Tag: Bernardo Bertolucci

The Conformist (1970)

The Conformist (1970)

Freud mixes with politics in Bertolucci’s stunning political-psychological thriller, one of the greatest films ever made

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant (Marcello Clerici), Stefania Sandrelli (Guilia), Dominique Sanda (Anna Quadri/Minister’s Lover/Prostitute), Gastone Moschin (Manganiello), Enzo Tarascio (Professor Luca Quadri), Fosco Giachetti (Colonel), José Quaglio (Italo Montanari), Pierre Clémenti (Lino Semirama), Yvonne Sanson (Guila’s mother), Milly (Marcello’s mother)

At age 29, Bertolucci made one of the greatest films of the 20th century. The Conformist is a film of uncertain illusions, half-seen shadows dancing on the wall of a cave. Each viewing unfolds new perspectives and interpretations. But each is rewarding, such is the magisterial grace the story is told with, and the radiant beauty of the film itself (a clear, massive, visible influence on Coppola’s Godfather films).

In 1938, a young Fascist Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is commissioned by Mussolini’s government to arrange the assassination of his former philosophy professor, dissident intellectual Luca Quadri (Enzo Tarascio) in Paris. Marcello longs for a “normal life”, obsessed with the fear that personal flaws, rooted in childhood trauma, will expose him. He marries the unexpected woman – the garrulous and ingenuous Guilia (a superb, guileless Stefania Sandrelli) – and joins the Fascists. But he is shaken by his fascination with Quadri’s wife Anna (Dominique Sanda).

Bertolucci’s film is nominally a political thriller. It exposes the brutality of fascism, but its alleged heroes are ineffective, bourgeoise left-wing dissidents. But really this is a Freudian deep dive into the character of Marcello and how he has sought to “conform” his whole life.

The Conformist is like sitting in on a prolonged psychotherapy session, Marcello’s past, present and future stripped down to their components, with the viewer invited to theorise how they assembled in the way they have. The film’s non-linear structure is crucial for this – and Bertolucci was vocal on the vital wisdom of editor Franco Arcalli. The narrative was reconstructed around the day of the assassination and Marcello’s car journey to it – with flashbacks inspired by events along the way.

The film is a revue of Marcello remembering his recruitment, the days before his marriage and the childhood trauma of sexual awakening and murder that haunts his inner fears. Most of all we see unspool the events that directly brought him to sitting in this car, on this day, driving towards the site of an assassination. These component parts shift and rearrange themselves to form new patterns about how we understand Marcello and the choices he makes.

The film’s theological pivot is Marcello and Quadri’s discussion of Plato’s cave (read about it here), where men chained in a cave understand the world only from the shadows of objects outside which they watch on its walls. But there are no easy conclusions. Are the fascists the chained men? Or has Marcello chained himself away and only interprets the world through shadows? Is Marcello so disjointed he can only interpret emotions based on his understanding of shadows of them?

Or is this pushing us to consider we are watching a film: a thing made of light and shadows. Imagery constantly reminds us of this fact. Light streams through trees, pillars and windows like light from a projector. Views outside of train windows resemble back projection. Marcello watches a radio performance from a recording booth, the window of which literally resembles a cinema screen. Constructed realities are the language of this medium – and Marcello is perhaps applying the same phraseology to his life. He builds a narrative, just as we all do, making himself bland and forgettable.

Marcello dreads the discovery not only of his crime, as a 13-year-old, of shooting and killing a seductive chauffer (played by Pierre Clémenti), but also the sexual longing it awakened in him. This horror of homosexual yearnings – and fear at being caught for murder – has, perhaps, led to a reflexive desire to hide in the crowd: to conform. Understanding this leads to us seeing Marcello, for all his coldness, as a strangely tragic, repressed figure, hiding from himself and others. His face is often obscured, or seen behind glass and mirrors. He’s always slightly distant from us.

This void is beautifully captured in Trintignant’s compelling performance. He bottles genuine emotions within himself, that at rare moments are released like small explosions. He clings to a hat that hides his face and seems barely aware of his desires. Sensuality and nakedness fascinate and alarm him. Fascism is a large, empty illusion he clings to. In the film’s only touch of heavy-handedness Italo, who recruits him, is blind. You feel something for Marcello, but are also repelled by his studied artificiality. His whole life is a carefully framed pose, like those he strikes when handed a gun before stroking his hair (a repeated gesture) and running off to find his hat.

