That immature object of desire

The Critics: FILM
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Someone (Ezra Pound, maybe?) once griped about the astonishing quantities of sublime mental energy Henry James could devote to the question of whether or not two adult bipeds had or had not come into amorous contact. Similarly, Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty (15) - which has the roughly Jamesian scenario of a young American encountering old Europe - sometimes appears to have devoted exquisite dramatic attentiveness, yards of woozily sensuous cinematography (by Darius Khondji) and, not least, a magnificently orchestrated publicity campaign to the question of whether a teenager is going to lose her cherry by the last reel. It ought to be maddening, but it's not. Two words: Liv Tyler.

Even though glossy magazines have been ordering us for months now to fall in love with Ms Tyler, it would be a chilly soul, male or female, who could find her altogether charmless in the role of Lucy Harmon, a slightly gauche 19-year-old who has been sent to Tuscany for the summer to have her portrait painted. To concede and labour the obvious: yes, she is undeniably gorgeous - a female friend of mine sums her up nicely as "an elongated Ava Gardner" - and the camera ogles her greedily, if seldom quite as furtively as in an opening credit sequence of Lucy on her way to Italy, secretly shot on video by one of the movie's shadier characters (part of a sub-plot, this, which never quite gels). One shot in particular, of her bejeaned pelvic region, offers a terrible hostage to fortune, and more than a few dinner parties are likely to turn over the issue of just how far this is a movie for dirty old men of all ages.

Bertolucci's get-out clause must be that it's meant to be a film about different manifestations of beauty: in a girl; in modern sculpture (provided by Matthew Spender); in the delicious countryside around Siena, which, as one character helpfully points out for those of us who have forgotten our Blue Guides, has a great tradition of visual art. (Attendants at those same dinner parties will adore the film's scenery, if nothing else: its green and ochre vistas plug straight into that group of synapses in the British middle-class brain which is permanently oriented to Chiantishire.) In other circumstances it might have taken generosity to swallow this line whole and without murmur. Here, the heroine effortlessly makes it seem plausible enough.

Liv Tyler's attractiveness is not simply that she's uncommonly glamorous - after all, the United States turn out countless squadrons of beautiful women every year as part of their Gross Domestic Product. It's more a matter of the way she registers on screen here, as the one wholly sincere and good-hearted creature in a gallery of grotesques, reprobates and walking wounded. Once or twice, as when she's composing touchingly artless verses - Bertolucci has the unexpectedly pleasing idea of covering the screen with scraps of her handwriting as she does so - she'll look straight into the camera with an unselfconsciousness that borders on the disconcerting.

In real life, Ms Tyler may be, who knows, a petulant monster. (If so, she's a truly brilliant actress rather than just a lucky natural for the role.) In Stealing Beauty though, where she occupies almost every frame, she manages to suggest that Lucy possesses an innocence of which literal virginity is just a superficial trapping. Utterly without adult malice, envy or affectation, Lucy is wrong-footed by the effect her presence has on people. It hasn't yet dawned on her that her beauty is a weapon, and she wouldn't, anyway, wish to use her power to hurt. (One of the unspoken threats which gives the film its darker tones is that she might eventually grow up to be as creepy as her elders.) Bertolucci films her arrival at the country house where much of the action will take place as the entry to an idyll - Mozart on the soundtrack, everyone slumbering chicly and contentedly in the afternoon haze - but in view of the appetites she's about to arouse, it's really more like an early Christian walking in to confront the lions.

Besides having her portrait done, Lucy has two plans for the summer: to check out a cute Italian boy she kissed four years earlier, and to pursue hints in a diary left by her recently dead mother, a poet-cum-fashion- model (these folks are all so bloody creative it makes you feel like heaving) about a wild night of passion with an unnamed man that took place in these very olive groves nine months before Lucy's birth. Modest though they are, her schemes become entangled by the interest, usually not so healthy, that the local expats take in her. "You're in need of a ravisher," leers Alex (Jeremy Irons), a playwright disqualified from that particular task by the wasting disease which is killing him, and who must therefore be content with sucking life from Lucy by trying, Prospero-style, to orchestrate her affairs.

