also I thought that they carry with them a strong sense of death. … Both films are full of death and in both films the man dies and the woman survives.”

  13. Bertolucci, Last Tango in Paris (New York: Delacorte Press, 1973), 136.

  14. Bertolucci, Last Tango, 135.

  15. The portrayal of the Colonel as an archetypal Fascist links Tango to The Conformist, which attempts (like the original text of Moravia's novel) to explain the formation of a Fascist personality.

  16. Julian C. Rice, “Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris,The Journal of Popular Film, 3 (1974): 171. For an interesting and nostalgic discussion of the “generational effect” of Brando on the adolescents of the 1950s (Bertolucci's generation) see Richard Schickel,” Accomplices: Brando and the Fifties, and Why Both Still Matter,” Film Comment 27, no. 4 (July-August, 1991): 30–36.

  17. Rice, “Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris,” 169.

  18. Bertolucci, Last Tango, 180.

  19. Pauline Kael, “Introduction,” Last Tango in Paris, 18.

  20. The shot of Paul's death is an allusion not only to Viva Zapata. The background (the roofs of Paris) recall visually and thematically the shot of Kelly sitting on the roof in An American in Paris. It also echoes the imagery of the roofs of New York in On the Waterfront.

  21. Ann Guarino, “It's Impact He Wants,” New York News (October 6, 1979).

  22. Vittorio Storaro, “Writing with Light,” in The Sheltering Sky: A Film by Bernardo Bertolucci Based on the Novel by Paul Bowles, edited and produced by Livio Negri, and Fabien S. Gerard (London: Scribners, 1990), 88. The mythological association of femininity with the moon is joined with the association of masculinity with the sun. In his discussion of the case history of Schreber, Freud mentions that he was able “to explain the sun as a sublimated ‘father symbol’” by recognizing the connection between the patient's peculiar relation to the sun and the “wealth of its bearing upon mythology.” Sigmund Freud, “Postscript” (1912 [1911]) to “Psychoanalytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides) (Schreber) (1911 [1910]),” in Case Histories II: ‘Rat Man,’ Schreber, ‘Wolf Man,’ Female Homosexuality, ed. and trans. James Strachey, The Pelican Library, vol. 9 (London: Penguin Books, 1979), 221.

  23. Mellen, “Fascism in Contemporary Film,” 4.

  24. Lynda K. Bundtzen, “Bertolucci's Erotic Politics and the Auteur Theory: From Last Tango in Paris to The Last Emperor.Western Humanities Review 44, no. 2 (Summer, 1990): 202.

  25. An opposite view on the character of Anna is conveyed by Aitken. According to him: “Anna, at first a butch-lesbian caricature [actually she imitates the pose of Marlene Dietrich] striding about, hands thrust firmly in trouser pockets—quickly becomes the epicenter of repressed erotic desires in the film. Anna alone, of all the characters in the perhaps over-simplified Reichean schema of the film, is a free sexual agent, radiating a determined sensuality that at once frightens and fascinates Marcello.” p. 25.

  26. Kolker, Bernardo Bertolucci, 233.

  27. Kline, Bertolucci's Dream Loom: A Psychoanalytic Study of Cinèma (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1987), 66.

  28. Kline, 74.

  29. Cited in Gideon Bachmann, “Every Sexual Relationship Is Condemned: An Interview with Bernardo Bertolucci,” Film Quarterly 26 (Spring, 1973): 3–4.

  30. Simon de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. and ed. H. M. Parshley (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974 [1949]), 50.

  31. Sigmund Freud, “Femininity,” in New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, ed. and trans. James Strachey. The Pelican Freud Library, vol. 2 (London: Penguin Books, 1979), 148.

  32. See Marsha Kinder and Beverle Houston, “Bertolucci and the Dance of Danger,” Sight and Sound 42 (1973): 186–191.

  33. Michiko Kakutani, “Bertolucci: He's Not Afraid to Be Shocking,” The New York Times (Thursday, October 4, 1979): C17.

  34. Aitken, “Bertolucci's Gay Images,” 24.

  35. Aitken, 25.

  36. Julia Kristeva, “Stabat Mater,” The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 175.

  37. My analysis of inter-racial relations in The Sheltering Sky is indebted to Jocylin Tinestit.

  38. In many interviews that Bertolucci has given on Tango he has emphasized the fact that in French the expression “le pétit mort” means orgasm. He also added that the feeling of death is characteristic of sexual relations in our alienated age. The intertextual relationships between Tango and The Sheltering Sky only reinforce this Eros/Thanatos-invested association.

  39. See Albert Memi, L'Homme Domine (Paris: Gallimard, 1968).

  40. Sander Gilman, Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race and Madness (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985), 85.

  41. Edward Said, “Orientalism Reconsidered,” in Literature, Politics and Theory: Papers from the Essex Conference 1976–84, eds. Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, Margaret Iversun, and Diana Loxley (London: Methuen, 1986), 224.

  42. Homi Bhabha, “The Other Question: Difference, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism,” in Literature, Politics and Theory, 166–167.

  43. See Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (London: Pluto Press, 1986).

  44. Bhabha, “The Other Question,” 166.

  45. Bhabha, 165.

  46. From the mid 1980s up to the present date one can detect the emergence of films (among others Heat and Dust,The Gods Must Be Crazy,A Passage to India,Out of Africa) that portray imperialism with nostalgia. See Renato Rosaldo, “Imperialist Nostalgia,” in Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), 68–87. The 1990s, however, witness a new wave of French films (L'Amant,Indochine, and La Guerre Sans Nom) on the French colonial experience in Indochina and Algiers. Much like The Sheltering Sky, these films look on the French colonial era with nostalgia. The plots involve doomed love affairs used to allegorize, nostalgically, the colonial experience.

  47. On the impression of Breathless on the young Bertolucci, see Ranvaud and Ungari, Bertolucci by Bertolucci, 30. In Franco Citti, as Ranvaud and Ungari note (p. 32), Bertolucci recognized “not only the sacred double of Jean-Paul Belmondo A Bout de Souffle but also his profane counter-part.”

  48. Ric Gentry, “Bertolucci Directs Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man,Millimeter (December, 1981): 58.

  49. Some of my ideas on Before the Revolution are influenced by William Simon's discussion of the film in his class on “Italian Cinema,” offered by the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University, in Fall, 1989.

  50. In an interview that I conducted with Bertolucci on August 7, 1991, in London he told me that he began his analysis in 1969. This analysis, he said, “ended one or two times officially, but then started again.” He added, laughingly, that he remembers “there is an essay of Freud called ‘Analysis or Interminable Analysis.’” He said, “I think that “I'm the first case of interminable analysis.”

  51. Quoted in Erik Cohen, “Pilgrimage and Tourism,” regarding Rainer Maria Rilke's The Duino Elegies (New York: Harper and Row, 1972): 45.

  52. At the Mill Valley Film Festival in April 9 and 10, 1988, on the subject of “Cinematic, Psychoanalytic, and Historical Viewpoints,” Bertolucci said: “I think that feminism is the most important thing happening in the last 15 years.” I would like to thank Bruce Sklarew for giving me access to the video recording of the discussion with Bertolucci.

Jack Mathews (review date 21 June 1996)

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SOURCE: Mathews, Jack. “Bertolucci's Beauty Searches for Identity, '60s Idealism.” Los Angeles Times (21 June 1996): 6.

[In the following review, Mathews notes several faults in Stealing Beauty, but argues that any Bertolucci film is a welcome event.]

When the young American Lucy Harmon (Liv Tyler) arrives at the Tuscan farm where she was conceived two decades earlier, she finds everyone there in the midst of a lazy, mid-afternoon nap. What follows is an awakening in more ways than one.

This opening to Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty is as gentle a metaphor as one could imagine, and one that seems to say as much about the filmmaker as the film. Stealing Beauty, which follows Lucy on her search for her biological father and on her mission to lose her virginity, marks the 56-year-old filmmaker's return to his native Italy, following a 15-year voluntary exile, and a return, of sorts, to the kind of intimate, personal journeys taken in his work in the late '60s.

Bertolucci has spent most of his years in exile making David Lean-size epics, the brilliant The Last Emperor, the dense and emotionally inaccessible The Sheltering Sky and the lush, spiritually gimmicky Little Buddha.

Stealing Beauty, while set against the gorgeous landscape of Tuscany, certainly reduces the size of the canvas and bores in on the lives of familiar characters. The middle-aged English people living at the rural farm are of Bertolucci's generation, former '60s political firebrands living out their utopian dream in a state of perpetual ennui. They're napping even when they're not napping.

Bertolucci, working through the fresh innocence of Lucy, wants to wake and shake these people, revive their idealism and former passions. They don't even have enough of the old fire to combat the TV transmitters that are marching, like carpenter ants, across the horizon, stealing the beauty. But Bertolucci could stand to stoke his own furnace. The script (written by Susan Minot from a story by Bertolucci) suffers from the same tired blood as his characters, and his direction is often ponderously self-conscious.