The one thing that seems to affect him is the fascination – attraction seems too strong a word – he feels for Anna Quadri. Laying the groundwork for the sudden impact she has on Marcello, Dominique Sanda appears twice earlier as unconnected characters (both prostitutes). Anna, smart, bisexual, knowing herself and others far more than anyone else, sees straight through Marcello. How much is her seduction of Guilia an attempt to titillate and neutralise Marcello? At one point, she seductively touches the laughing Guilia, while staring at the door where Marcello (and the camera) stand in the shadows, knowing he is watching. Does Marcello long for her sexually, spiritually or because it feels like he should do? Answers are myriad.

These are expanded by the constructed beauty of Storaro’s photography. Bertolucci’s mastery of camera movements is clear (there are tracking shots of breathtaking grace, including a long drift along wind-blown leaves that Coppola outright pinched) and he knows when to use angles that unsettle (including a Dutch angle that suddenly, stunningly rights itself) or feel voyeuristic. Storaro’s shoots with ravishing beauty that subtly colour codes emotions, moods and locations and stresses the constructed nature of film narratives.

Italy is a land of imperious, grandiose Fascist architecture: towering modernist rooms, cold marble and neo-classicism, shot with whites and striking starkness. Paris is awash in softer – but also cold and damaging – blues that feel more natural but unsettling. Moments where Marcello touches on his longings (or at least persuades himself he does) drip with yellows. It looks gorgeous, but also fits with themes of invented kaleidoscopes, being re-shaken to construct a world.

The film builds towards a scene of genuine horror. The assassination is a bleak nightmare in the snow. You can never forget the image of Sanda – her face contorted with panic, desperation and hate – clawing and screaming at the window of Marcello’s car while he just sits. Is he torn between indecision and fear, or does he feel nothing? Your ideas will change, but your horror at Anna’s desperate, hand-held-shot, futile flight through the woods like a deer pursued by hounds never will.

The film’s final coda re-opens mysteries. Marcello discovers things that make him question if his life of conformity (and the price he has paid for it) was even necessary. The final shot sees him sitting, a flame behind him, starring at a wall (of course!) before turning to – well to look at us? Or is he looking, at last, at the world he has only studied from it shadows? It’s unclear. Deliberately so.

What’s clear is that The Conformist is crammed with truly extraordinary images (from that haunting assassination to a beautiful Brueghelesque late-night dance between Anna and Guilia, everything sticks with you) and challenging ideas that carry no easy answers. Bertolucci’s film invites deep examination and analysis and presents possible suggestions, but no answers. It’s what makes it an extraordinary classic, a fascinating study of psychology and humanity.

The Last Emperor (1987)

Bernardo Bertolucci directs the epic, intriguing but slightly hollow The Last Emperor

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

Cast: John Lone (Puyi), Joan Chen (Wanrong), Peter O’Toole (Reginald Johnston), Ying Roucheng (Prison Camp Governor), Victor Wong (Chen Baochen), Dennis Dun (Big Li), Ryuichi Sakamoto (Masahiko Amakasu), Maggie Han (Yoshiko Kawashima), Ric Young (Interrogator), Wu Junmei (Wenxiu), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Chang), Jade Go (Ar Mo), Henry O (Lord Chamberlain)

In 1908 a toddler, Puyi, became the last Emperor of China – but in 1912, revolution made China  a Republic and he was reduced to only being Emperor of The Forbidden City, a place he has never left since 1908 and will not leave until 1924 when he is expelled from the city. As an adult Puyi (John Lone) remains a puppet, becoming Emperor of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, where he is again largely confined to his palace, his Empress Wanrong (Joan Chen) becoming an opium addict. After World War II, Puyi is imprisoned for ten years by the Maoist government, being re-educated into becoming an ordinary citizen of China.

Bertolucci’s film explores the life of this slight historical figure. I say slight, as Puyi is always and forever a puppet, buffeted by history. He owes whatever prominence he has to a quirk of fate, but never truly learns who he is or his purpose, only slowly realising his power is an illusion. It’s the main flaw of The Last Emperor – otherwise a sumptuous epic – that it is such a grand film about such a shallow person. Puyi is not particularly interesting in himself, and the film largely fails to turn him into an intriguing enigma. The Last Emperor – which hoovered up 9 Oscars, including Best Picture – is brilliantly made, frequently fascinating and breath-taking, but also strangely lifeless.

