A subjective camera follows a stir of leaves blowing across the courtyard of a decaying manor. When I consider the work of the late Bernardo Bertolucci, it’s this shot from The Conformist, together with the mournful score, that I think of. His 1970 adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s novel remains his most thrilling work: a mad psychosexual historical drama about Marcello, a man who wants to quash his homosexual impulses by joining the Italian fascistas. As played in a performance of subtle tautness by Jean-Louis Trintignant, Marcello eschews individuality; he’d prefer to be a hollow man, disappear into a crowd. Bertolucci lights him to emphasize his drawn skeletal cheeks and clenched chin. Moving amid the wreckage of the remains of Italy’s recent haute bourgeois past, it’s clear he’s walking wreckage himself. Yet the treatment of queerness remained a problem in Bertolucci’s work; he was not ready to let his male characters surrender to the new sexual freedoms, which made him, of course, the norm among directors working in the sixties and seventies. It frightened him.
Bertolucci, who as a young man had published an acclaimed volume of poetry, had already made his international mark with 1964’s Before the Revolution, the story, Pauline Kael writes, “of a boy who discovers he is not single-minded enough to be a revolutionary, that he is too deeply involved in the beauty of life as it is before the revolution.” Thanks to Vittorio Storaro, the cinematographer with whom Bertolucci formed a lasting collaboration, The Conformist makes decadence look sexy, a development that creeped out several critics at the time. Last Tango in Paris, on the other hand, may never survive revelations about the wretched treatment to which Bertolucci and star Marlon Brando subjected Maria Schneider. Forty years later, it’s hard to see the fuss over what is essentially an audition tape in which an actor divests himself of clothes and inhibitions, with Storaro and a striking Francis Bacon-indebted production design classing up the proceedings. Timing helped: fresh off The Godfather, Brando looked like the world’s most adventurous star again, and Schneider the food thrown at the wild beast.
Film lovers who grew up in the eighties remember The Last Emperor as emblematic of the times rather than a movie to treasure. In the era that acclaimed the elephantine and worthy like Gandhi and Out of Africa, The Last Emperor took the concept animating The Conformist, added million-dollar costumes and the Forbidden City setting and a superb Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Byrne, and Cong Su score, and the result was a beautiful, inert film about a beautiful, inert man, not without its charms, especially when Bertolucci treats Pu Yi as if he were one of those blowing leaves from The Conformist, tossed hither by historical forces he has no interest in controlling, as shown in a chilling sequence near the end when the marching cultists of the Cultural Revolution march into Beijing.
The success of The Last Emperor signaled the ebb of Bertolucci’s inspiration; his filmmaking devolved into the cinematic equivalent of Storybook Time. An imaginatively cast adaptation of The Sheltering Sky couldn’t get past its torpidity, its gunning for more Oscars. Little Buddha (1994) and Stealing Beauty (1996) were worse, a socialite’s idea of spirituality and decadence, respectively. You have to look to 2004’s The Dreamers for a hint of the danger; sadly, his instinct for rhythm had pretty much evaporated as he strands his pretty actors in an incoherent and unintentionally funny pastiche of the images, books, and ideas that mesmerized les soixante-dix-huitièmes. Instead of engaging with the history, The Dreamers revealed Bertolucci as a wealthy, respected scion of taste insulated from history; he had turned into Pu Yi. No sadder example of how homosexuality scared him than the way he throws a fire blanket over the obvious attraction between Michael Pitt and a game Louis Garrel (already willing to go places whose directors couldn’t imagine), culminating in a bare footsie scene that drew snickers at my screening.
Yet the hothouse stink of those films before 1980 remains a draw. Add The Spider’s Stratagem (1970), an imaginative recreation of a Borges story, and 1900 (1976), an epic with Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu leading an international cast through the first decades of the twentieth century, and Bertolucci’s achievement deepens. Matteo Garrone and Olivier Assayas are unthinkable without him as model. Luna, starring Jill Clayburgh as a mother whose affection for her son tests proprieties, remains unseen by me. Several of these films he developed or co-wrote with wife Claire Peploe, a director too (1987’s High Season is worth a look). Examined against the political developments of the last sixty years, Bertolucci’s career remains a case study in how age withers engagement if an artist lets it.