Still, even a lesser Bertolucci is an event, and Stealing Beauty has its charms. Tyler, either because she's acting well or not acting at all, is convincingly innocent as Lucy, a 19-year-old American typical in every way except for: A) her determination to discover the identity of the lover described in her late mother's diary, and B) for having saved her virginity for the Italian boy she'd met at the farm on a visit a few years earlier.

The leading candidates for Lucy's father include artist Ian Grayson (Donal McCann), who has agreed to paint Lucy's portrait; Monsieur Guillaume (Jean Marais), a flamboyant art dealer; and Alex Parrish (Jeremy Irons), a playwright dying from an undisclosed illness. Lucy's relationship with Alex, who is uplifted by her presence and eager to assume a paternal role in his final days, is the film's greatest strength.

It seems pretty obvious that as Alex attempts to inspire Lucy with the values from his generation while preserving the relative innocence of hers, what we're really hearing is Bertolucci's lament for the apolitical nature of today's youth. At a press conference for Stealing Beauty in Cannes last month, Bertolucci said his next movie will employ a time machine to set up a direct confrontation between young people of today and their counterparts in 1968.

Meanwhile, we have Stealing Beauty, which approaches the same subject from an oblique angle, and with varying degrees of sharpness. That Lucy's presence would get the blood moving in her mother's friends—Alex, Ian and Ian's wife, Diana (Sinead Cusack)—is carried off well enough. But the subplot about Lucy's withering virginity is an embarrassing miscalculation. Once the mystery of her parentage is solved, all that's left is when and with whom Lucy will do the deed.

There's no question where. According to her mom's diary, Lucy was conceived in the farm's olive grove. Sometimes, even those who don't ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 24 June 1996)

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SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. Review of Stealing Beauty, by Bernardo Bertolucci. New Republic 214, no. 26 (24 June 1996): 32.

[In the following excerpt, Kauffmann charges Bertolucci with indulging his infatuations in Stealing Beauty.]

Bernardo Bertolucci's new film is a record of infatuations. Stealing Beauty (Fox Searchlight)—a meaningless title—tells us first of all that the middle-aged Bertolucci is infatuated with Liv Tyler, a young American actress. (I'm speaking only of what's visible on screen.) Such infatuation is hardly new, and sometimes it has produced exceptional work. But sometimes it's embarrassing, as it is here. Tyler has a good face for film, and Bertolucci muses on it at length: the eyes, cheeks and mouth that are fine in themselves and together compose loveliness. Otherwise, Tyler is dull: a droning voice, commonplace talent, no electricity. Yet Bertolucci treats her as if she were, say, a new Audrey Hepburn and thus only makes her slightness slighter and his enslavement more patent.

Another infatuation, more understandable. Bertolucci loves Tuscany, where the film is set. He wants to use it, not only as background but as an aesthetic embrace of his characters. Tuscany is paradise, as someone says in the picture, but Bertolucci and his cinematographer, Darius Khondji, are so besotted with it that they have mostly rendered it in heavy postcard colors.

Still another infatuation. Bertolucci, after all these years, is still wonderstruck with decadence. “Decadent! How I love that early Victorian word!” says a character in Shaw's Fanny's First Play. Well, Bertolucci is less early Victorian than late neo-realistic, as he reruns the symptoms of rotted European morality that oozed across the screen in the '60s and '70s. When Tyler goes to a large party in a large villa, we expect that, after enough wine and enough pot, we'll see the Ugly Facts about these seemingly beautiful people. And, unfortunately, Bertolucci does not disappoint.

Bertolucci's original story—a generous adjective—was made into a screenplay by the American novelist Susan Minot, who has an unwavering eye for the predictable and an ear for the tired phrase. (One lover to another: “I like it when you're mad.”) The basic idea is that Tyler, now 19, has come to a hilltop villa to have her portrait done by an Irish artist who lives there with his wife and a garland of guests. Tyler is also returning to this place because here she had her first kiss (not from the artist) and may now have her first sex. She will also try to discover the lover of her now-deceased mother who might have begotten her at this very villa.

Not unusable themes, but Bertolucci is so avid for “touches” that the story gets smothered with atmospheric baggage. One of the guests (Jeremy Irons) is terminally ill and is near the end; his function, on his way out, is to urge Tyler to live—by which he means to copulate. Also on the premises is a “legendary art dealer” (Jean Marais, Cocteau's erstwhile ideal now in his 80s) intended, I suppose, to give perspective to the century. He is mere ambulatory decor, as is a journalist who writes advice to the lovelorn (Stefania Sandrelli, once one of the stunners in Bertolucci's The Conformist). And there's an American lawyer and his English girlfriend, who provide samples of sexual intercourse when the director wants to dab it in. Various high-testosterone English and Italian young men are woven through for differing reasons, and there's an overnight visit by an Italian army lieutenant for no reason whatsoever.

Naturally there are big dinner tables in the kitchen and big luncheon tables under the Tuscan skies, and naturally what looks initially like a group of attractively tinted souls turns out to have different colors. The general atmosphere is supposed to be sexual, through which Tyler is moving toward defloration. Twice she accidentally witnesses couples grappling. Her near-seduction is accompanied by hootchy-kootchy “Oriental” music (and there's no reason to think that Bertolucci was being funny; he has no humor).

But long before the promised end, we sense that, interested though he may have been in Tyler's story, Bertolucci was chiefly concerned to employ his infatuations in what he thought would be a Chekhovian mode. Assemble a group of different people in a country house, each with a strand of history and a purpose, and the result is Chekhov, right? This was the delusion that hobbled the recent Russian film Burnt by the Sun, and it does the same to Stealing Beauty.

Something else becomes clear about Bertolucci. When a career is so heavily laden with vacuous artiness, so full of inadequately examined choices, so emptily assumptive of superiority, a hard fact looms. Fundamentally, under the chi-chi, Bertolucci is stupid.

John Simon (review date 15 July 1996)

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SOURCE: Simon, John. Review of Stealing Beauty, by Bernardo Bertolucci. National Review 48, no. 13 (15 July 1996): 52–53.

[In the following review, Simon offers a negative assessment of Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty.]

In 1972, well before its commercial release, Pauline Kael pronounced Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris the film that made “the strongest impression on me in almost twenty years of reviewing. This must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out the most liberating,” she wrote. “People will be arguing about it, I think, for as long as there are movies.” When did you last hear people arguing about Last Tango? If it is remembered at all, it is for Marlon Brando's use of a stick of butter to bugger Maria Schneider with.

From his first feature, The Grim Reaper, and first succès d'estime,Before the Revolution, Bertolucci looked to me like a three-lira bill. There was less to his films than met the eye, and much less than warranted the ooze of ohs and ahs. To be sure, he has carried pretentiousness to new heights, remotely basing his films on prestigious writers' fictions: Before the Revolution on Stendhal, the nonsensical Partner on Dostoyevsky, the equally impenetrable The Spider's Stratagem on Borges (who told me he had never heard of this movie that proudly displayed his name), The Conformist on Moravia, The Sheltering Sky on Paul Bowles (though, as David Thomson remarked, “he hardly seemed to notice the terrible darkness waiting beyond Paul Bowles's bright sky”).

Of all these, The Conformist, which bore some resemblance to its source, was the best. Other films which Bertolucci, sometimes with collaborators, wrote himself were worse; thus Luna and Little Buddha, two of the biggest crocks made by an allegedly major filmmaker. The Last Emperor did have some merit, partly because of the exotic and picturesque milieu, and partly because Bertolucci, like some other perennial amateurs, knows how to pick the right camera man to do most of his work for him. For a long time, it was Vittorio Storaro; in the current film [Stealing Beauty], it is Darius Khondji (Before the Rain,Seven).

What characterizes the work of this Marxist (or ex-Marxist) attitudinizer who has always been a solid bourgeois is a certain rivenness, an unsureness that often amounts to hysteria. As Robin Wood noted, “The split is not merely thematic (hence under the artist's control): it manifests itself at every level of his filmmaking.” I am all for complexity and ambiguity, for raising difficult questions rather than disbursing easy answers, but I am not for nudging us toward sleazy revelations and then evading them. With hardly any exception, Bertolucci's films hint at, hover around, or briefly dip into homosexuality and lesbianism, but this ostensibly heterosexual filmmaker making purportedly heterosexual films has never faced the issue squarely.

Stealing Beauty, from a story by Bertolucci, was written by the American novelist Susan Minot, who spent 18 months on it in Italy with the director, though the sketchy, haphazard end result suggests something more like 18 days. It is one of those films called Chekhovian, a term that is sadly turning into a euphemism for boring. An English couple, Ian and Diana Grayson, inhabits a sprawling, romantic hilltop villa in the Chianti country between Florence and Siena. He is a sculptor; she is a homemaker, and in twenty years has turned their home into a museum. Not only are Ian's sculptures and drawings (the undistinguished work of Stephen Spender's son, Martin) all over the place, but also every conceivable artifact and object di virtu litters every nook and cranny, and most of the space in between.

