Monday, December 31, 2018

Bernardo Bertolucci and The Conformist

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Stefania Sandrelli in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist (1970).

The Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, who died last November, had a patchwork career dotted with brilliance. He made only sixteen full-length movies in a career that spanned a full half-century. Three were masterpieces: Before the Revolution (1964), his second film, made when he was only twenty-four (two years younger than Orson Welles had been when he released Citizen Kane); The Conformist (1970), which catapulted him into the realm of the most admired international directors; and Last Tango in Paris (1972), controversial at the time and still controversial. Of the others, only one, the 1998 Besieged, set in Rome, about an English pianist and composer (David Thewlis) who finds radical means to prove his love for his African housekeeper (Thandie Newton), works from start to finish. 1900 (1977), a grandiose five-hour epic that spans the first half of the twentieth century, has magnificent sequences and others that are melodramatic or rendered fatuous by a dogged, simplistic Marxist didacticism. The Last Emperor (1987), has a glorious first hour that Bertolucci spends the next two undercutting because, his schoolboy Marxism rearing its head again, he feels duty bound to promote the rigors of Communist China above the wasteful extravagances of the child emperor Pu-Yi’s insulated life in the Forbidden City. (It’s richly ironic that the film won the Oscar for Best Picture: the Academy embraced it as if it were a lavish historical epic by David Lean, apparently missing the fact that Bertolucci had intended it as an anti-epic.) The Dreamers (2003), filmed against the backdrop of the Paris ’68 student riots, has a romantic sweep but the material is too thin to support it. Even Last Tango is far from perfect: its raw, Strindbergian exploration of an affair between an émigré American tormented by his wife’s suicide (Marlon Brando, in his most tumultuous and unprotected performance) and a bourgeoisie half his age (Maria Schneider), is intercut with scenes where her callow filmmaker boyfriend (Jean-Pierre Léaud) shoots scenes of her playacting for a silly, self-indulgent slice of cinema vérité.

Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli), the protagonist of Before the Revolution, Bertolucci’s modern resetting (in part) of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, is a Marxist who discovers that he’s too much in love with life before the imagined revolution – in love with the bourgeois pleasures he’s supposed to despise – to renounce them. His struggle between rigorous left-wing politics and earthly delights was, based on the evidence of his movies, Bertolucci’s own, but unlike Fabrizio he never resolved it.  (The Last Emperor provides a particularly fascinating case study.) Stylistically he was the heir to Max Ophüls, the great German-born director whose trademark was his whirling camera, but Ophüls, who made incomparable high comedies like The Earrings of Madame de . . . and Letter from an Unknown Woman, attained depth by equating his style with substance; his greatest movies were only, to quote a phrase employed by one of the characters in Madame de . . . , superficially superficial. Bertolucci's one of the most gifted image-makers in movie history, but often he wasn’t content unless he thought there was a political message tied to those images. (The reductio ad absurdum of this idea is embodied in the sequence of the workers dancing under the red flag at the end of 1900, which in the director’s cut goes on for about half an hour.)

The Conformist doesn’t have this problem because the political system it investigates is fascism under Mussolini, and the sensuality of the images – and of the narrative – is positioned in contradistinction to it. Adapted by Bertolucci himself from Alberto Moravia’s 1951 novel, the movie is focused on Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), whose work as an agent for the fascists in 1938, when all but the brief final section takes place, is a desperate effort to conform, to find normalcy when, from his childhood, he has been the victim, as he views it, of non-conformist impulses. The material offers a psychological explanation for fascism:  that it’s the refuge of men who are terrified by their own anti-normal drives. I’m not sure how persuasive that theory is, but for an examination of one man who feels profoundly uncomfortable in his own skin it’s extremely compelling. And the expressionist imagery conveys both the essentially bent point of view of its main character, which puts him in tension with the fascist conformity he’s signed on for, and the unnaturalness of fascism itself, which seeks to remake the messy, jagged, contradictory world in immovable doctrinal terms. The look of the movie, which was shot by Vittorio Storaro and which Bertolucci brought in for a mere $750,000, is astonishing. Reviewing the film for The New Yorker on its American release in 1971, Pauline Kael praised its “lyrical, flowing, velvety style, so operatic that you come away with sequences in your head like arias.” Not many people were familiar with Before the Revolution, and fewer still knew the two features he’d made for Italian TV, Partner (1968), based on Dostoevski’s “The Double,” and The Spider’s Stratagem (1970), culled from Borges’s “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero.” The Conformist knocked out the critics and the North American arthouse audiences; it marked the emergence of an immense young talent. (Bertolucci was thirty when it opened in the U.S.)

Bernardo Bertolucci (with Vittorio Storaro, left) on the set of The Conformist.

