An appreciation of Bertolucci’s Me and You
The films of Bernardo Bertolucci have held, and will always hold, a very special place in my heart. I will never forget seeing Last Tango in Paris for the first time at the age of 17—being enthralled from that opening shot of Brando covering his ears to block the sound of a passing el train, looking up to the sky and screaming, “fucking God!” No two words could have more precisely summed up my teenage angst at the time. And the irony of this, of course, is that Brando’s character was at the opposite end of the age spectrum; a man in his later years, wise with the experience of adulthood, looking slovenly and rather childish as he reveals his unrelenting inner anguish to the camera. I suppose some feelings never leave us altogether, no matter how much we grow up—or how hard we fight against growing up.
If there is a running theme throughout Bertolucci’s work, I would identify it as a study in the distance between individuals, as well as the roles said individuals play in an attempt to bridge this distance. Let us take a brief overview of his early films with this in mind: in his debut, La Commare Secca (The Grim Reaper), a series of killings is being investigated, and the story is told through interviews with potential suspects and witnesses. The role of the serial killer is portrayed here as an attempt to connect oneself permanently to another human being–to shorten the distance between one’s own sociopathy and another’s general apathy. Likewise, the role of the investigator is a quintessential metaphor for bringing a close to the distance between criminal and victim. Later, in La Conformista (The Conformist), the attempt to bridge this distance between persons is carried to the extreme of fascism: in order to obliterate the perceived social harm of his homosexual inclinations, Jean-Louis Trintignant becomes a willing collaborator with Mussolini’s regime, and in the process eliminates every trace of his own identity. Thus, fascism is revealed to be an ineffective mode of social transcendence–something which should be rather obvious to all concerned by now, yet the message comes across more eerily relevant today in the light of consumer fascism and an unprecedented degree of social conformism.
Then there is Last Tango in Paris, in which Brando and Maria Schneider lock themselves up in a barely-furnished Parisian apartment to escape the noise of the outside world and attempt a sort of mystical communion between themselves as human beings. If there is such a thing as the quintessential Bertolucci picture (something I would personally shy away from declaring, considering the priceless relevance of numerous films across his career), it would be this: the focus in Last Tango is so tightly concentrated on these two characters that we, as voyeurs, become fully absorbed in their intimate struggle. There is nowhere to hide from them, no “greater cause” (such as the fascism of The Conformist or the communism of Novecento) to abandon oneself to in resignation of a personal search for equilibrium. Stripped away of all social consciousness, family obligations, and individual dignity (not to mention clothing), the aforementioned theme of bridging the distance between two people is never spelled out more clearly than in Last Tango. In fact, the most beautiful image in the film arises directly from this very concept: sprawled out on the hardwood floor, legs nakedly intertwined, Brando and Schneider attempt to achieve mutual orgasm without any direct stimulation—simply by willing it to happen. It is an image simultaneously beautiful, political, sensual, rebellious, poetic, and philosophic; it is the very essence of Bertolucci’s cinema.
Following Last Tango in Paris, Bertolucci embarked on a couple of grandiose projects with arguably mixed results, but to this viewer they are both dazzling evocations of man’s attempts to come to terms with his fellow man (and, in turn, with himself). Shrugged off at the time of its original release as the self-indulgent product of a bloated ego, Novecento is only now starting to be appreciated for the timeless, masterful giant of a film that it truly is; on the other hand, The Last Emperor was greeted with widespread praise during its initial release, but today can be appreciated most faithfully as a rather nostalgic representation of a past world (funny how history always finds a way to reframe the present). And one cannot give an overview of Bertolucci’s oeuvre without making mention of La Luna (The Moon), one of his lesser-seen films from the glorious heyday of seventies filmmaking; La Luna remains a curiosity above anything else, but it is a surprisingly effective and oddly rewarding curiosity. In a way, it is the most extreme of his pursuits for an understanding of man’s place in the world, exploring a child’s possible role in relation to his mother as either dependent, independent, counter-dependent, or even sexually motivated. The still-shocking scene of Jill Clayburgh masturbating her son can even be viewed as an extension of the attempted mutual orgasm in Last Tango: a last-ditch effort to connect with someone who is in the process of drifting further away. Taken as a whole, all of the above-mentioned titles form a thoroughly cohesive and fully-formed body of work. Bertolucci certainly ranks alongside the finest filmmakers of his generation (Altman, Godard, Pasolini, Fassbinder) as fulfillment of the auteur theory, and validation of the art of film as an art of action painting.