Outside, there are painterly Tuscan landscapes for the camera to scan day and night. Inside, there are equally colorful house guests: Alex, a minor British playwright, is genteelly awaiting imminent death from cancer; Richard, a married American show-biz lawyer, is alternatingly copulating and quarreling with his likewise married girlfriend, Miranda, the Graysons' elder daughter, a jewelry designer. Christopher, her husband, is traveling about with his companion, Niccolo; midway into the film, they return.

“Those naughty boys,” says Diana. “I'm sure they are being very naughty.”

“I'm sure,” retorts Miranda, “they've gone beyond naughty by now.”

Noemi, an attractive middle-aged lonelyhearts columnist, is carrying on with a much younger fellow, and is furious when he makes her read Benjamin Constant's Adolphe, where such an affair ends badly. M. Guillaume appears to be Ian's powerful former art dealer; now old, he lounges about forlornly, uttering portentously vacuous apercus in French, e.g., “There is no love; there are only proofs of love.” Also around is a neighboring landowner and lecher, Carlo, whose son is Noemi's lover: Whether I have got all these relationships right is doubtful: of the three reviews of the film I have read, two got some of them wrong, the third confessed to total confusion. Blame Bertolucci's sloppiness.

Finally, though, it all centers on 19-year-old Lucy, a visitor from America. Still—and given her background, highly improbably—a virgin, she has come to the villa on a dual mission: to revisit the boy who gave her her first kiss five years ago, and to find out more about her dead mother, who spent much time here and may have conceived her by a man other than her husband. Mother, we are told wholly without irony by Alex, “was the best-dressed poet, writing transporting little verses between fashion shoots.” In America, she married a poet five inches shorter than herself—the kind of meaningless detail Bertolucci likes to regale us with.

Lucy is very pretty and becomes the cynosure not only of the aforementioned characters, but also of several faceless and epicene young men who also loiter about. Wherever she looks, someone is poking someone of the opposite or same sex, and she is disturbed: “You're in need of a ravisher,” Alex opines, sagely. There is nude bathing and sunbathing at the pool, pseudo-sophisticated badinage everywhere (“We've become a nation of monologists,” or “Let us bring up the rear, like Turgenev's poor Rakitin”), and one close call after another for Lucy's hymen. But the girl always bristles and runs. There is also one very shy, dark, and introverted youth who considers Lucy “plastic,” but seems to have been the one who actually wrote her some lyrical letters. (Guess what his role will be.)

Perversion lurks around the corners. Richard and Miranda are glimpsed falling to sadomasochistic sex. At the annual summer ball at a nearby spectacular palazzo and grounds, orgiasts are everywhere. As Lucy is dancing with Carlo, a woman comes along, squats, and pees, asserting that this is what Carlo really likes. Lucy even takes a snaggle-toothed young Brit home with her, but then insists on separate beds. Oddest, however, is a narcissistic episode before a mirror, triangular in cross-section, that runs along an entire wall in Lucy's room as a kind of dado. Richard gets down on all fours before it, has Lucy do so next to him; then he licks his image in the mirror and has the delighted Lucy follow suit. In between such incidents, she conducts coy colloquies, meant to be soul-searching, with her elders.

In due time, Lucy finds out what an olive grove looks like; what death means, as the aptly epigrammatizing Alex is carted off to the hospital; who her real father is; and how it feels to have sex. One is sorry for the decent actors—Donal McCann, Sinead Cusack, Carlo Cecchi, Stefania Sandrelli—mired in this smutty-adolescent stew. And even for the less decent ones, such as Jean Marais, whom one is glad to see still alive and handsome, even if made to spout nonsense; and Jeremy Irons, insufferably mannered though he has become. D. W. Moffett (Richard) and Rachel Weisz (Miranda) pretty much deserve what they get, as do the shadowy young men flitting about.

As Lucy, there is Liv Tyler, who does have something, although it may not be acting talent. Tall, dark-haired, blue-eyed, heavy-lidded, and sensually thick-lipped, this sexy 18-year-old daughter of a rock star and an ex-model is well on her way to stardom. But she has yet to be in a movie that offers her a chance to act, instead of merely surrounding her with unwholesome, aestheticizing innuendo that strains to elevate indeterminacy into significance.

Years ago, Bertolucci said in an interview with Joseph Gelmis, “Giorgio Morandi painted bottles all the time. … And there are some directors who make always the same film. And poets who write always the same poem. This to me is very beautiful. Because the robins sing always the same song.” Alas, obsessions are not all of the same value. The bullfrog may be just as obsessive in his song as the robin in his, but they are hardly equivalent. Morandi's bottles (and cups and salad bowls) came only after he had proved his mastery with superb landscapes. And still-lifes—think Chardin, think Cezanne—are something more forthright and ecumenical than smirking allusions to homosexuality and self-indulgent oglings of perversion as, for instance, in this scene from 1900, as described by David Shipman:

There is a wedding ceremony during which the aristocratic Amelia (Laura Betti) shouts four-letter words before rushing off to the woodshed where she performs fellatio on the Fascist Attila (Donald Sutherland): discovered by a small boy, he and then she sodomize him before killing him by swinging him by his legs so that his head is crushed by the four walls—for which the rich young man allows his best friend to be blamed, despite his being miles away at the time.

The director pretends to be making a moral statement—this is how evil the Fascists were—but is really reveling in pathology. Bertolucci's Marxism was no more committed than his present dilettantism; politics was always merely an excuse for perverse suggestiveness.

Yet even this is never honest. Bertolucci keeps teasing you, in small matters as in large. Thus, in a bathtub scene in Stealing Beauty, he displays Liv Tyler's right breast: later, as she poses for Ian (whose final portrait of her is totally different), Bertolucci has her baring her left breast. In the film's penultimate scene of grunting sex, he carefully reveals nothing; it's all a nasty tease. Morandi's bottles are a wholly different matter as, with the passing years, the painter kept stripping them down more and more toward their essence. If Bertolucci is a master of anything, it is of the inessential.

Bernardo Bertolucci and Kevin Thomas (interview date 18 October 1996)

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SOURCE: Bertolucci, Bernardo, and Kevin Thomas. “The Filmmaker Looks Back at His Work While Exploring New Realms.” Los Angeles Times (18 October 1996): 6.

[In the following interview, Bertolucci reflects on his body of work and career in the film industry.]

Bernardo Bertolucci doesn't like looking back.

“I like looking in front of me. I see a mysterious landscape I don't understand, but then cinema is a kind of mutation,” the director says of his romantic, mystical passion for films and filmmaking.

He will be saluted tonight by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a screening of a restored print of one of his finest films, The Conformist (1971), which in turn launches a Cinecitta International/UCLA Film Archive-sponsored Bertolucci retrospective.

“A retrospective forces you to be responsible for what you've done. It's a very heavy feeling,” Bertolucci said in an interview Wednesday in his West Hollywood hotel suite. “When I'm forced to look at a movie I did 25 years ago, like The Conformist, it's not so bad because it's like looking at a film made by somebody else. And I am in a sense somebody else. I'm not the same man I was 25 years ago. I really don't like looking at my recent films because I always want to change something.”

The 55-year-old director, whose films include Before the Revolution,Last Tango in Paris,1900 and The Last Emperor, says he wants each of his movies to be different from the others.

“Very often people … want you to repeat yourself, and my mission in life is not to repeat myself. So after my three exotic Oriental movies [The Last Emperor,The Sheltering Sky and Little Buddha] I had a strong desire to go back to Italy to do a little light thing, Stealing Beauty. When people told me that the film didn't seem like me I took it as a compliment,” he says.

“I can see an itinerary in going back. I lived the full experience of the New Wave. Cinema was a question of life and death for me. But by the end of the '60s I needed feedback. My films had been ‘monologues,’ now I wanted to make ‘dialogues,’” he says.

“I also felt a desire to be more international. Cinema, more than any other form of art, is classless: The audience sitting in the dark looking at images is one class and is international. When I looked at Last Tango in Paris with my writer and editor I thought, ‘Oh my God! It's too tragic, too sad.’ It was impossible to predict its worldwide success.

“When you work with Marlon Brando you discover what is beyond the great actor is something else—a man who is so omnivorous in his curiosity it's contagious. His questions force you to be as curious as he is. It was an incredible lesson—and I was attempting to take off his Actors Studio mask.

“About a year ago we were talking up at his house—I had not seen him in a long time.