The flashing neon that lights up Clerici’s face during the underlit credits sequence operates like a series of jump cuts and cues us to expect the movie will be a psychological study of his character. It’s a quintessentially modernist opening: at first we don’t know where the hell we are – what he’s sitting on  could be a pew in a church. Not until he gets up, arms himself, dons an overcoat and adjusts the rim of his fedora do we see that it’s a bed and there’s a nude woman lying in it, asleep: Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), his wife, though we don’t yet know who she is. Bertolucci mixes the suggestion of sex with the suggestion of violence (the gun), foreshadowing the two key sequences in the movie: a childhood memory where he shoots Lino (Pierre Clémenti), the family chauffeur who tries to seduce him; and the murders, for which he is responsible, of his old professor, Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), now an outspoken anti-fascist living in Paris, and Quadri’s wife Anna (Dominique Sanda), with whom Marcello has begun an affair.

The film’s structure is tricky: this opening scene establishes the frame – the drive he takes with his handler, Agent Manganiello (GastoneMoschin), that culminates in the double murders in the woods outside Paris – from which almost the entire rest of the movie is a flashback. So the interaction between Lino and an eleven- or twelve-year-old Marcello (Pasquale Fortunato) is a flashback within a flashback. Thus the structure allusively links these two episodes, in both of which Marcello struggles against non-conformity – his homoerotic attraction to Lino and his illicit attraction to Anna, who is bisexual (she sleeps with Clerici but she’s clearly in love with Giulia) and who is part of the anti-fascist world he has vowed to obliterate. Moreover, the unsettling childhood memory, exacerbated by the non-normal elements in his family – a father (Giuseppe Addobatti), a one-time bureaucrat who tortured prisoners by dosing them with cod liver oil, now confined to an asylum, and a drug-addicted mother (Milly) who is carrying on an affair with her current chauffeur, a Japanese who supplies her with morphine – is the trigger that drove him to bury himself in the role of a fascist agent. It also provokes him to bury himself in marriage to a silly, charming bourgeoise who likes to dance and wear beautiful clothes (Anna takes her shopping in Paris) and fuck, and whose thoughts are pretty much confined to those three ideas. (A note about the scene that ends in the shooting of Lino: his means of turning the boy on is to remove his chauffeur’s cap and let his long, straight hair cascade over his shoulders. Martin Scorsese paid homage to this polymorphous-perverse moment in Mean Streets, released in 1973 in a scene where a young man, played by Robert Carradine, follows a noisy drunk, played by David Carradine, into the men’s room of a bar to shoot him, first removing his hat and shaking his long hair out, so the scene reads like a gay seduction with a violent punch line.)

As Clerici rushes through Rome, and then Paris – where he takes Giulia on their honeymoon so that he can reconnect with Quadri and set him up for assassination – he’s dwarfed by the architecture. This is how he wants to be, a man swallowed up by the period he lives in, indistinguishable from it. Trintignat’s tight, speed-up walk is like a parody of fascist efficiency – and of course it’s also a definition of repression. There’s also a glass motif, which we see for the first time in a Brechtian interlude at the radio station where Marcello visits his blind friend Italo Montinari (José Quaglio), who reads political commentary on the air, sandwiched between pop entertainments. We see a trio of girl singers perform “Who’s Happier Than I?” behind the glass of the control booth while the two men discuss Marcello’s future with Giulia; the song suggests the sexual-marital package he’s about to buy into while their flirtatious style prepares us for Giulia. The glass also reflects Marcello himself; the doubling hints at another Marcello, the non-conformist hidden inside the conformist. In other scenes colors and shapes are reflected onto Clerici from behind glass – for instance, on the train the newlyweds take to Paris on which they make love, images of the countryside play over his body as he lies on top of his wife. These visuals suggest the way outside influences project onto Clerici like scenes onto a movie screen; they suggest the mystery of this man, which his public image deflects. Or perhaps they hint at the distance between him and the things he cares about, which he’s chosen to deflect.

This motif also guides us to the connection between Clerici and Plato’s parable of the cave, which is a key symbol in The Conformist. When he was a student in Professor Quadri’s class, it was his lecture on the parable of the cave that made the strongest impression on Marcello and that was the subject of his unfinished graduate thesis. Plato’s famous story about a group of men in a cave who confuse the reflection of reality, a distortion, with reality itself can be read in two ways in the context of the movie: as an emblem of fascism, which is a distortion and false reality, and – even more, I think – as an emblem of Clerici himself, whose life is a huge false front, a preposterous distortion of who he really is and what he really cares about.

Stefania Sandrelli in The Conformist.