There are in fact few filmmakers whose continued output I look forward to as avidly as Bertolucci’s, which only served to exacerbate my profound disappointment last year when his latest release, Io e Te (Me and You), failed to find US distribution. I will save my diatribe about the irritating ignorance of American film distributors, as well as the all-too-complacent attitude of the average American movie-goer, for another time; what I want to get across more than anything else in this piece is that everyone should be hunting down a copy of Me and You—now available as a Region 2 DVD release—and discovering for him/herself one of the finest films of 2012 that hardly anyone got to see.
In his previous film, The Dreamers (a vastly underrated retelling of the political upheaval in Paris during the summer of 1968), Bertolucci created a microcosm of the drug-laced, cinema-driven philosophy of the 60’s, placing it in the context of a legendary student-led revolution; curiously, his take on this oft-poeticized period in film history is not entirely romantic, and quite firmly grounded in a realistic understanding of where the students went wrong. Not to say it is without nostalgic flourishes—such as the sequence in which the protagonists recreate a running-through-the-Louvre routine from Godard’s Bande à Part—but overall, The Dreamers is told from the perspective of someone who has since woken up from his reverie. Me and You ought to be seen in the context of this maturity, as far as I am concerned. Because from this perspective, it forms the perfectly symmetrical counterpoint to that earlier triumph, Last Tango in Paris—filmed forty years prior when Bertolucci was 31. In Me and You, at the age of 71, the director revisits the familiar premise (two people hiding from the outside world in a barely-furnished apartment) but creates a curious, age-reversal paradox: whereas in the earlier of the two films he projected his existential crisis into the concerns of an older man, the protagonist of his more recent effort is a high school-aged introvert. I cannot imagine a more suitable analogy for growth-related restlessness—the anxiety that arises from feeling one is perpetually living outside of one’s ideal self.
Adapted from a novel by Niccolò Ammaniti (author of the 2003 international success, I’m Not Scared), Me and You is the story of Lorenzo, a somewhat narcissistic boy who shuns a high school ski trip in favor of spending a week alone in the basement of his apartment complex. His solipsistic plans are thwarted, however, when his half-sister, Olivia, shows up to collect a box of her belongings. Following his initial repulsion at unexpected company, Lorenzo soon realizes that Olivia is a recovering heroin addict, and is in dire need of a place to hide out and detoxify. As their respective personal problems boil beneath the surface in each other’s company, we—the audience—are granted a unique opportunity to examine a number of pertinent issues linked to contemporary society, without ever having anything spelled out or neatly resolved for us.
Lorenzo and Olivia are both presented as products of free-market capitalism, each orientated on a different notch of the socioeconomic spectrum. Whereas Lorenzo has been blindly blessed with every modern commodity imaginable from a young age (including his choice of snowboard brand), Olivia is living the life of a model and an artist—struggling to make ends meet and having to work at relationships with others to form a network of assistance. Lorenzo’s greatest luxury is that of not requiring the company of anyone else for personal fulfillment; he is materially set up by his family resources, and intellectually satisfied with his own speculative capacities. This disparity is at the core of the relationship between the two characters, but it is never stated plainly by Bertolucci, a creative choice which cannot be interpreted as anything but restraint (bear in mind the explicit politics of most every film he has made, The Dreamers included). In spite of its 93-minute running time, Me and You actually feels like his most open film; the story has ample space to breathe, to be felt and interpreted in equal measures.
