Film: Stealing Beauty Bernardo Bertolucci (15): Seduction as a virtue

As holiday movies go, Bertolucci's latest is a generous meditation on beauty, art, sex, death and grunge. By Adam Mars-Jones
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The Independent Culture
Stealing Beauty is almost a holiday for Bertolucci, virtually a picture-postcard from Tuscany after his last three weighty dispatches - what he calls his Oriental Trilogy - The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky and Little Buddha. Closer to his home territory he can play truant from the sometimes exhausting grandeur of his preoccupations.

The situation of the film, devised by the director and turned into a screenplay by Susan Minot, is almost too classic. A young American woman comes to stay with family friends in an idyllic converted farmhouse, subtly upsets the balance of forces in the social group, learns about herself. Unusually for Bertolucci, the film is an ensemble piece, with great glancing richness of detail conveyed by a wonderful cast. The director of photography, Darius Khondji, enjoys a holiday of his own after the hermetic darkness of his two most recent projects, Seven and City of Lost Children - sunlight, at last! The camera is as likely to execute an elaborately expressive manoeuvre in the farmhouse kitchen, during the washing-up, as on a more obviously dramatic occasion, like the spectacular party on a neighbouring estate which gives the film its climax.

In this Arcadia, the presence of death is represented not by a skull but by a sick man's intravenous drip. Progress presses in on the idyll, in the shape of jets screaming down the valley, and a communications dish being built nearby. In one rather startling shot, hookers in hot pants seem to be doing a roaring trade on a country road that otherwise would fit right into a quattrocento painting. This incongruous juxtaposition coincides rather glibly with a native Tuscan saying he needs to escape - a declaration that seems perverse and ungrateful, even so.

The Tuscan landscape, being not merely casually beautiful but having helped to shape our ideal of beauty, is particularly likely to look like a cross between a holiday brochure and a museum catalogue. Bertolucci wakes up the eye by mildly assaulting the ear, with the sombre abrasive music that the heroine's generation listens to, paradoxically much more effective a soundtrack than the Mozart that recurs now and then. Mozart sounds too much like aural Arcadia already.

Everyone in the household has designs on 19-year-old Lucy (Liv Tyler) - literally, in the case of her hostess Diana (Sinead Cusack), who resurrects a dress of Lucy's dead mother and alters it to fit her. But if Diana sees her as a new version of her mother, there are others who consider her a new piece of flesh, particularly after it becomes known that she is a virgin. There's Richard (DW Moffett), who is otherwise engaged, but tries to seduce her anyway with an "acting exercise" that will help her relax (it involves going down on all fours and licking a mirror). It's characteristic of the unforced warmth of the film that Richard, though the closest thing to a villain in it, should seem endearing when he's trying to get something he really wants. Seduction may be his vice, but it's almost a redeeming one.

Ian (Donal McCann), on the other hand, Diana's husband and Lucy's host, has no sexual agenda, which strangely makes him harder to resist and to satisfy. He is an artist who will do Lucy's portrait in his characteristic style, as a wooden sculpture. What he wants is no mere likeness but an essence. Finally there is Alex (Jeremy Irons), a dying writer who identifies with Lucy and tries to watch over her. There is a maudlin symmetry to this relationship - he on the threshold of death, she on the brink of womanhood - somewhat kept at bay by the depth and dryness of Irons' playing.

There was a time when hardened degenerates, informed that their daughter had been cast in a Bertolucci film, would immediately burst into tears. In fact the director treats Liv Tyler with a respect that borders on the sentimental. It's as if a new circuit has winked on in Bertolucci's brain, unthinkable at the time of Last Tango - she could be my daughter! - triggering a fresh set of idealisations. The theme of voyeurism is announced by the first frame (a fellow traveller videotapes Lucy as she sleeps on the plane) but Bertolucci's camera is at least as much protective as exploitative.

Tyler is no gamine; she has an American candour, one that includes a sense of entitlement. But there is something coltish about her: her big hands and feet, the assertive shyness she shows when she tiptoes across gravel or takes an embarrassed sip of wine, as if hoping that the glass will hide her. There is a clever shot of her flailing body as she sings along to the grunge anthem on her headphones, a shot whose meaning changes when the soundtrack starts to feed in the original vocal, without drowning out her own. We don't exactly stop spying on her, but we come closer to sharing her sense of herself.

Besides, Lucy has eyes of her own. Just when she seems most vulnerable, posing for Ian in the open air and persuaded to uncover one breast, Bertolucci inserts crisp shots from her point of view, showing the artist scrutinised by the model: Ian's foot jiggling with a schoolboy's concentration, his cropped head aligned with the top of the frame so as to seem somehow comic. Alex also resists becoming an object in his illness, even when he is being carried on a stretcher through his sorrowing friends. His last words before he is lifted into the ambulance are "you should see yourselves".

Bertolucci's films have in the past shown an obsessive and uncomfortable interest in homosexuality, a subject that was both pushed to the margin of the films and intensely editorialised. In this area, too, Stealing Beauty shows a relaxation, with the sexuality of the gay character regarded as mysterious in a positive sense. The shots in the film that have most claim to be considered erotic are actually elusive images of his friends (seemingly a mime troupe) at the climactic party.

After the visual excitement of this elaborate sequence, the plot - concerning Lucy's quest for her real father - hangs around a little too long waiting to be resolved. It's the sort of mystery that she could have solved at any time, though of course she needed to be ripe for the knowledge. If only the film had had a slightly more developed sense of its own ripeness, and had known when to end, before Lucy has sex for the first time, or as Bertolucci seems to understand it, "becomes a woman". If the projector jams at the 110 minute mark, you will miss only the fatal 10 minutes too long in the sun that turns a Bertolucci into a Zeffirelli. If it happens, be gracious. Don't ask for a refund.

n On general release from Friday