Bernardo Bertolucci lives and breathes film, but his use of light and colour is decidedly painterly. Film, for Bertolucci, is a moving canvass. In 'Stealing Beauty' he explores female sexuality with languid brush strokes and a very slow hand. It's a film which throws into perspective much of his earlier work.
Bertolucci was born into an affluent family (his father was a well-known poet). His early films tackle his sense of self-contradiction - intellectually a Marxist, yet how could he 'know' the working class or be anything but bourgeois? In a number of his films he uses sexual tension as an allegory for political confusion and the need to establish a role which is both personally and politically valid.
By the 1980's, however, Bertolucci was consciously depoliticising his work and courted Hollywood commercialism. 'The Last Emperor ' was an English-language epic which gave him Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay. It gave him the freedom to make commercial, as well as esoteric and enigmatic movies.
'Stealing Beauty' seems to evoke Bertolucci's sense of time passing, of change. It echoes some of his earliest films, yet it's also a statement about people who have fled the world, who have abandoned the political activism of their youth in favour of a bourgeois, lotus-eating, bohemianism. The political activists have quit the urban streets, the working class, the teargas and riot police, opting instead for the sanctuary of an Italian hillside and the timeless beauty of the Tuscan scenery.
Lucy (Liv Tyler) is 19. Her mother was a famous poet and beauty. Her mother has recently committed suicide. The Italian adventure is an attempt to discover her roots, for she has learned that her mother became pregnant with her while visiting the selfsame artistic community. She's been there before, had her first kiss. This time, she dreams of losing her virginity and finding her father. She finds, instead, a melange of characters - amongst them, an Irish couple (Sinead Cusack and Donal McCann) and a dying English playwright (Jeremy Irons). They've all lost their 60's idealism, they're all fleeing from something.
This is hardly a film about a rite of passage: it is more about a search for identity as Lucy tries to discover who she is and what she must become if not a bad poet, doomed to be a pale imitation of her mother, repeating her mother's history and mistakes. What she wants to lose is her emotional innocence, what she wants to conceive is a mature individuality and identity.
The Tuscan villa into which she moves appears suspended in time, its rooms and gardens populated by grotesque terracotta statues which stand, frozen in angular and sterile contrast to the ageless beauty and fertility of the landscape, lushly curvaceous and full of promise, like Tyler's body.
'Stealing Beauty' contrasts with Bertolucci's 'Last Tango in Paris' - Brando, the ageing lothario, psychologically scarred but physically very active, enjoying uncomplicated coupling with an anonymous but willing young woman (Maria Schneider). Here, Irons is physically scarred but his mind is free to adventure in erotic imaginations of Liv Tyler's couplings with some anonymous partner. This is not the escapist sex of a Paris apartment, but a return to mother earth, offering up virginity and blood to the soil, soil which will return the sacrament of wine, whether blood red or virgin white.
Liv Tyler is presented as a gauche, gawky young woman - she's the true outsider, the true foreigner, an American in a European world, a young woman who listens to 90's rock on a walkman while all else is madrigals or the music of the past. She becomes the central focus of the film, the creature pursued by both camera and the desires of the many men who pass through the villa.
Bertolucci's film is a very slow moving elegy to beauty which has its own seductive quality and a rhythm so tranquil as to become almost soporific. It's a pleasant film, it's a beautiful film, and Liv Tyler is simultaneously luminescent and awkward (Sinead Cusack's performance is the stand-out). But is it an enjoyable film? Is it worth watching? The answer is yes, but I don't expect everyone to agree with me.
For this new perspective Bertolucci reincarnates himself as a 19-year old American girl. Much of Lucy's poetry writing moments come from stories Berolucci's father (himself an accomplished poet in Italy) told him about his own past as a young poet. More reality rattled the film-making, as Liv Tyler herself found out when she was 9 that who she thought was her father was not her real father. The man behind the camera at the beginning of the movie who films Lucy on her way to Tuscany has an African braclet on his wrist. This is an indication that the man is in fact the Carlo Lisca character in the film, the war reporter who was one of the lovers of Lucy's mother.
It seems that the most helpful thing that people find with reviews of this film is whether or not certain actresses appear with their kit off. All I can say on that issue is that Rachel Weisz comes away with all the top honours with Liv Tyler an unimpressive second. Great soundtrack too!
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