As he limps down the white curve of San Sebastian's beach-front promenade by the Playa de La Concha, Bernardo Bertolucci looks much older than his 63 years. The director of such cinematic landmarks as The Conformist and The Spider's Stratagem, who achieved global fame with his Oscar-laden The Last Emperor in the Eighties and universal infamy with Last Tango in Paris in the Seventies, fixes the battery of Spanish photographers with a tired smile as he leans on a walking stick.
The former enfant terrible is at the San Sebastian Film Festival with his 22nd film, The Dreamers, adapted from Gilbert Adair's novel, The Holy Innocents. Bertolucci may be a rather ageing enfant now but his new film is recognised as a return to form and a reclamation of memories of his youth, suffused with Sixties radicalism, sex and cinematic flashbacks.
Although the film has been hailed as Bertolucci's renaissance, he seems decidedly morose - not helped by a compacted slipped disc but also the result of battling, yet again, the studio's and the censor's scissors which threatened to cut the film's explicit sexual content drastically or suffer the commercial death sentence of an NC- 17 rating in the US which in effect excludes the vital under-17 audience.
In his suite, Bertolucci brightens as he hears the sound of protest drifting in from the street below where the hotel staff are demonstrating. The sight seems to cheer him and he slowly thaws into avuncular, expansive Italian delivery, exuding a boyish enthusiasm for his new project which is replete with constant conjoined themes of sex, politics and cinema. The riots and revolutionary politics of the Sixties are a backdrop to scenes of nudity, masturbation and the loss of virginity of the heroine, Isabelle, played by Eva Green, a pale Parisian ingénue at the centre of the carnal attentions of her brooding twin brother, Theo (Louis Garrel) and a newly arrived American student Matthew (Michael Pitt). "I was preparing a sequel to 1900, to bring the story of Italy up to date," he says, referring to his five-hour epic of Italian history made in 1976, "and then I read Gilbert's book. It was so faithful to the atmosphere of the 1960s. It was a time I knew so well, and I identified with the story and all characters very strongly. I wanted to go back there, to go back to that time and make it alive again. I wanted to find that atmosphere."
Bertolucci's campaign to save The Dreamers from mutilation worked and Fox Searchlight will release the uncut version across America today with an NC-17 Certificate, the first time in six years that a major studio has taken the risk with their product. "Fox always liked the film," says Bertolucci, "and I am very pleased they are going to release the original version. As I have always said, an orgasm is better than a bomb."
Bertolucci has established a pattern of switching from the epic to the excruciatingly intimate and if 1900, starring Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu, was his "socialist Gone with the Wind" then his previous film, Last Tango in Paris was an anguished erotic chamber piece which shocked the world on its release 30 - yes 30 - years ago when Bertolucci was simultaneously condemned for obscenity and praised by the renowned critic Pauline Kael for creating the iconic work of a generation. The Dreamers marks his return to Paris, his seductive wonderland of memory
"My greatest fear is that I will repeat myself. I have to turn the page after each film and go to the other extreme," Bertolucci says. "But Paris is always wonderful; it was in the Sixties and it is now. I find dreamers in Paris, in the cafés and the streets, on the Champs-Elysées. If you walk around Paris, you are continuously seduced."
But the mountainous shadow cast by Last Tango in Paris inevitably falls over The Dreamers. Jokingly dubbed "First Tango in Paris", the story revolves around a ménage à trois of languid students in the heady revolutionary air of the Paris spring of 1968 and in comparison to the sheer feverish power of Brando, the beauteous trio in The Dreamers' is as light and insubstantial as a soufflé.
However, it is an acutely personal film although, partly because of Bertolucci's own taboo-breaking in the Seventies, the sex is no longer a shock. But it is bursting with film references and a soundtrack tingling with Hendrix and the Doors - a look back rather than forward. "Time and time again," Bertolucci says, "nostalgia is seen in a negative sense but I have nostalgia for idealism. I think we can be nostalgic without being sentimental. At the moment it would be impossible to make the films we made in the Sixties and Seventies, the climate is wrong. But I have a nostalgia for the times when you could challenge and ask questions.
"I am not a political filmmaker, but politics are in my films, that is true," he insists. "But I have become less and less excited by politics. Now politics has all ideology stripped out of it. It is like a discipline, a technique which only interests technicians. The Dreamers is about a time when there was common movement of young people which had hopes to change things."
But 1968 was a false spring, the establishment won and it now seems like a brief period of social idealism and personal liberation as exotic and unbelievable as Camelot. "The revolution didn't happen, this is true," Bertolucci agrees. "In that way the movements of the Sixties were a failure. But in many other ways it was a social phenomenon. It was the beginning of feminism. It was a very important time. Things did change."
'The Dreamers' is on release.