“We were so greedy to talk to each other we sat there—3 p.m., 7 p.m., 8 p.m.—it got dark, but we didn't stop to turn on the lights. At a certain point I said, ‘Do you agree that I got something of you in the film?’ He said, ‘Do you think that man up there on the screen is me? Ha! Ha!’ There will always be another ‘beyond’ with Brando. Doing Last Tango was an initiation into adulthood. I was dealing with an American icon—the American icon.”

Bertolucci feels strongly that directors influence one another to the extent that when asked about who influenced him, he rattles off his short list: Godard, Ford, Renoir, Mizoguchi, Rossellini, Fellini. Bertolucci abandoned his studies at Rome University in 1961 to become an assistant to Pier Paolo Pasolini on Pasolini's first film, Accatone.

“I like movies which go out of control—it's like the cinema itself is taking over,” he says. “If a director is so brave as to give up some control, it's fantastic! There is also a moment of megalomania in directors, and it happened with me in Last Tango,” he says. “Then I did 1900. Can you believe I really thought that film would be a bridge between the U.S. and the USSR? It came out broken and in pieces—[1900 was severely cut but later restored]. I realized that all the omnipotence I felt I had on Last Tango was an illusion.

“In the '80s I thought I couldn't work in my country, which had become a place of total political corruption, but I went back when the country became more attractive again,” says the Italian director, who with his wife, filmmaker Clare Peploe, has residences in London and Rome.

“I spent two years in preparation for The Last Emperor—I did not want the Chinese to find me making mistakes. In the East it's considered Gone with the Wind. I think the young Chinese directors like Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou were encouraged to make not only little neo-realist movies but also to be more ambitious.

“In fact Chen Kaige [who would later make the epic-scale Farewell, My Concubine] told me so. To discover other countries apart from the suffocating, heavy world mono-culture is so important, but 10 years after making The Last Emperor I'm afraid of seeing what has happened in China.

“Every movie which is not consecrated in this country has very little space here and all over the world,” he says, proposing that American movies playing abroad pay “a little toll” into a fund to keep the European cinema alive.

“The majors are always curious about my movies, and then they ask, ‘What's that? Is it worth it to spend $10 million on prints and advertising?’ Maybe not—and it gets sent to the cemetery of cinema, television. Cinema is a collective experience in the theater. You have to see a picture in a dark theater with other people! Electronic images do not have the weight of screen images. What you see on TV are the ghosts of movies.”

Nevertheless, Bertolucci is thinking of making the plunge into television with a sequel to 1900, which ended in 1945. “I don't think the possibilities of TV have been fully explored,” he says. “And I'm always doing movies that people say take twice the time that they should.”

Dave Kehr (review date March 1999)

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SOURCE: Kehr, Dave. Review of Besieged, by Bernardo Bertolucci. Film Comment 35, no. 2 (March 1999): 6.

[In the following review, Kehr asserts that the simplicity and intimacy of Besieged proves Bertolucci's maturity as a filmmaker.]

The past twenty years have witnessed a gradual globalization of the movies, which has mainly taken the form of Hollywood gobbling up all of the eccentric, individual national cinemas that once made up the rich fabric of the art. Clearly, the global march of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and the rest of the Hollywood action figures (Joe Dante's Small Soldiers provides a nice visual metaphor) has succeeded in wiping out most of the popular cinema in its few remaining strongholds. The genre cinema in Europe is long gone, Asia is crumbling fast, and even India, long protected by its maze of dialects and cultural peculiarities, is said to be teetering on the brink, ready to surrender the tattered beauties of Hollywood to the seamless digital dreams of Spielberg, Lucas, and company.

But Hollywood, more insidiously perhaps, has also managed to put its stamp on the art cinema. The Oscar model of the well-mounted historical/literary epic, as pioneered in the Thirties by Irving Thalberg and never really improved upon, has become the template of the international auteur film, designed for a world market but with an American sale foremost in mind. The Swedes have gone from the avant-garde obscurities of Persona to the miniseries aesthetic of Best Intentions, the Italians from the existential musings of Antonioni to the sentimental pandering of Benigni, and the French—while continuing to produce a wide range of distinctive, innovative films for domestic consumption—are represented internationally chiefly by overstuffed period pieces like Horseman on the Roof and Jean de Florette.

Perhaps no director has suffered more from internationalization than Bernardo Bertolucci—and perhaps no director has been quicker to embrace it. Within a breathtakingly short period, Bertolucci transformed himself from an edgy sexual-political provocateur into a David Lean manque.

Bertolucci first tasted the fruit of internationalism by casting Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris (73), then made a meal of it with the far-flung participants of 1900 (76), raiding equally French, American, and Italian sources. But the transitional moment occurs in 1987's The Last Emperor. A gorgeous opening sequence depicts the childhood of the future emperor, spinning poetic patterns of moons and motherly love that spring from the heart of Bertolucci's sensibility. But mystery and lyricism soon disappear, giving way to a painterly appreciation of crowd scenes and landscapes devoid of any identifiable personal slant. Introspection yields to spectacle, and art yields to industry.

In the Nineties, Bertolucci has become an exile, in retreat from Italy and in retreat from his own past. The concern with family and history that runs through Before the Revolution,The Spider's Stratagem,The Conformist,1900,Luna, and Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man gives way to the rootlessness and academicism of The Sheltering Sky,Little Buddha, and Stealing Beauty—the last a film set in Italy that couldn't be more touristic.

In this context, Besieged looks like a triumphant homecoming, and it is certainly Bertolucci's most personal film in a decade. It's also his smallest in 28 years, a television movie that marks a return to the compact format and reduced production values of Spider's Stratagem. This is not a coincidence. Shucking off the apparatus of international coproduction, Bertolucci seems to have rediscovered himself.

Besieged is set in Rome, though it is emphatically not a tourist's city. (One of the film's most effective visual strategies, in fact, is its gradual revelation that the action takes place within spitting distance of the Spanish Steps, one of Rome's most popular tourist attractions.) In an old house, located up a narrow street near the mouth of a subway station, lives Kinsky (David Thewlis), a painfully introverted pianist who inherited the building—along with its impressive collection of art and antiquities—from a benevolent aunt. The building's only other resident is Shandurai (Thandie Newton), a young African woman who, fleeing repression in her (unnamed) home country, has come to Rome to study medicine; work as Kinsky's housekeeper provides her with money and a basement room.

Shandurai and Kinsky are both exiles, she for political reasons (her husband, a schoolteacher, has been thrown in prison), he for personal ones—the weight of the world seems simply to be too much for him. But in his isolation (something about Thewlis's jittery, stiff-legged manner suggests Anthony Perkins's Norman Bates) he has fallen in love with this stranger from a strange land, and is compelled to blurt out his feelings for her. Frightened, she pulls back, and he is left to ask, pitifully, what will make her love him. “Get my husband out of prison,” she angrily responds, sure that she is demanding the impossible.

Working with a new cinematographer, Fabio Cianchetti, Bertolucci backs away from the painterly lighting and formal, widescreen compositions that defined his longtime collaboration with Vittorio Storaro; this is a more spontaneous-seeming film, with a free and easy use of the hand-held camera and a much tighter visual field than Bertolucci generally uses. Yet his superb sense of space has not diminished. Besieged is composed in vertical movements, in ascents and descents centered around the building's central spiral staircase and the dumbwaiter that connects Shandurai's room to Kinsky's study. The building comes to seem an organic creature, with Kinsky's space as its head and Shandurai as its heart.

The up and down movements—Kinsky likes to communicate with Shandurai by placing enigmatic objects in the dumb-waiter—also acquire a psychological dimension. Downward and inward movements are associated with dream sequences, in which Shandurai revisits and reinterprets her life in Africa. The downward movements are movements into the past (the first dream fills in the story background, showing Shandurai working in a children's hospital and her husband's arrest), with sexuality (one orgasmic dream, which Bertolucci chooses not to share), and with the subconscious (Shandurai dreams that Kinsky's face has replaced that of the repressive dictator on the wall posters of her hometown).

Of course, such up-and-down metaphors are not without their ideological implications, particularly when they involve cultural contrasts. Bertolucci came in for his share of criticism when Besieged premiered at last fall's Toronto International Film Festival, where several of our finest critics saw the film as a nostalgic endorsement of colonialism. Kinsky, whose curio-packed home suggests some kind of storehouse of Western civilization, is seen extending a paternalistic hand toward the disadvantaged African, offering to swap his abundant knowledge for her childlike innocence and “primitive” sexuality.

But that reading requires stopping the film halfway through. Once Shandurai throws down her challenge—return my husband to me and I'll learn to love you—Kinsky speaks of his feelings no more. But objects begin to disappear from the house—little knickknacks at first, then paintings and sculptures and entire wall tapestries—as it gradually dawns on Shandurai (and the audience) that Kinsky is selling off his possessions in order to finance his attempts to free her husband. For Bertolucci, there is an uncharacteristic bit of Catholic mysticism here (though perhaps this is the point where Christian sacrifice meets Buddhist resignation). “He who tries to save his life will lose it,” a priest tells Kinsky; “he who gives it away will be saved.”