Other inhabitants of the house include the artist Ian Grayson (Donal McCann) and his wife, Diana (Sinead Cusack); M Guillaume, a mad faun of an old man, played - lovely to see him so lively - by one of the most beautiful men of the century, Jean Marais; the sour Miranda (Rachel Weisz), who seems to represent a rather coarse spirit of anti-virginity, and her obnoxious lawyer beau, Richard (D W Moffet), who tries to seduce Lucy by explaining that licking a mirror in unison with him is a Stanislavski exercise for getting in touch with your emotions. (Don't try this at home, boys. He fails.) Though the tone is often mildly comic, Richard, permanently grafted to his mobile phone, is the only one who's obviously being guyed. Not an artist, you see.

Nothing particularly dramatic happens on Lucy's meandering road to deflowerment, and even the ultimate revelation of her biological father's identity doesn't come as a surprise if you've been paying attention to the editing. Neither the slightness of the narrative nor the affections of the characters finally seem to matter much, however. Watching the film's agreeable drifting from situation to situation can feel precisely like the old northern European's Mediterranean experience of seduction by sun, wine and olives, and you gradually start to renounce all claim to more rigorous satisfactions. Parts of the film may remind you of other country-house movies: Milou en Mai, say. Bertolucci himself once pointed out that one of the greatest of all films, Renoir's La Regle du Jeu, is about the rural caperings of people we would now call Eurotrash. (But Stealing Beauty has no servant class and little element of farce, though there's a nice moment where Lucy leans flirtatiously towards a boy and then pukes in his lap.)

If your restless Anglo-Saxon spirit is still left hungry by these summer festivities, try reflecting on Bertolucci's suggestion that the film is about the experience of encountering the Muse, who in this case just happens to be a ravishing, unravished young lady - in his earlier film Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man, he points out, the Muse was cheese. Well and good but, in the immortal words of the B-52s' song, Liv Tyler ain't no limburger. Perhaps the innocence of Lucy's spirit entered the director's soul when he conceived the tale. At this end of a wary century of sex war, when men have been given due warning about the idealising pictures they have and make of women, it's surprising to meet with so blithe an evocation of the White Goddess; and yet for a fair part of its running time Stealing Beauty makes you entertain the notion that beauty is a type of genius.

Ah, but can genius be chummy? Phenomenon (PG), directed by Jon Turteltaub, boldly tries to make it so, without very telling results. Sweet-natured as this fable may be, it doesn't have much to offer beyond its own sweetness, which cloys to sickliness in a short span. Its hero, George Malley (John Travolta, unremarkable this time out), is a cheerily benevolent, none- too-bright Everyman who one night sees a weird light in the sky and suddenly finds that he can learn languages in 20 minutes, invent fertilisers, understand secret government codes and, coolest of all, move objects telekinetically. His fellow townspeople are understandably thrown, his true love (Kyra Sedgwick) is unhelpful and it all ends in plenty of tears. The scornful audience, meanwhile, is busy playing the game of "If he's such a genius, how come...?", to which my personal contribution was: how come he calls Lady Chatterley's Lover a "code book for anyone who wants to understand a woman's heart and mind"? Read D H Lawrence for his wisdom on women? As well try T E Lawrence.

Almost everything about Stacy Cochran's Boys (15) is dull and pointless, except the chance it offers to see how interestingly Lukas Haas is still growing up after his debut in Witness, and how curiously similar he looks to his co-star, Winona Ryder - at one point, their two characters have to pose as brother and sister, and it's quite plausible. Haas plays a misfit boy in a posh prep school who encounters an unconscious woman (WR) in a field and does what every healthy schoolboy would - bundles her back to his dorm room. Complications follow, and a series of flashbacks to the night before unearth a plot of rare inconsequence.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.

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