Bertolucci and producer Jeremy Thomas spent years raising the money and negotiating with the Chinese government to have unrestricted, exclusive access to the Forbidden City. It’s that which really makes the film effective. The first half of the film is set almost exclusively in The Forbidden City (flash forwards see the adult Puyi in post-war captivity, being questioned by his guards). The scale is stunning and is shot by Vittoro Storaro with a breath-taking opulence and fascinating eye for Chinese culture. Storaro also carefully distinguishes with colours each section of Puyi’s life, from the reds and golds of his childhood to the washed-out greens of his adulthood. The impact of this on screen remains impressive today – and Chinese co-operation produced almost 19,000 extras to populate it.

These early sections are the film’s strongest. Bertolucci was frequently intrigued with complex coming-of-age tales, balanced with leftish politics. The film is fascinated with the power/non-power of this child. He leads a strange dance of being a puppet and figurehead, who can still order his servants to obey his every whim. It’s an upbringing that would pervert any child – and Bertolucci shows it creates a man who lacks any sense of emotional awareness and maturity; not cruel as such, but unable to fully understand what it is to be human because he has never known anyone who is an equal.

His ‘power’ expresses itself in petulance, selfishness and sometimes acts of cruelty – and he becomes a man drifting through life, aware that he should feel more of a connection with people, but lacking the emotional self-awareness forming connections with people requires. It’s not helped by Puyi’s weak personality. Growing up effectively imprisoned – but all-powerful – in a single city means he constantly gravitates towards similar situations, be that a puppet ruler signing whatever he is told to in Manchukuo or expecting his servants to continue to dress him in prison (how is prison different really from the rest of his life?)

Bertolucci films this with an acute emotional understanding that counterpoints the wonderfully luscious scale of the film. All those expansive costumes, the gorgeous filming and the awe-inspiring location shooting helps us to understand the smallness and meekness of Puyi and his stunted emotional world. Only the arrival of an English tutor – played with an expressive playfulness by Peter O’Toole – shakes up this world and offers Puyi the chance of some sort of personality development. Sadly, his influence is all too short – and Puyi seems to take mostly the wrong lessons from it, of English exceptionalism and ‘doing your duty’ that convince him he’s got to try and maintain his position.

The first half of the film is breath-takingly, with Bertolucci carefully interweaving grace notes around Puyi’s lack of true parental love (his beloved wet nurse is expelled), his growing sexual awakening – from suckling at a late age to taking both a wife and a consort (and, for Bertolucci, the inevitable threesome scene – tastefully done). The bizarreness of this world, a tiny kingdom with its own rules and an empty figurehead living in a fantasy land are striking.

It’s after Puyi leaves that the film weakens. Perhaps knowing the Forbidden City sequences were the finest – and most gorgeous – parts of the film, most of Puyi’s life after is shunted into the final hour. This makes for rushed scenes and a number of “tell not show” moments, where characters bluntly (and swiftly) fill in various political and social events or openly state their thoughts and feelings. Puyi’s reasons for becoming Emperor of Manchukuo are only briefly sketched, but not as briefly of the characters of his new Japanese masters (Ryuichi Sakamoto – also the Oscar-winning composer – and Maggie Han, a seductive collaborator) as scenes race by as the film rushes towards its conclusion.

Perhaps also not surprisingly for an old Marxist (and with that need to secure the Chinese co-operation) the Maoist government gets a fairly easy ride, with the main representative of Maoist authority being a genial, supportive chap and the re-education camp treated as a genuine programme of self-improvement rather than indoctrination. But then you can also say it’s a sign of the film’s relative even-handedness – and it does touch on the Cultural Revolution (and its random denunciations) late, albeit with a gentle eye.

It’s a shame the second half of the film doesn’t hold up as well as the first half (a longer Director’s Cut fixes some of these problems), but the first half is intriguing, dynamically made and full of emotional insight. John Lone does a fine job in a rather thanklessly bland role as Puyi and Joan Chen moves from austere to depressed as his wife, but to be honest few other members of the cast make an impact (it’s one of the few modern Best Picture winners with no acting nominations).

Bertolucci’s film is superbly made, beautiful to look at, intriguing – and you can see its influence on Farewell My Concubine among others (Chen Kaige has a small role in the film, as does Zhang Yimou) – but it suffers slightly from being about such a non-person. You wonder how it might have worked better if it had kept a tighter focus – or skimmed over more of Puyi’s life rather than hurriedly trying to cover the whole lot – but what we end up with mixes the rushed with the extraordinary.