Girls on the verge of a nervous consummation are ideal box-office material, as teen-friendly flicks like Blue Lagoon or Pretty in Pink have shown. Stealing Beauty, however, merits a tucking in with more adult, European bedfellows. Among those who have brought art house credibility to the exacting study of cuspish virgins are directors such as Eric Rohmer (Pauline at the Beach), Fernando Trueba (Belle Epoque), Gerard Lauzier (Mon Pere, Ce Heros). And their findings are remarkably similar, involving grave- eyed, idealistic heroines, skinny yet budding, sensitive yet bored, precocious yet oh, so naive.
Like low-budget adverts for bourgeois summer holidays, these films seem always to be set near beaches or golden orchards or swimming pools, allowing maximum exposure of healthy brown flesh. In Eric Rohmer's 1983 art house hit Pauline on the Beach, for instance, 14-year-old sage Pauline spends her time in a bikini. Ditto his Claire's Knee, in which pert little Laura's grasshopper thighs are constantly displayed.
This sensual version of virginity, au naturelle, cleaves more to the days of medieval chivalry than of satellite TV. Economic realities are touched on for unwilling seconds at a time; venereal disease and unwanted pregnancies are also banished. At the same time, the past, even when linked to a specific historical moment, is stripped of its religious or social context. Take, for example, Trueba's recent sun-dappled sex comedy Belle Epoque, or Merchant and Ivory's Room With a View, in which the virgins' dilemma is always pretty, never painful.
The wishful nature of such movies does not end here. Almost all contain a crucial older man, a literal or symbolic father figure. Thus in Stealing Beauty, Lucy, played by MTV pro Liv Tyler, arrives in Tuscany determined to lose her virginity, but can only do so when she knows who her father is and, by the by, has been undressed by him.
It's a common device. In Stay As You Are, directed by Italy's Alberto Lattuada, lupine Nastassja Kinski plays opposite lusty Marcello Mastroianni, a greying architect who, we are led to suspect, is actually her daddy. Meanwhile, in Mon Pere, Ce Heros, Gerard Depardieu plays a father with a blooming little girl (pouty Marie Gillain), who pretends to be her shady but dashing lover. As it transpires, he's the one who gains control, even writing love letters on her behalf. No wonder that when Veronique finally flees the nest, he croons to his fiancee: "Make me a baby and make sure it's a girl." You get the picture. "She came to me a girl, she left me a vooman." In all these movies the daughters are allowed to walk into the sunset with someone their own age. Yet their fathers, metaphorically, penetrate first. And baby girl says it feels lovely.
Some might say that including a father figure is a nifty way for a middle- aged director to involve himself in the proceedings. Indeed, what better way could there be to justify in artistic terms his snoopy presence at the bedside, especially given that the majority of these fellows are old enough to be the ingenue's father (grandfather, even)? Bertolucci is now 56, Rohmer 76 - these men are really dealing with the changes in their own lives. As Maurice Chevalier once sang of little girls: "Youth is the thing! Stay close to the young and a little of it rubs off."
The young virgin's lack of experience is another plus. Tyler has attempted to identify the attraction of her character for men. "She's not this big sex symbol at all," she says. "It's more her youth that excites them, and the change." But change itself is not always popular. How many saucy films about octogenarians are there? Or, for that matter, the menopause - Confessions of a Hysterectomist or Sweaty Brigitte, anyone? The obvious criticism of male directors who duck and dive around the subject of hymens is that they're frightened of grown women, turned on by what females don't know.
This is not to condemn any director who explores the subject of green teen virginity, for it doesn't have to be lush and uncomplicated. During the Sixties, for example, influenced by feminism and loaded with angst, cinema seemed constantly to be pointing out the misery and artificiality of the great divide between virgin and non-virgin, Kazan's Splendor in the Grass and Bergman's The Virgin Spring being particularly fine examples. Similarly, Roman Polanski could only detect the foul stink of the "ripening state". He noted wryly of Catherine Deneuve, "She looks like a professional virgin...the niece of a man who'd make her sit in his lap". Not surprisingly, then, virginity is a terrifying state in Repulsion, with all men lunging like wolves and the virgin herself psychotic.
No, if anything, the recent spate of sensual "voyages round my virgin" have more in common with American Fifties romantic comedies and musicals. Vincente Minnelli's classic Gigi, for instance, in which "backward" Gigi, played by goofy-cute Leslie Caron, scampers about in her Scotch dress, all of a childish sweat, resisting an interest in the soiled, material world. Her natural charm provides a civilising influence on wolves and catty, decadent females. Stealing Beauty's Lucy would no doubt approve.
Meanwhile, thanks to Bertolucci's efforts, beautiful Liv Tyler, a sort of stain-free version of Alanis Morissette, is being feted as the next big thing. She might care to consider, however, that the woman-child's career is often a short one. Look at Amanda Langlet. Who? Exactly. And the writing is already on the sun-baked wall. Bertolucci apparently told Liv Tyler to imagine Lucy as "a ripe plum" - in other words, an untouched entity whose growth will stop once she's been plucked. As for now, the world is ready to gobble Tyler up. Taking their lead from Bertolucci, no one, it seems, can discuss Stealing Beauty without using some form of the verb "to ripen". Like a weird version of Tourette's syndrome, the excited world splutters of Bertolucci's "ripe vision of sexual awakening" (Premiere) or that "Tyler seems destined to ripen pleasingly" (Vanity Fair).
Madonna once said that losing her virginity was a career move. For movie directors, getting someone else to lose their virginity may be even more of one. And far less risky.
n 'Stealing Beauty' is released on 30 August