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The Eye of the Beholder

By Marco Grosoli

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Bernardo Bertolucci's latest Oedipal close encounter Me and You

Bernardo Bertolucci is back, directing his first Italian-language film in 30 years. It’s a clear variation on Besieged, the 1998 film (likewise set in Rome) that inaugurated a minimalist phase for the director after a series of huge international co-productions. Continuing on from The Dreamers (03), Me and You is Bertolucci’s third in a string of films mostly set in claustrophobic, very bourgeois interiors, and like Besieged, it concerns the solipsistic self-confinement of a obsessive narcissist who is “saved” and led out into the world by a woman—who may well be nothing more than a projection of his insecurities. Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori), a 14-year-old from a well-to-do family, takes no interest whatsoever in the outside world, and withdraws into himself completely: pretending to go on a school skiing trip, he shuts himself in the basement of his mother’s apartment building for an entire week. But the basement turns out to be a regular refuge for Olivia (Tea Falco), his heroin-addicted older half-sister, and so Lorenzo doesn’t find the perfect solitude he’s looking for.

Bertolucci’s adaptation of Niccolò Ammaniti’s novel of the same name takes little more from the book than the obvious psychoanalytic framework: the boy suffers from a serious Oedipal block and harbors overtly incestuous drives (“Mom, suppose we were the last two inhabitants of planet Earth. Would you make love with me for the sake of our species?”). Within the narrative vacuum produced by this drastic reduction of the source material, Bertolucci has plenty of room to indulge in the main thing that interests him: beauty. Movement is no longer at the core of his aesthetic inquiry and approach, as it was in his previous films (this may or may not be related to the incapacitating medical condition that left him confined to a wheelchair). Rather it’s cinematography: thanks to inventive and chiefly chromatic variations of lighting, the basement becomes ingeniously fragmented, labyrinth-like, as if it were brighter and more diverse and full of surprises than the so-called outside world—which is filmed in a disarmingly dull fashion. Like the Francis Bacon–inspired rooms of Last Tango in Paris, once again interior and exterior keep switching places, as do the words “Me” and “You” during the film’s credit sequence.

There’s no point in looking for an external force that’s obliging Lorenzo to enter adulthood in the real world. Nothing is more foreign to Lorenzo than his deepdown interior self, which he encounters in an externalized embodiment as Olivia. To put it another way, according to the traditional Freudian opposition between the reality principle and the pleasure principle Bertolucci has relied upon so much in the past (the two levels of The Last Emperor’s narrative clearly manifest this dichotomy), the hateful extraneousness of the former can be found at its utmost only in the subject’s own pleasure. The pleasure Lorenzo seeks within himself is eventually located in the surface—something that is neither objective nor subjective. “The skin is a wall,” explains Olivia as she babbles on about her photography, intent on obliterating herself by nullifying her gaze, by limiting it to surfaces—“the Buddhist way,” as she puts it. “Buddhist, my eye. You’re pissed off all the time!” Lorenzo rightly retorts.

Indeed, the film’s abundant surface beauty precisely reflects the failure of her effort to embrace a completely impersonal gaze (clearly Bertolucci’s effort, too, as a French-influenced auteur going global and David Lean–ish over the years). Little Narcissus Lorenzo dips his face into a sink and counts how many seconds (38) he can hold his breath. Great Narcissus Bertolucci lets his film float into the void, only occasionally shaken by fleeting visual dazzle, meaningless and gratuitous coups of mise en scène, and transient moments in which beauty disturbs the surface. Like his protagonist, Bertolucci stares enraptured at the ants moving around in Lorenzo’s ant farm; the only thing that counts is appearance, the fleeting instant of its revelation.

But the ant farm is smashed and its inhabitants escape and scatter. Bertolucci’s preciously shallow aesthetic virtuosity signifies that the enjoyment Lorenzo derives from his blissful navel-gazing is dispersed all over the outside world, through innumerable external traces of pleasure. What could be more narcissistic than this mirroring between Bertolucci and Lorenzo? And yet, this is also the key to the outside world—that is, to surface. Pleasure is still just about the only way for Lorenzo to relate to the world, but now, thanks to Bertolucci’s stylistic play, solipsistic pleasure takes control of him from the outside, besieging him like the escaped ants. When in the end Olivia abruptly shakes Lorenzo from his self-involved inertia by dragging him to his feet to dance with her (to “Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola,” an Italian version of Bowie’s “Space Oddity”!), it is hard to see this as the outcome of a steadily developing narrative built around two characters gradually getting to know each other more and more intimately. It is rather the perfect crowning moment of an obsession with fleeting visual epiphanies and superficial beauties (which include Tea Falco herself, repeatedly caressed by the camera) that has characterized Bertolucci—and, by extension, Lorenzo—throughout the film. Me and You overcomes its own aesthetic solipsism not just by ridding itself of it, but by externalizing it triumphantly. Which is also why Olivia never gets over her addiction (an obvious reverse image of that solipsism). The negation of narcissism thus ends up coinciding with its explosive, absolute affirmation.

Lorenzo’s relationship between inside and outside is overcome not by the Oedipal compromise, but only (as in Stealing Beauty) by realizing the absolute impossibility of overcoming the Oedipal bind (“Maybe I am a case of arrested development!” comments Bertolucci in the film’s pressbook), by pushing that impossibility to its extreme, by withdrawing even further into solipsistic narcissism rather than launching an Oedipal offensive against the world. It’s a vicious circle, like the figure eight that Lorenzo traces while pacing obsessively around the floor. And traditionally, refusing to solve the Oedipus complex also means refusing to enter History and Society.

But is it truly so? Is all this merely a form of escapism for Bertolucci, the detached aesthete? Can it really be so in Italy, the land of Pinocchio, whose tale arguably most precisely inverts the Oedipal trajectory? Can it really be so in a country whose eternal preadolescence seems, alas, to be not just a cliché but something almost physically tangible? In a country whose electorate, by a large majority, openly professed its solid identification with and support for a Prime Minister who publicly boasted about his sexual immaturity? Bertolucci is a resolutely bourgeois director, whose auteurist, global, and minimalist phases mirror the vicissitudes of the contemporary bourgeoisie, passing from the events of ’68 as an essentially bourgeois phenomenon (as The Dreamers eventually asserts), to the promise of truly becoming (after 1989) the enlightened universal class it has always dreamed of being, to its abrupt awakening, marginalization, and retreat into itself in the face of the geopolitical upheavals brought on by late globalization, culminating in world crisis. Perhaps Bertolucci is the only one to seriously endorse Luchino Visconti’s bizarre but correct Marxist stance—that the historical responsibility of a decaying class is to decay as much as possible.

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