The International Writers Magazine: Film Review THE
young American studying in Paris in 1968 strikes up a friendship
with a French brother and sister. Set against the background of
the '68 Paris student riots
Directed by: Bernardo Bertolucci
Written by: Gilbert Adair
Produced by: Jeremy Thomas
Robin Renucci .... The Father
Anna Chancellor .... The Mother
Greta Garbo .... Queen Christina (archive footage)
John Gilbert .... Antonio (archive footage)
Jean-Pierre Kalfon .... Himself
Anna Karina .... Odile (Archive Footage of 'Bande à part (1964)
Jean-Pierre Léaud .... Himself
Bertolucci is the one of the key influences of why I love cinema.
When I finally discovered him in 1971 his work made a huge impact
on me as a film student. He began with Before the Revolution
in 1964 a story about a University intellectual who has sided
with the communist rebels in Italian society and it being a Bertolucci
film, he is also having an incestuous relationship with his aunt.
Filmed when he was just 22 it revealed his skills as a brilliant
stylist, if not a great storyteller.
By far greater in impact was his film The Conformist. Here
we have fascism, sex, politics and psychology. It is a film about
acceptance, betrayal and cowardice. For one outside the party
to belong to the fascist movement in Italy the important test was
to prove you could betray your friends, even your loved ones. For
Marcello, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant a huge international
star then - he is an outsider desperate to belong, to conform.
with astonishing bravura and a wonderful use of lighting and shadows
which add menace and lustre; the whole film is a work of art. It
is one of the most perfect recreations of wartime Italy in character
and sensuality, fully exploiting the architecture and music of the
period. A film noir, part-road movie, told almost all in flashback,
it uses unique film techniques to tell its tragic story. When I
think of the 1940s, it is this film that defines it.
Marcello is sent to kill Professor Quadri who has fled Fascist Italy
for Paris. He is reluctant to do this, even though he wants to prove
he is a good fascist. He respects Quadri and knows in his heart
that Quadri is a good man. He takes his new wife with him and in
this journey, he comes to realise that his wife is cheap and Professor
Quadris wife is who he really wants. Dominique Sanda (Anna
Quadri) was then the most extraordinary cruel beauty, used by Bertolucci
in both this film and 1900.
There are many moments of pure cinematic poetry in The Conformist,
the wind swirling the leaves around his mothers house, the dancing
in the restaurant with secret sexual undertones, even the assassination
in the forest is beautiful madness. The horror on Dominique Sandas
face when she realises Marcellos betrayal haunts one for years.
This was Bertolucci at his best and I feel lucky to have seen the
film in a 1000 seat cinema and left with a crowd overwhelmed by
the emotions of it all. I believe this to be one the finest films
of all time.
It was followed by Last Tango In Paris in 1973 and here I
began to lose interest. Sure there was sex. Brando, mannered as
usual, buggering Maria Schneider and doing wonders for butter sales,
but where were the politics? what was the point of it all? Mid-life
crisis? Audiences went in their millions but this was not the same
man who made The Conformist.
The attack in the forest
it was Bertolucci who educated me about film, about politics and although
I did not share his flirtations with communism, he enabled me to see
how fascism and communism seduced a whole generation. 1900, originally
six hours long,was cut to four hours for US release. I saw both parts
in the compromised five hour European version in 1976. By this time
Bertolucci films were an event, particularly in Europe, London and South
Africa. Starring a young De Niro and Depardieu, as well as Dominique
Sanda, Burt Lancaster, Sterling Hayden, Donald Sutherland these were
the giants that strode the land of cinema in the 70s. The film proved
to be a shock however. Broad in scope covering the dawn of the millennium
1900 and sweeping through the rise of communism and fascism in Italy
through to the aftermath in 1950, it was unbelievably ambitious for
a filmmaker so young. However, he was the greatest of his time and got
the finance and the stars. I havent seen the short versions and
luckily own the European Video release in Italian with English subtitles
but it was always going to be uphill to get audiences to go to both
parts then. In our times Lord of the Rings was at least a year apart
and Kill Bill several months between the parts. Having two parts combined
with the shock of seeing the end of part one proved to be a stumbling
block. Audiences reeled out of the cinema after witnessing the fascist
played by Donald Sutherland buggering a little boy and then dashing
his brains out on a barn wall. Audiences did not go back for part two.
Bertolucci took a while to recover from the reaction and it was a time
when Italian films worldwide began to disappear from our cinemas as
American dominance took hold.
ten years later in 1987 Bertolucci came back with an amazing tour de
force movie The Last Emperor an historical sweep
about the last Emperor Pu Yi and his English tutor in China . Starring
Peter OToole, John Lone, Joan Chen it charts the tragic life of
this royal child who would be swamped by the upcoming revolution
and die lonely and forgotten in Maos China. If Bertolucci was
downcast because of the reception of 1900, it could be forgotten now
as he won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Cinematography.