In the film's second half, the metaphor shifts from space to light. Previously, we've seen Shandurai plunging into the dark tunnel of the subway entrance, on her way to her university classes. After she learns she's passed her exams, Bertolucci reverses the movement, following Shandurai out of the subway into the blinding sunlight. The shadowy interior of the house gradually lightens and clarifies as the objects that encumber it disappear.

The first sign of Shandurai's evolving affections comes when she sees the light of an open window playing on the hairs of Kinsky's ankle as he lies reading; in the sunlight, the threatening figure is revealed as boyish, vulnerable. And in the film's most lyrical passage, Shandurai finds a crumpled airmail envelope in her employer's garbage—the first solid sign that he is in contact with her home country—and runs with it up to the terrace on the roof of the building, where the household sheets are drying on a line. The fluttering fields of white and the bright Roman sun combine to create a blinding radiance—surely one of the most vivid images of sheer happiness ever recorded on film.

It's significant that Bertolucci equates joy with blankness, liberation with empty spaces. Besieged marks Bertolucci's return to Italy, but he seems to have come home only better to shuck it off. In this Italian film, the two principal characters are an Englishman and an African; the one Italian figure of any consequence, Shandurai's classmate Agostino (Claudio Santamaria), prefers to speak English himself. In part, this is Bertolucci's canny concession to the world market (an English-track film has a far better chance of attracting distribution), but there is something willful there as well. Kinsky has chosen to sacrifice his culture and history for the sake of love; Shandurai will have to face this choice herself, at the film's ambiguous conclusion. Bertolucci ranges himself with them; for the sake of his art, he has made himself a citizen of nowhere.

This slim, beautiful film, which is about the necessity of sacrifice and paring down, is itself an act of reduction—a clearing of the decks, a return to zero. Where Bertolucci's characters were once united by their unexpressed desire to return to the warmth and security of childhood, to the love of a mother and the safety of a womb, they now define themselves by their denial of the past and their passionate embrace of the present. A new, more mature Bertolucci seems to have emerged from the emptiness of the Oscar years, an artist no longer drawn by nostalgia but compelled by a risky, uncertain future—the future that lies beyond the front door of Kinsky's house, up the Spanish Steps.

Bernardo Bertolucci and David Gritten (interview date 16 May 1999)

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SOURCE: Bertolucci, Bernardo, and David Gritten. “Bertolucci's Next: The Opposite of X.” Los Angeles Times (16 May 1999): 17.

[In the following interview, Bertolucci discusses his motivation for making Besieged.]

Bernardo Bertolucci's new film [Besieged] is an intimate chamber piece, featuring a man and a woman alone in an otherwise empty house. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

So it should. Bertolucci's biggest moment of fame (infamy, some would say) came in 1972 with the release of his steamy, controversial film Last Tango in Paris, starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider. Its explicit sexual content caused an international scandal; even non-moviegoers knew how a simple pat of butter was employed in its story.

In America, Last Tango was awarded an X rating, and Bertolucci was nominated for a directing Oscar for the film; in his native Italy, it was branded pornography, he was tried for blasphemy (receiving a suspended sentence) and his right to vote was withdrawn for five years.

How time changes people. Bertolucci's new film Besieged—which opens in Los Angeles on Friday—is a far gentler work, virtually guaranteed not to shock or scandalize. Adapted from a short story by James Lasdun, it's a beguiling account of a slow-burning intimacy.

Thandie Newton, who played the ghostly title character in Beloved, plays a young African woman who flees her unnamed homeland when her heroic husband, a political dissident, is jailed. She moves to Rome, studies to become a doctor and cleans the large house of Kinsky (David Thewlis of Naked), a lonely, failed English composer living on an inheritance, in exchange for a room in his basement. He falls in love with her, and to prove it sets out to free her husband while giving up all his possessions: art works, tapestries, his treasured piano.

“It feels in some way,” said Bertolucci, “as if I've come full circle.”

For the last three decades Bertolucci has been regarded as one of the great directors in world cinema. He began making films in Italy in the 1960s, and in 1970 attracted international recognition with the now-classic, visually stunning The Conformist.

True, Last Tango, chunks of which resemble a play for two characters, was shot on a fairly modest scale. But then Bertolucci's canvas became bigger and bigger, both in terms of subject matter and locations. He had the chutzpah to make 1900, (1976) a five-hour film about 70 years of Italian social conflict viewed through his own Marxist belief system, and persuaded Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu to star in it.

He won nine Oscars for The Last Emperor, (1987) his sumptuous, high-budget masterpiece about China shot partly in Beijing's Forbidden City. His unbridled wide-screen vision led him to film sweeping epics in unlikely places: The Sheltering Sky (1990) in Morocco's desert wastes and Little Buddha (1993) in the secluded Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

In his long career, Bertolucci has conjured up images of ravishing beauty and grandeur in films of ever-increasing scope and ambition. Outside Hollywood, nobody's films cost more money—and it is outside Hollywood that he chooses to stay. Despite many lucrative offers, he has never worked for a major American studio. “I am an independent, even when I am making spectacular movies,” he said gravely. (Besieged is being released by Fine Line.)

Or, at least, as independent as any director can feel with a millstone of a big budget around his neck. Sheltering Sky and Little Buddha both cost at least $30 million (a lot of money even in the early '90s), yet neither found favor with audiences or critics. Asked about those films, Bertolucci shrugged and sighed. “At that kind of budget you feel responsible and less free,” he mused. “I felt that way. Maybe it's even visible in those films.”

Maybe it's also why Besieged is his most modest film since the small Italian works that kick-started his career in the 1960s. His epics, shot in exotic locations, used to take months to complete; Besieged was filmed in 32 days, mainly in a single house in Rome, for less than $4 million.

It is the first feature film he has made in Rome since Luna 20 years ago. Perhaps even more surprising, it also lasts a mere 92 minutes, far shorter than Bertolucci's splashier efforts—for example, a recently released director's cut of Last Emperor ran well over four hours.

“I was touched by the heart of the story,” he said. “The idea that somebody today, in our individualistic society, understands that the only way to make himself happy is to make this woman happy.

“I was looking to make a very little film on a small budget. I'd been asking myself, ‘Where is cinema going, what is it becoming?’ This felt like I was starting all over again. To shoot 20 scenes a day instead of four or five in the last 15 years—I'd forgotten that kind of joy.”

He even found a point of identification with Thewlis' character, Kinsky: “Just as he gave away everything he owns, I felt I was giving away my big production values. It was real luxury. Nothing's as rewarding as shooting a film this way.”

He pondered all this in the London offices of his longtime colleague, British producer Jeremy Thomas, who has jetted all over the world to raise financing for his more extravagant epics. Bertolucci, now 59, is handsome, thick-set and elegant; the casual clothes he prefers appear expensive on him. When he talks, he gesticulates; his voice is quiet, but his commanding manner ensures others listen.

He enjoys a civilized life. He and his English wife of 20 years, director-screenwriter Clare Peploe, divide their time between homes in Rome and London. (Her brother Mark also has collaborated on his screenplays; the team of cameramen, designers and editors Bertolucci repeatedly uses have become like his big, informal family.)

“Clare and I spend maybe a bit more time in Rome, which is not bad,” he says. “Rome is beautiful, but culturally a bit sleepy. London is incredibly lively, culturally. So it's convenient, this arrangement.”

It's one that also allows him to continue living in part-exile, a fact that has spilled over into his recent work. Lasdun's short story on which Besieged is based was set in London, before Bertolucci relocated it to Rome; significantly, its main characters are foreigners in Italy. Stealing Beauty, Bertolucci's 1996 film, was set in Tuscany but involved a group of British, American and Irish expatriates. “I felt I must make an effort to shoot in my own country again,” said Bertolucci. “But I prefer to see Italy through the eyes of aliens.”

Like another legendary ex-patriot director, the late Stanley Kubrick, no one would accuse Bertolucci of being prolific. Besieged is only his ninth film in 29 years since he achieved international stature, which leads one to wonder exactly what he does between shooting.

Another sigh, then a slow smile: “Firstly, I'm not unhappy about being a bit lazy. Or wasting time, if such a thing exists. Films take time. For Little Buddha, for example, I felt I had to dive into Buddhist philosophy. You can't do that quickly. Besieged happened fast, but I spent two years thinking and looking at where cinema was headed.”

He disliked much of what he saw. Bertolucci has long despised Hollywood: “It is a monoculture which spreads all over the world and makes all our lives miserable. It is extraordinary but true that when English, French or Italian people see films about American life, it is more familiar to them than films about English, French or Italian life.”

For all his fierceness on this point, Bertolucci is less of a firebrand these days. He came into film as an avowed radical, determined to use the medium as a means of overthrowing capitalism. But with time he has mellowed.