Something that occurred to me halfway through the first viewing was the potential extent to which each character would be likely to assimilate within a capitalistic society. Lorenzo, a somewhat misanthropic recluse who could conceivably become a sociopath under the right circumstances, is the more likely of the two to succeed in a capitalist environment; his anti-social patterns of behavior actually lend themselves to the necessary emotional detachment of a corporate CEO. On the other hand, Olivia, the more sociable of the two half-siblings, is bound to face many difficulties in making ends meet as an artist, let alone were she to attempt climbing a corporate latter. And yet she is the one whose ideology most accurately represents the complexity of the real world. Towards the end of the picture, she reveals her involvement in an art project titled “I Am a Wall,” grounded in the principle that if everyone were stripped of his or her individual point of view, there would be no inequality. She then points out the necessary fault of this philosophy a few sentences later by explaining how drug addiction is bad because it makes one indifferent—or without a point of view. This is what many “free thinkers” attempted to achieve through prolific drug use in the 1960’s: a society wherein everyone could be equally indifferent, and therefore equally at peace. Olivia’s heroin addiction is a touching representation of an individual suffering as a consequence of her attempt to work out a socioeconomic conundrum, while her youthfully oblivious half-brother is practically primed for success by never having to spare a thought on the outside world. Bertolucci has clearly tired of offering concrete solutions to these problems in the form of party politics, but he has not renounced the principles on which these politics were built. He is instead trying to find new ways of framing the age-old questions, exploring different avenues to communicate his own ideological wisdom.
I find it impressive how aptly Bertolucci has managed to incorporate the presence of modern technology and social media—smart phones, texting, laptops, iTunes—throughout the narrative of Me and You, a synthesis he has not attempted in any of his other films. He understands these phenomena as inevitable products at the disposal of today’s youth, rather than wagging his finger in curmudgeonly disapproval of their pathologically damaging characteristics. This makes him a septuagenarian filmmaker who smartly refuses to lock himself within the dogma of his own youth, an old man who knows all too well that the real problems faced by modern-day teenagers are the same problems he was confronted with at their age (chiefly, the struggle to comprehend and approach the distance between individuals).
One of the first things that struck me upon viewing Me and You was the choice of the Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry” to underline the opening sequence. It struck me because it is a really great pop song, even after thirty-plus years of being overplayed; it also struck me because it is a rather fitting poem to accompany Bertolucci’s unique sensibility as a male filmmaker. Because even though boys in his films seldom cry, they are often seen “hiding the tears in [their] eyes;” and when they are allowed to openly vent their emotions, as in the unforgettable monologue Brando delivers to his wife’s corpse in Last Tango, it is done with an almost embarrassingly fluid sincerity. This kind of earnestness is stereotypically tied to homosexuality, or the arcane notion of inherent weakness in male homosexuals (Ingmar Bergman went so far as to insist that Last Tango in Paris can only be understood when viewed as the story of a repressed homosexual, to which Bertolucci simply replied, “I accept all interpretations of my films”). If anything, I think Bertolucci deserves credit for being one of the most understanding and thoughtful interpreters of male sexuality on screen.
Indeed, for being an overt heterosexual, Bertolucci’s movies display a dense array of homoerotic undertones. This may be tied to his close friendship with Pasolini, whom he was acquainted with from a young age (his own father, Attilio Bertolucci, was a poet who frequently had Pasolini over to their house to visit). Whatever the source, Bertolucci’s understanding of man’s complex sexual psychology, combined with his daring willingness to depict every related taboo—including a child’s discovery of masturbation in Novecento, a man’s sodomitic lust in Last Tango, and the intimation of incest in La Luna—must be acknowledged as groundbreaking artistic gestures in the medium. In Me and You, there is no explicit sexuality, but there remains a visual appreciation for physical beauty, both male and female (along with a reasonable allowance for emotive display), that puts the shallow eroticism of present-day Hollywood movie-making to shame. Bertolucci almost imperceptibly captures the quiet, sexual potential of Lorenzo lounging in his underwear, the statuesque radiance of Olivia strutting in an oversized fur coat, the abstract sensuousness of her suggestive photography. He allows the sexual tension between the two half-siblings to develop and exist as a biological fact, but never stoops to exploiting it as a means to sell tickets (which he was accused of, and partly admitted to endeavoring in La Luna).