It was compromised somewhat by the Chinese government having final say
over the script, but anyway you look at it, it was a monumental achievement.
Aside from The Moderns it was certainly John Lones
Bertolucci followed this with Little Buddha in 1993 which did
not connect with the public but he found them again with his more recent
Stealing Beauty in 1996. It also gave us Liv Tyler
and if you look closely Rachael Weisz in the pool. Light, even though
Jeremy irons character is dying of Aids, it restored faith in Bertoluccis
ability to mirror the times and the cinematography captured an Italy
second homers adore. Just one chip of the old Bertolucci survives. An
idylic scene, but you slide off the hill for a moment and there are
the whores on the motorway flagging down motorists. Modern Italy isnt
far away. There is also Beseiged which I have not seen and The
Sheltering Sky in his oeuvre.
Eva Green as Isabelle
brings us to The Dreamers.(at last)
It is possible that Berlolucci feels that he has said all he can
about European politics in his life. This is a pity because if ever
Italy needed translating to the rest of the world it is now. The
reign of Berlosconi, the Parmalat scandal and the fate of Fiat are
all about corruption, sex and betrayal. So it is strange that he
would want to make a film about the May Riots in Paris 1968 and
yet, use them only as a backdrop.
We are in yet another incestuous world. (I neglected to mention
La Luna, a mother and son love fest in 1979) Based upon Gilbert
Adairs novel Holy Innocents, the film is by the Adairs
own confession a very loose adaptation of his screenplay of his
book. An attractive young girl Isabelle, played by Eva Green who
looks much older than her years, is in love with her twin brother
Theo (Louis Garrel). They sleep together, wash together, study together
and play games, taunting each other sexually.
an outsider like young American Mathew, they are beautiful, sophisticated
and he wants to be part of them and their closed world. They meet at
the Cinematheque where students of film go to see everything and anything
that is cinema. The political element is that Henri Langlois was fired
as director of the Cinematheque in the spring of that year and the resulting
protests and riots were the catalyst for the May riots that year. There
may well be a political film to be made about the unrest in 1968, but
this is not that film. This is about the seduction of young Mathew by
both sister and brother and how he falls hopelessly in love with Isabelle
during a month of sex marathons, games and forfeits, drinking and just
playing house whilst the parents are away. There are inserts from long
dead movie stars to show just how obssessed these kids are with film
and this works well.
The kids act with astonishing frankness and natural ability. The sex
is open and often amusing and all of their relationship and petty jealousies
seem very real. Eva Green is wonderful and you do find yourself liking
these selfish kids.
The film is shot in a real Paris flat and compresses us in there with
them; but no matter how much sex you might have wanted to have with
a beautiful girl, if there were riots going on outside your flat in
Paris, youd want to know why. If you were 18 and politically aware
as they were, youd want to take part.
It seems Bertolucci is content to show us young love and the semi-tragic
obssessiveness of Isabelle with her brother and even though we get to
like these innocents and enjoy their stoned conversations
about film and Vietnam, it is hard to believe they would be so disinterested
in the outside world. Even more difficult to believe that when they
do decided to take an interest at the end of the film theyd go
to the front-line, as it were, to lob bombs at the police. They have
no political motives, no interest and it just betrays a certain shallowness
of the moment and the times that they would.
People say no one remembers 1968 because it was a failure. By avoiding
the issue this film trivialises it as well. It makes no sense to so
skillfully recreate Paris of 1968 and make a film about bonking in the
room next door. Eva Green is amazing, all the actors are, and your feel
you know them intimately after two hours. There is an even bigger surprise
about her own sexual experiences and Michael Pitt as the wide-eyed boy
from the States who cannot believe his luck is totally absorbing. However,
even though Fabio Cianchetti has excelled at creating the period with
his fluid cinematography, it all seems a bit of a waste.
Bertolucci might argue the film isnt about the riots, its
about the kids. Then, why not make a contemporary film in a flat in
Paris? 1968 and its political messages has no bearing on their lives
at all. I feel here is a master filmmaker awaiting the call of a better
In 1964 he began a career that has been honoured, respected and hugely
influential. Scorsese himself has paid tribute to Bertolucci in the
development of his own films. The Dreamers is a cinematic pause I hope
before he touches greatness again. My best hope is that people will
watch this, enjoy it enough to seek out The Conformist or 1900 or The
Last Emperor and see what a great filmmaker can really do.
© Sam North Feb 2004
all rights reserved