“After I made 1900, my great monument to communism, I started to lose faith in it,” he admitted. “Communism was a terrible failure. I'm disappointed, but I recognize that to allow me to have my great dreams and utopia, millions of people would have to suffer.

“I'm no longer interested in making political films. There's something old-fashioned about them. Young people now don't care for politics. It isn't present in life as it used to be. And increasingly I like films which reflect present-day reality.”

It's strange to reflect that the film world's former enfant terrible has become one of its elder statesmen—quite literally, with the recent deaths of giants like Kubrick and Akira Kurosawa. So what will Bertolucci do now, after Besieged?

“I'll do a lot of thinking,” he said, poking fun at himself. “But I'm open to doing another small film. After you've tasted this amount of freedom, it's hard to give it up.”

Kevin Thomas (review date 21 May 1999)

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SOURCE: Thomas, Kevin. “Bertolucci Captures the Seductive Besieged.Los Angeles Times (21 May 1999): 6.

[In the following review, Thomas offers a positive assessment of Besieged, noting its economy, sensuality, and subtlety.]

From the start of the enchanting Besieged, a film that combines a stunning sensuality with a rigorous economy, you know that you're in the hands of a filmmaker who trusts in the storytelling power of the camera. And since the filmmaker happens to be Bernardo Bertolucci, you can count on his images to be ravishingly beautiful.

It begins this way: Bertolucci cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti's gracefully fluid camera picks out a beautiful young woman (Thandie Newton) caring for a large group of disabled children at a rural clinic in an unnamed African nation. A series of shots of posters of a military leader being pasted up everywhere in the area follows. Then cut to a man in a schoolroom asking his pupils if they know the difference between the words “boss” and “leader.”

In a rapid montage we see a group of soldiers brutally take the schoolteacher into custody as the young woman, Shandurai, is bicycling home. Next, we see Shandurai awaken from her troubled sleep in a room so humble and nondescript that we don't know that we've moved from Africa to Rome, where Shandurai has fled from her homeland, which clearly has been taken over by a military dictatorship. Her room is on the ground floor of an ancient Roman villa, where she works as a housekeeper while pursuing her medical studies.

The owner of the villa is a Mr. Kinsky (David Thewlis), a young English pianist-composer who spends most of his time at the piano. He also gives lessons to a number of clearly gifted children. He is a tall, thin man, not conventionally handsome but attractive, absorbed in his music and a shy loner of exceptional intelligence yet possessed of warmth and kindness.

Shandurai is so zealous a housekeeper that you wonder when she finds time to devote to her studies—and how and when she became so fluent in Italian; so seductive is this film that you just take it on faith that she can handle the load. You also begin to suspect that all that intense scrubbing and dusting is a kind of exorcism for her, a way of dealing with survivor's guilt and her worry about the now-imprisoned schoolteacher, who happens to be her husband.

As caught up in his work as he is, Kinsky, who inherited the villa from an aunt, can't help but notice Shandurai's diligence and, more important, cannot help but notice her striking looks and be stirred by the grace with which she performs household tasks. She is an alluring woman, all the more so for being so completely natural and spontaneous.

One day Kinsky, who has no idea that Shandurai is married, places on a dumbwaiter a large diamond ring, which had been his aunt's, and sends it down to Shandurai's room. Perplexed and upset, Shandurai tells him she can't accept such a gift. He blurts out that he loves her and wants to know how he can prove it to her. Now thoroughly upset, she retorts in exasperation that he can do so by getting her husband out of prison.

Working from a script he adapted with his longtime co-writer Clare Peploe, from a short story by James Lasdun, Bertolucci spins a tale with the assurance, fascination and subtlety of an Isak Dinesen novella. When he's in top form, as he is here, Bertolucci displays an innate sense of proportion, as at home with the epic scale as with the intimate. In keeping with his strong appreciation of the visual, Bertolucci keeps dialogue to a minimum, which means Newton must be as expressive as a silent-era actress. He makes the same demands upon Thewlis, and both his stars glow under his direction.

He has also understood that with this particular material the setting is crucial and the villa in fact becomes almost a third character. An irresistibly charming structure of shabby elegance, it is dominated by a dramatic circular staircase that allows Bertolucci to suggest the levels and shifts within the relationship—the spiraling emotions—between Shandurai and Kinsky.

Besieged is heady stuff, and Bertolucci has always been an impassioned filmmaker, starting with the bravura Before the Revolution, which made his international reputation 35 years ago. With Besieged, as with all his best work, Bertolucci confronts tempestuous circumstances with complete control of his material. Such discipline only intensifies the impact of Besieged's hard-to-predict finish.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 21 June 1999)

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SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Close Encounters of the First Kind.” New Republic 220, no. 25 (21 June 1999): 30.

[In the following excerpt, Kauffmann offers a negative assessment of Besieged, arguing that the film's “vacuity” is “shocking.”]

Tough times for Bernardo Bertolucci. When he began making films, in the early 1960s, he was one of the young surfers riding the Italian postwar tide, which had been generated by such older figures as Rossellini and De Sica. Bertolucci's Before the Revolution, his second film but his first to be seen here, had the paradoxical design that marked the work of Olmi and Pasolini, the sense of breaking free of convention at the same time that the film followed a careful plan. Bertolucci clearly owed much to older masters, but Before the Revolution sustained, movingly, the contradictory blend of angry despair and smoldering aspiration that was a signet of the time. To tag Bertolucci a Marxist in those days was almost superfluous. Even if his Marxism was only a la mode, not much more than noblesse oblige for young Italian artist-intellectuals of the day, it stamped him as someone who had matured just after World War II and the end of fascism.

Politics certainly didn't disappear from the Bertolucci work that soon followed, The Spider's Stratagem and The Conformist and others, but a preening aestheticism had slithered in, had immersed his films in a too-exquisite Vogue chic. Then, as the preciosity diminished a bit, we got the gaudily lauded Last Tango in Paris, which will be valuable as long as acting is valued because, whatever else may be arguable about it, it contains Brando's performance. A few more truly Italian pictures followed, not consistently gratifying, and then the steam seemed to wheeze out of Bertolucci. He found “renewal” where so many debilitated Westerners have found it, in exotica, in Asia and Africa—The Last Emperor,Little Buddha,The Sheltering Sky. But even those pictures were preferable to his return to Italy and a confection called Stealing Beauty, a film shorn of the connections with his country that had given even his lesser work an aortic pulse.

And now it's worse. Besieged (Fine Line), which is set mostly in Rome, smells of desperation, a near-frantic bankruptcy. We're told that Bertolucci's wife, Clare Peploe, had for years been keen about a short story by James Lasdun, that at last the chance came for her and her husband to adapt it for the screen and for him to direct it. It seems to me just possible that Lasdun's story had been stored away as emergency rations and that, when everything else had gone, they broke it out. It's a story of only flashy import, and it's not even very interesting as narrative.

In an unnamed African country, the police arrest a schoolteacher who dissents from the dictator. As he is taken away, his wife, Shandhurai, is very frightened: we know because urine trickles down her leg. She is next seen in Rome, where she is working as a maid for a composer-pianist named Kinsky while she studies to become a nurse. Kinsky falls in love with her and proposes marriage, but she is fiercely loyal to her husband (about whom Kinsky had not known). When the husband is liberated and arrives in Rome, however, she doesn't even meet him: she suddenly, precipitously, accepts Kinsky.

The emotional muzziness, the lack of character conviction would be weak enough even if the film were well constructed, but it isn't. It is stripped of connective tissue—for instance, there is no explanation of how Shandhurai got to Rome and became a nursing student, and there is no hint of love growing in her between her rejection of Kinsky and her acceptance of him. Inevitably, some Bertolucci loyalists are telling us that these matters show admirable astringency, an impatience with conventional data; but to me the film looks scrappy, as if he had not shot enough footage to edit it properly.

The picture's only asset is Thandie Newton, who was Sally Hemings in Jefferson in Paris and is again quietly lovely. The English actor David Thewlis, who once was Smike in the RSC's Nicholas Nickleby and who has been in three Mike Leigh films, plays Kinsky—without much help from the screenplay.

I have not been a consistently warm admirer of Bertolucci through the years, but at his worst, it was always possible to see vestiges of grand ambition in him. The vacuity and the skimpiness of Besieged are shocking.

Bernardo Bertolucci and Bruce Sklarew (interview date fall 1999)

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SOURCE: Bertolucci, Bernardo, and Bruce Sklarew. “Returning to My Low-Budget Roots: An Interview with Bernardo Bertolucci.” Cineaste 24, no. 4 (fall 1999): 16.

[In the following interview, Bertolucci discusses the themes of Besieged, how the film was made, and his opinions of working in the television medium.]