There is another use of pop music in Me and You that merits mention, and that is the use of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in two different forms—the original English-language recording, as well as the obscure Italian rendition, “Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola” (“Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl”). Bertolucci has always used pop music tastefully in his films; the most deliberately stylized selections to date would have to be the ones featured in Stealing Beauty, although The Dreamers was similarly replete with carefully arranged music cues. Bowie has not featured into any of his other soundtracks, and his inclusion here appears both perfectly timed and seamlessly integral. After all, what better example is there in pop history of an artist whose entire premise is based upon connecting the dots between seemingly separate entities? Who else invested as much creative effort in blurring the lines between man and woman, singer and actor, author and interpreter? Not unlike Bertolucci’s running concern with the distance between individuals, Bowie the artist has been predominantly working in the spaces between popular conventions—the gray areas dividing music genres, and the resulting pastiche of conflicting perspectives. The song itself, “Space Oddity,” is an incredibly produced five minutes of rock’n’roll ecstasy, but it is also, lyrically, a conversation between two people at extreme distances from one another. In the Italian interpretation (the lyric was given a complete facelift by the Italian translator/songwriter Mogol, whose other credits include conversions of songs by Mamas & the Papas, Bob Dylan, and Procol Harum), the conversation is shifted from the parameters of a control base and an astronaut, to a boy wandering the streets at night and the girl he runs into. So we have the distance between the characters in Mogol’s translation, juxtaposed against the distance between Lorenzo and Olivia, framed by the immense distance of outer space.
The very title, Me and You, suggests a plethora of dualisms: there is, of course, the “me” and “you” of the two protagonists (in itself two separate dualities); then there is the dichotomy between the director and the actors; the dichotomy between the writer and the audience; the relationship between the writer and the director; one could go on for an eternity breaking down every division that arises as a necessary byproduct of this, or any film. What matters is not so much the geometry of this formula, but the simplicity of the suggestion. Bertolucci has filmed some of the most eloquently alluring images in celluloid history, and after decades of articulate intellectualization and delicate film poetry, he has resolved to tell a simple story in simple terms. As a result, the complexity of his viewpoint has never been so lucid and palpable.
In the midst of this clarity, one might notice that Me and You is riddled with tiny allusions to other Bertolucci films (though I cannot be certain how much of this is intentional and how much is serendipitous). During a dinner conversation with his mother, Lorenzo broaches a number of rhetorical questions dealing with mother-son incest (calling to mind Matthew Barry in La Luna); in another scene, Lorenzo pockets a semi-nude photograph of his half-sister, not unlike Michael Pitt’s confiscation of a nude snapshot of Eva Green in The Dreamers; and the very nature of the relationship between Lorenzo and Olivia most clearly echoes the socioeconomic gap between Gerard Depardieu and Robert De Niro in Novecento. If these are all intentional references, I still cannot decide whether they are meant to be an inventory of sorts (like Godard’s amalgamation of his own previous films in Pierrot Le Fou) or simply a thread of continuity to indicate the ongoing relevance of Bertolucci’s prior interests.
Over the past forty-odd years, Bertolucci has taken us through a century’s-worth of Italian history, a detailed recreation of fascism during the Second World War, and a lavish depiction of the transition between Imperial China and the PRC; in the nineties, he reined things in more tightly, as seen in his exploration of a young woman’s family history (Stealing Beauty), his reimagining of the myth of Buddha (Little Buddha), and the delicate love triangle of Besieged. In Me and You, he condensed his perspective to an unprecedented extent, and has delivered a film that both complements and enriches an already prosperous resumé. When I see recent interviews with Bertolucci, now wheel-chair bound and revealing an air of graceful frailty, I cannot help but feel a sense of dread at the emptiness that will result the day he departs from this world; I comfort myself in the knowledge that he is going to leave behind a priceless gallery of moving art—and it will never cease to provoke thought and inspire awe.