Voyages around her father

Bertolucci's 'Stealing Beauty' looks set to make Liv Tyler a star. So what is it about virgins and middle-aged film directors? By Charlotte O'Sullivan

Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty, which opens shortly, is a film about the sexual awakening of a sweet young girl. It's not the first of its kind, nor likely to be the last, which makes it all the more fitting that the film's virginal heroine, Lucy, asks: "Ever get the feeling you're being watched?" You bet. In the last half of this century, cinema - like an impotent Dracula - has struggled to tear itself away, clocking up thousands of hours of light and shade to capture the ultimate in blood lust.

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

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?