Bernardo Bertolucci's latest film, Besieged, tells a story of attraction and sacrifice as it gradually unfolds between Shandurai (Thandie Newton), a young African woman studying medicine in Rome, and Jason Kinsky (David Thewlis), an English pianist and composer. Kinsky lives in the center of Rome in an old inherited house adjacent to the Spanish Steps. Bertolucci's camera flirts with this landmark, catching glimpses of it from time to time, much like the developing intimacy between Shandurai and Kinsky, through secret glances and shy approaches. The faded elegance of Kinsky's enormous house—with its creaky dumbwaiter, imposing spiral staircase and rooms filled with paintings, sculptures, and tapestries—establishes the atmosphere of longing and love, of presence and absence that shapes the film.

Shandurai lives a somewhat somber though hopeful life in Rome, having left her unnamed African country after government police arrested her husband/school teacher who criticized the dictator in front of his young pupils. Determined and strong, she goes on with her life, yet is haunted by nightmares of her husband's suffering. The film opens with one of these nightmares, an elaborate yet economical scene which provides detailed exposition and backstory—almost without dialog and all before we realize that this is, in fact, Shandurai's tortured dream. In exchange for a place to live and money to help pay for her medical studies, Shandurai cleans Kinsky's house. Shandurai dusts as Kinsky plays Mozart, Grieg, Scriabin, Beethoven, and Bach on his piano or attempts to compose his own music—all accompanying a choreography of looking and wondering.

In his sweetly clumsy eccentricity, Kinsky drops tokens of his love, usually in the form of cryptic objects he sends down the dumbwaiter, which doubles as Shandurai's closet. When Kinsky finally proclaims his love boldly, if awkwardly, Shandurai emphatically tells him that she shares none of his feelings, and that the only hope for her interest in him is to get her husband out of prison. When he learns that she is married, he withdraws, making no further overtures for her affection. As objects of art gradually begin to disappear from his house, Shandurai (and we) begin to realize that Kinsky is selling off all of his possessions (finally even his piano) to pay for her husband's release. As Shandurai recognizes his incredible selflessness, she gradually studies him, watches him and grows to love him in a reversal. The glances now belong to her and she attempts to catch fleeting glimpses of him as he leaves the house and walks to the metro.

Reminiscent of what Hitchcock deemed ‘pure cinema’—a film that tells its story through images and montage rather than dialog—Besieged is, according to Bertolucci, “a piece of chamber music for the cinema.” In fact, when watching Besieged, one cannot help but think of the long, silent sequences of Vertigo, in which obsession builds through the look and love through exchanged glances. Here, the issue is not so much obsession, but Kinsky's willingness to give up everything to help this person he loves, even if it means that she will return to her husband. In the deliciously ambiguous final moments of the film, Shandurai recognizes that she is in love with Kinsky as her husband, just freed, knocks on Kinsky's door. After six rings of the front doorbell, Shandurai rises from the bed where Kinsky lies sleeping, and in the final image we remain outside, waiting interminably with her husband at the door, as early morning commuters begin emerging from the metro.

Although most critics of Besieged acknowledge its formal prowess, some found its portrayal of Kinsky and Shandurai's relationship patronizing or even racist. These accusations are based on a set of literal-minded assumptions. Lefter-than-thou commentators eager to chide Bertolucci apparently believe that Shandurai's eventual love for her employer is equivalent to a slave's capitulation to a master. This interpretation, however, neglects both Shandurai's own finely honed independence (she is anything but a submissive woman and to deny this is itself patronizing) and Kinsky's eccentric obliviousness to his own authority.

It is true that Bertolucci's stance in Besieged is that of a liberal humanist; his depiction of Third World political turmoil and racial tension in the European diaspora seems naive when compared with the films of African and Latin American directors. Yet, since he is more concerned with how these issues suffuse everyday life, it is equally naive to condemn him for ideological myopia. The protagonists' romantic pas de deux does nevertheless reveal how Europe, particularly Italy, is coming to awkward terms with its new multicultural status.

Besieged's minimalist esthetic makes it unlike any of Bertolucci's earlier films. He started his career under the sway of Pasolini's poetic social realism and soon progressed to his own version of Viscontian grandiosity. His latest film's elliptical storytelling and exquisitely spontaneous camera work (in sharp contrast to his former cinematographer Vittorio Storaro's exquisitely complex camera work) marks an exciting new chapter in his career. In a sense, Besieged is the sort of film that fledgling American independent filmmakers would make if they possessed Bertolucci's talent and restraint. The following interview was conducted by Bruce Sklarew at the world premiere of Besieged last September at the Toronto International Film Festival.—The Editors

[Sklarew:] Your new film, Besieged, is based on a story by James Lasdun entitled “The Siege.” Where did you come across this short story by an author who is relatively unknown both in Europe and the U.S.?

[Bertolucci:] Clare Peploe, my wife and co-screenwriter of the film, wanted to do this film ten years ago. She wrote a screenplay, and they told her that she couldn't develop it into a film because it was such a little story, and so she dropped it. A year ago, a friend who was chairman of Italian television, was very insistent on my doing something for him. I finally said, “OK, we'll do something for you.” Clare came to me and said, “Why don't you do this?” I read it and said, “It's really good.” This minimal story is very, very dense. I loved it.

I think that television is like a miniature in comparison with cinema, which is like a big fresco. The TV screen has the same density and dimension of the miniature, while the screen which shows, say, The Last Emperor, is like a big dome with a lot of frescos. Between Clare and me there is a kind of leitmotif. When we would talk between the takes we were exchanging our communal love for cinema. You know, soon after we met in the late Sixties, Clare had taken me to see Robert Bresson's Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, in which there is a line from Cocteau, “Il n y a pas d'amour, il n'y a que des preuves d'amour.” [There is no love, there are only proofs of love.] So Clare was always telling me that there is no love, there are only proofs of love. I used that in Stealing Beauty, where Jean Marais, who was Jean Cocteau's lover, quotes this same line. If I happen to say, “I love you,” but the other person says, “Yeah, right.” It's easy to say, “I love you,” but it's more difficult to give proofs of love.

Besieged is about the most extraordinary proof of love. Kinsky is ready to give up everything in order to help Shandurai in the most discreet way. In theory, she will never know that her husband has been freed because of Kinsky giving up, first, his little sculptures, then his paintings, then his tapestries, then his furniture and, finally, his beloved piano. The house becomes completely naked. But in doing that, I had this idea that came naturally out of the story. The only way of being really happy is making happy the people you love, which is absolutely the opposite of the ideology of the last, let's say, twenty years. It's the opposite of the society which has been in a kind of drunkenness of me, me, me, individualism.

You mean like what Christopher Lasch is saying in The Culture of Narcissism?

No, narcissism is something else. Individualism is what I mean. This is really the opposite. In fact, having approached the Tibetans and Buddhism helped me to understand it because I remember what the Dalai Lama told me the first time I met him, which is that compassion in Christian terms means a kind of duty to be good to the loved one. You have to be good. In the Buddhist sense, compassion means before everything else, understanding with your mind the reasons for the pain of your loved one. So it's a matter of understanding. Why do I say that? Because for a Buddhist, there isn't a soul as there is for Christians and Catholics, and even Moslems, I think. Instead of using the word ‘soul,’ the Buddhists say the word ‘mind’—hence, understanding. Anyway, that was a little digression.

I was most impressed with the sudden presences and sudden absences in the film. The presences of the question mark on the music paper, the orchid, the ring, in this very delicate courtship, and then the denuding of the objects as they slowly disappeared, the audience of children disappearing, and also the disappeared husband, who arrives at the very end. It reminded me of Pu Yi in The Last Emperor in Manchukuo, when his Japanese audience disappeared. In your foreword to The Last Emperor: Multiple Takes, you wondered in a dream about “the secret of this cocoon, the Forbidden City … the essence of my set … Today, the ultimate meaning of The Forbidden City lies in the endless series of repetitions of the absence and presence of the Emperor.”

The husband is a kind of character from a dream because the movie starts with a dream, a dream which is half a dream and half a flashback, like often dreams can be. In fact, when she cries, when she shouts at the jeeps which are taking away her husband, you can't hear her voice, like in dreams when you can't hear words. In fact, from there we cut to her in bed having a nightmare, shouting, and waking up. And the present is the noise of the dumbwaiter coming down with a question mark [written on music paper among her clothes]. Later, as the objects disappear sculptures, paintings, tapestry—she tells him, when she's Hoovering, that there is not much to dust here, and he says, “I know,” with a kind of joy, because he's fulfilling his mission, which is to free her husband. The disappearing objects correspond to a great gratification for him. So, by giving away, he gets this kind of great gratification. You can see it. While, at the beginning, he was awkward and weird and shy and aggressive, at the end, he's kind of growing up. He's more adult.

It's a true enjoyment in relinquishment.

Yes, a true relinquishment.

But you don't see this as a manipulation.

