Thursday, September 30, 2010

Inner Journeys

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2004)

Bernardo Bertolucci’s classic works (The Conformist, Last Tango In Paris) can be rewatched almost endlessly without exhaustion. They’re all the more fascinating because of a slightly over-emphatic quality that speaks to his youth at the time (he was only 32 when Last Tango came out). Bertolucci is one of those directors whose complexity, as an almost tangible quality, seems to spill from his films. A published poet before he turned twenty, he’s associated with left-wing politics and scandal and blasphemy and agitation. After his rapid start, he entered a long phase of experimentation and slight underachievement – the movies were seldom outright successes (even his Oscar-winning The Last Emperor seems to have few passionate defenders), but always possessed a high degree of formal intelligence and a fluid sense of cinema. Still, the likes of Little Buddha and Stealing Beauty were clearly too enthralled by conventional beauty; too short on his piercing analytical facility.

Bernardo Bertolucci

His last full-length film was Besieged in 1998, which I liked very much. On a second viewing you realize how much it relies on artful surprises and small miracles of craft, but it’s still one of the best-looking and sounding films in memory. The lead actor David Thewlis always seems like someone who’s invented himself and might do so again, posing a clear echo of Brando in Last Tango. Despite its title, the movie feels far from oppressive, but the title captures the network (emotional; political; historical; circumstantial) that impacts on the characters. Since then, he made by far the best segment of a compilation film, Ten Minutes Older, but he clearly doesn’t make as many films as we need from him.

Recent articles on Bertolucci seem unsure what to make of him. A recent Globe And Mail profile titled “Bertolucci the bourgeois” described him in his New York hotel suite “regally waving in a room-service waiter who bears an espresso and warm milk”; the piece was peppered with references to his bad back, lack of “real passion” and apparent general fatigue. Bertolucci, concluded the article, is “no longer either enfant nor terrible.”

His new film, The Dreamers, seems to invite this kind of waffle; it’s explicitly predicated on a sense of loss and nostalgia. It’s 1968 in Paris, and a young American student falls in with a twin brother and sister whom he meets at the Cinematheque Francaise. The twins’ parents leave on vacation, and the American moves into their apartment. With the Cinematheque temporarily closed (in a famous real-life incident following the French government’s attempt to replace the founder, Henri Langlois), the three fill their movie-free time with sexual experimentation, hardly leaving the apartment even as Paris is seized by strikes and protests. The film’s sexual frankness earned it an NC-17 rating in the US, the first film in six years to go out on that basis.

Journey Of Discovery

At times, I found The Dreamers utterly vibrant and compelling. Early on, the movie pivots on Michael Pitt’s quiet delight as the American settling into Paris; he has a tentative, unformed kind of style that works well here, and for the first third at least it feels like a young man’s film. The trio acts out scenes from their favourite movies, at which Bertolucci cuts in brief glimpses of the originals – it’s a straightforward device, but presented with great panache.

As things get weirder, the film starts to resemble a warning on how easily excessive movie-watching could tip over into withdrawal and skewed perspective (the early scenes at the Cinematheque show the rows of young people staring up at the screen with open mouths, looking like victims of mind control). Cinema falls away for the three, and the movie becomes absorbed on the twins’ strange relationship and Pitt’s attempts to redefine it – it feels at times like Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, like something pushing the horror genre. In the end their activities finally become aligned with the upheaval outside – it makes for a visually arresting ending, but not one that’s very meaningful.

I generally didn’t find the nudity that arousing because it’s all so odd and abstract, and I think the emphasis on so much youthful beauty rather blurs the film’s thematic possibilities. In making a film that draws so explicitly on his own origins, Bertolucci almost seems to be acknowledging his need for rejuvenation. Pitt’s odd journey of discovery parallels the way the director exploded as a young man, touching almost every possible point of achievement. If you look at the film that way, it seems especially poignant when we last see Pitt, with the spell broken, turning and disappearing into the crowd.

Touching The Void

Back in 1983, I remember (don’t ask me why) Leonard Nimoy being interviewed on the release of the Star Trek movie The Search For Spock (which he directed), and acknowledging with a laugh that the movie’s outcome might not be in much doubt given the unlikelihood, with that title, of ending up not finding him. Kevin Macdonald’s new film struck me almost as following the path that Nimoy eschewed. It’s the true story of two young British adventurers, on a tough mountain climb in South America in 1985. They made it to the peak, but on the way down one of the two broke his leg; the other tried to lower him down, but then the injured man slipped and found himself hanging in space, with no hope of pulling himself back up, slowly dragging the other down with him. The other, seeing no alternative, eventually cut the rope and let his friend drop, presumably to his death. But both men survived – the injured man after an agonizing, edge-of-believability crawl back to the base camp.

The film is told through a combination of interviews with the surviving men, and a seemingly flawless reconstruction with actors. The actors barely get to speak, and the reconstruction appears intended almost as much as a marvel in itself as it is a way of illustrating what happened. The interviewees are prosaic and straightforward, barely venturing into complex analytical or spiritual territory. One of them is a goofy looking guy who says “really” every second word (a tic he might have been given some help with). The other, the man who was injured, recounts how he kept moving by setting a series of mundane targets for himself – reducing an unimaginable experience as close to ordinary as possible.

The “void” of the title might be the huge empty space in which the injured man dangled, or the vast crevasse into which he fell, or a way of expressing the imminence of death, and those readings are all fleetingly possible, but in the end the main void that played on my mind was the absence of a human response seemingly commensurate with the events that unfolded. I’m not saying that to criticize the men – it makes for a more interesting movie than an experience of endless “oohs” and “ahs.” But I’m not sure it’s what Macdonald intended, and it means the movie, for all its clear achievements, has a rather implosive, absent feeling to it. As if the search for Spock had failed.

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