The movie is saturated with extraordinary images. There are two staggering ones in the sequence where Marcello goes to visit his mother – the first of her zoned out on her bed, pale and disheveled and lewd, looking like a German icon from about a decade earlier (part Marlene Dietrich, part Lotte Lenya), with little yapping dogs trailing over her like rats; and the second of dead leaves blowing away from the camera. (This is an expansion of a visual idea Bertolucci first used in his debut picture, La Commare Secca.)Marcello and his mother go to visit his father in the psychiatric hospital, a blinding white stadium-like edifice where he sits with the sleeves of his straitjacket hanging from his shoulders like drooping wings. Most of the most memorable scenes are built around the two women, sublime creatures for the camera. In a skin-tight black-and-white-striped dress or a plaid traveling suit accented by a cream scarf and a brown felt hat tipped on the side of her head, Sandrelli is an art deco dream. (Gitt Magrini designed the stunning costumes.) In Bertolucci’s movies, especially the early ones, the clothes the characters wear and the buildings they move around in are expressions of who they are, like the hot colors of the walls in the apartment in Last Tango and the tiered opera house at the end of Before the Revolution. So we can’t separate Giulia out from her outfits, or from the magnificent art deco wallpaper she and Marcello kiss in front of, with its mass of silvery-gray and white diamonds (the production design is by Ferdinando Scarfiotti), or the shutters that filter the light through in deco patterns. This is also part of the process by which Bertolucci feels his way visually into the period. Anna Quadri, the only woman in the group of admirers surrounding her husband (the others are younger men, disciples who also act as his bodyguards because of the furor his anti-fascist writings have caused back in Rome), teaches ballet, and we get a glimpse of her in class where, in her black leotards and knee socks, she has an S&M look and promises unimaginable sexual delights.Sometimes she dresses like a boy: when Marcello comes to see the professor, she answers the door in trousers and a sailor top, a cigarette dangling from her mouth and her thumbs hooked into her belt loops. But she also wears gorgeous clothes. When they’re out for dinner with their husbands, Giulia wears a black-and-white gown that makes her look like a Harlequin with a white fur stole and Anna is clad in a peach-colored gown with crisscrossed spaghetti straps and a silver brooch.

Paris, with its sensuous clothing shops – which stay open at night, like cafés and bordellos – is part of the world fascism is intended to resist and Clerici is thrown in the midst of. He walks, with that forward-leaning, efficient, comically repressed walk, through the streets and the images on the other side of the glass beckon to him. Once he falls for Anna, he tries to avoid Manganiello because he’s reluctant to go through with the assassination plan, but the agent tracks him down in a Chinese restaurant where the two couples are eating, and gives him a lecture about courage and loyalty, reminding him that they’re engaged in a war. But the image of the two women dancing together in a dance hall in the scene that follows is more engaging than anything fascism can offer. This sequence, which is redolent of Ophüls, begins as a dance of lesbian courtship, with Anna on her knees, playing swain to a drunk, giggly Giulia. Then it turns into a group dance that everyone in the place joins in except for Marcello (and an aloof, disapproving Manganiello at a corner table), grasping hands and spiraling around him. The dance has so much sensual potency that it literally bursts the bounds of the café and invades the world outside; in a joyous, glittering, candied shot (the venue is painted white and red, and the light that’s filtered in from the exterior is blue), we see the dancers through the windows.

The culmination of the glass motif is the double murder on and around a mountain road; the frame, which Bertolucci intercuts through the movie, leads us there through a white, early-morning haze past bare, wintry trees. Clerici doesn’t expect Anna to be in the car with Quadri; he’s begged her to stay in Paris with him and his wife, and he thought she’d agreed. Yet there she is, en route to the country with the professor; they’re ambushed on the road. For a few moments that seem suspended in time, all the major characters in the scene are encased in glass in their separate cars – the Quadris in one, Marcello and Manganiello in another – while a third car is stopped on the road ahead so the Quadris can’t proceed. When they leave their car to investigate, assassins appear from the woods and stalk them to their deaths. Quadri is stabbed to death in a tableau vivant staged to evoke the theatrical betrayal of Julius Caesar. Anna sees Marcello in Manganiello’s car and runs to him, rapping frantically on his window, begging him to help her; he’s paralyzed by warring impulses – he can’t save her and he can’t participate in her murder. Instead he cowers behind his window, allowing what is beyond it to be reflected on him but not permitting himself to cross the boundary that it creates. So she runs uselessly into the woods, where she’s shot down. Her bloody face as she struggles to stand up recalls the face of the chauffeur Marcello shot and thought he killed when he was a boy.

After the killing of the Quadris, Bertolucci jumps ahead to 1945 and the defeat of Mussolini. Clerici and Giulia now have a child – proof of normalcy – but the end of the fascist regime throws Marcello back on his old non-conformity. Without the armor of his official fascist identity, he goes out into the street with Montinari, to see, he tells Giulia, how a regime ends. But it’s really to track down a new self – and he finds it as an anti-fascist. As the bronze head of Il Duce, wrenched from his statue, is dragged through the streets, he sees Lino picking up a young man at a bonfire. First he turns on the mysteriously resurrected figure from his childhood and accuses him of the murders of the professor and Anna, projecting his own guilt onto this gay man. Then he turns on Italo and identifies him publicly as a fascist, leaving him to the mercy of the crowd. At the end, however, after the singing, celebratory crowd passes him by, silhouetted like the shadows in Plato’s cave, Marcello is left alone by one of the street fires. The final image is of the conformist, the flames reflected on his face, turning slowly to break through the façade of his normalcy and make eye contact with a naked young man playing a waltz on a Victrola behind a gate. The bars that separate them recall the bars on the gate to his mother’s house, that mansion of forbidden pleasures, of indulgence, of excess, of non-conformity.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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