It's not a manipulation at all because she doesn't know what he is doing. So he's doing it without even the privilege of being able to say, “You see, I'm doing this for you.” It's the total annihilation of selfishness which gives him an incredible substitute for sex—a very solitary feeling of being able to take this mission to an end. He will free her husband.

It's the theme of getting what one wishes for and then the mystery of what happens after that, which is such a wonderful ending.

Oh, the ending. You know, we thought about it, when the warrior is outside the door—the door is left out in the film—and you see the first passengers coming out from the metro.

Warrior? He's not a military man …

Well, he's a warrior, a hero. He's become in her mind a memory, a hero. Anyway, now he's come back, and he's outside the door. She will let him in, I think. That's why she moves from the bed, with a kind of pain on her face, almost crying, because she can't leave this man, who's been two years in jail. She would be a horrible person to leave her husband outside the door. We don't really know what will happen. I don't want to say, because if I knew, I would have said it. I would like to end with that kind of question mark, but what I know is that we show her moving to leave the bed and him outside the door.

So, she's besieged, not just externally, but also internally, throughout the film, both by her desires and her conscience.


I was struck by the story's many references to whiteness—the sheets, the black and white tile, the shadows, the suds, the white blossom, his shins, the paper, the steam. You see her as someone who is focused on cleaning and cleansing, as though this was part of her internal struggle between her mounting desires for Kinsky and, at the same time, her conscience that was trying to cleanse her, to have her be good, to be a helpful, healing physician. Or is this more circumstantial?

It's her job, first of all. She lives there and, in exchange for having a nice room, she cleans and irons. The arrangement is that she has the room and maybe some pocket money. But there is a kind of meditation—washing and cleaning is a kind of therapy. You can see that when she's in the nightclub, pouring a beer. The foam of the beer becomes the foam on the floor in the spiral staircase, and then she wipes the floor with this foam, and we hear a Beethoven piece. It's a little scene where I really wanted there to be no words. In the first twenty minutes of the film, there are so few words; the beginning is completely silent, not of sounds, but of words.

Part of the reason for this is that recently I've been struggling with the question: Where is cinema going? How much should cinema try to fuse with new technologies? I think Besieged answers these questions. My feeling was that I had to go back to the origins of the cinema, as it was before the advent of sound in 1927, when it succeeded in communicating feelings solely through images. In fact, the first fifteen to twenty minutes of the film are like the silent cinema.

You have, instead, the beginning spiraling of the music. Tell me about the music in this film.

In Besieged there is this struggle between African music and Western classical music, which is of course the confrontation of two different cultures but it is also a way of communicating or of not being able to communicate. Indeed, Besieged is a metaphor for the shock between cultures, and it's precisely their differences from the culture of Rome which unite Kinsky and Shandurai. I've always been a partisan of all forms of cultural ‘contamination,’ whether on the stylistic level, as an artist, or on the cultural level, as a man. We see that while he is composing his concerto he's being influenced by her, it's so underwritten, and he begins playing for her when she's Hoovering. The more he plays, the more he becomes very sensual. She is the muse and he's inspired by her and, because he wouldn't dare put his hand on her, his sexual desire goes into the music. He starts giving shape and form to the music and it's the moment where he seduces her for real. It's not so much the discovery that he has given up everything for her—she's already been seduced by the music.

This music is extraordinarily beautiful. Who actually wrote the “Ostinato” piece for the film?

I asked Alessio Vlad to write it. He is the son of a well-known conductor, Roman Vlad. Alessio also happened to be an actor for me, twenty years ago, in Luna. Remember the young conductor on the stage during the final sequence in Caracalla?

What about the project that you're planning on Gesualdo, the great madrigal composer of the Italian Renaissance. Can you comment on your evolving use of music?

It's always been there, but now it's more direct.

What's inspired that?

I've always had a great love for music. I also always felt that in the enormous number of camera movements in my movies, what was driving the camera was musical input. I have always thought that my camera moves for musical reasons.

With music, with a rhythm.

Yeah, but not the music that you hear.

An internal rhythm.

A kind of internal music you cannot hear. Now, that is becoming more direct. In this new film, to be called Heaven and Hell, about Gesualdo a composer Stravinsky thought was the most incredible case of musical prophesy because in 1591 he was writing music that Stravinsky thought anticipated, with a kind of dissonance, the music of the twentieth century. That is why Stravinsky went to Naples in 1951, on his way to Venice for the opening of The Rake's Progress, because he wanted to know more about Gesualdo. So Stravinsky is in the film because he's the greatest admirer of Gesualdo in recent times.

To come back to Besieged, where did you find that wonderful staircase?

It was in a little abandoned palace just next to the Spanish Steps. It's a unique house, there are no flats. In working with Clare, I imagined a spiral staircase and we found many houses, but never a spiral staircase like this one. The real character of the film is the spiral staircase. Then the piano, and then you have a woman and a man.

A woman and a man in an empty house, a bit like Last Tango in Paris.

In fact, it could be considered a kind of postmodern variation on the Tango theme, but I believe I have been even more economical here on the minimalist side! You just have a glimpse of the Spanish Steps when Shandurai reads the letter on the terrace, between the drying sheets. You see in the background the two towers and the obelisk of the Spanish Steps. I've been very economical with the Spanish Steps because they're so much a postcard image.

In the film you had Shandurai dusting the nude statues, stroking and making his bed, and her student friend saying that, ‘You will end up in bed with this man,’ by whom she felt initially repelled. Can you talk more about the transformation in this besieged woman, from the early repulsion to acceptance?

I think that there is an evolution. In the beginning he is a real weirdo because he is in love. He has an awkwardness which is not appealing. He's shy and aggressive. I think that his love declaration is a masterpiece on the verge of becoming ludicrous, because he's so awkward that he's incredibly shy and terribly aggressive. He grabs her as if he wants to rape her, but, in fact, he just wants to say, “Marry me.” Then, little by little, because of the accomplishment of his mission, he becomes appealing and, at the end of the film, Kinsky is attractive although Shandurai was at first repelled by him.

You mean because of his ‘mission’ in selling the objects to get her husband released from prison.

No, his mission of giving a proof of love by giving up everything he owns just to get her husband out of jail. He becomes attractive and appealing because of this extraordinary proof. I mean, what she does eventually is not a ‘thank you’ fuck. Her life is going in that direction now.

She's fully falling in love with him. So it was important to find an actor who not only was a superb actor but also someone who doesn't fit the stereotype of the male movie star.

No, of course. In the story Kinsky is as mysterious as he is in the film. He was in his mid-fifties, fat. Clare and I thought maybe we'd better go with a younger man. I didn't want to see myself in some way having a crush for a young lady. It's a bit pathetic. So I wanted to go for a younger actor. I'd seen David Thewlis in Mike Leigh's Naked and loved him. It's a beautiful film, and he is fantastic. He won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Festival.

What about Thandie Newton?

In James Lasdun's story the girl was called Marietta and she was from Latin America but that was fifteen years ago, when Latin American countries were in the news because of their dictators. The story took place in London and I moved it to Rome today where there are political exiles from some not very democratic African countries. So that was a big change. I was in London because I knew I wanted to keep the original idea of this English pianist and this girl who was from one of the Anglophone countries. When first I met Thandie, I found a very well-educated young English lady and I told her I wanted the real thing. She said, “Well that's my job, to learn how an African girl speaks English,” and she studied her mother's and mother's friends' accents.

In addition to using actors you've never used before, you used a new director of cinematography. Was this because you were making the film for TV?

Well, certainly doing a film for TV really freed me up. I found myself on a very low budget, doing a movie in Rome in twenty-eight days with a small crew and also some new people, including this new cinematographer, Fabio Cianchetti, who had already worked for my brother, Giuseppe. Fabio made me feel like I did when I first started making films. With Vittorio Storaro there was always so much time spent setting up shots. But now I had this great feeling that I was doing a shot, and this shot immediately creates another shot, which gives birth to another shot, and so on and so on, which means that at the end of the day we'd been able to do twenty to thirty set-ups, something incredibly stimulating that I hadn't experienced for many years! I asked him not to think, not to elaborate too much, the so-called ‘ideology’ of the lighting. I needed this kind of immediacy so I told him, ‘Please don't try to be elegant with the lighting of this film. We're going back to the origins, when the darkness was too dark and the light of the sun was too strong.’ So often we shot with 2000 ASA film.

I also did something which only five years ago I would have condemned, which was to mix up hand-held camera and Steadicam with tracking shots, all mixed together without really any concern for continuity. That gave me such fantastic pleasure. It was like going back to the Sixties, to the old times when there wasn't so much pressure. To go back to that feeling was extraordinary. In the last fifteen years this was obviously impossible because the projects were so big. Now, to go back to a low budget film was incredibly stimulating.


Bertolucci, Bernardo (Vol. 16)