Feb 4, 2016

Bernardo Bertolucci

With those unfamiliar with how “In Praise Of…” works – each month I drop a new filmmaker on the brain of Writer / Bon Vivant Nathan T.Dean and make him binge watch as much of their filmography as possible. He then proceeds to write frantically of all he felt and why you should admire the work of these overlooked geniuses. This month was a little different though. This was the first month I chose a filmmaker I knew HE (forever romanticising the bohemian lifestyle) would need in his life, as opposed to just getting him to write about filmmakers I admired and wanted more people to fall in love with. There’s never been a better filmmaker at counterpointing the profound beauty and misery of life quite like our chosen director this month. So, without further ado, I hand you over to Nathan T. Dean, In Praise Of Bernardo Bertolucci…


{In Praise of Bernardo Bertolucci}
by Nathan T. Dean


“I may be able to understand the secrets of the universe, but…
I’ll never understand the truth about you. Never.”
– From ‘Last Tango In Paris’, Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci


When a certain song plays, we cannot help but close our eyes and sway to the rhythms it makes. These are the songs that resonate to us on a level beyond the human, a level that we cannot – and shall not – express in words, but rather only through the natural movements of our bodies; these songs could be anything from Leonard Cohen ballads to Meghan Trainor pop fancies, but inexplicably they connect to the parts of us we cannot describe as the conscious, social, evolved things we believe ourselves to be.
Throughout the works of Bernardo Bertolucci can be found songs of this nature, and this is Bertolucci’s first method of showing us the onion-skin layers that make up a human body, mind and soul. Jeanne electrocutes herself, and her lover, to get the record player going in Last Tango In Paris, just so she can experience that track that makes those gorgeous eyes close. The bohemia of The Dreamers are swamped in music, Isabelle playing the same track ad infinitum to the chagrin of her brother, the rest filling the soul of sweet Matthew.
Why do we get to see this moment? Why does Bertolucci spend precious cinematic moments showing us the enjoyment of a song? Because it is a part of the human, the part that is animal, mammalian, limbic, lizard, alive. The purposes of Bertolucci’s epics are not to solidify the human desire to conform, align, accept, but rather to alleviate that struggle. Bertolucci shows us that we all have animal thoughts and that these can be nurtured. The true beauty however, is not that he singularly deifies the feral human. He shows us that exploring those demons has its own bank of consequences.
Quite a start, right? Other cinematic geniuses show us the consequence of human achievement, of the answer to the question of “what is society”? Bertolucci circumvents this, and drives home the singularly most visceral issue of being alive: “what is humanity”? And how can one transfer such a question onto the screen? He speaks through the medium, rather than it merely being a tool. Rather than understanding the conventions of cinema, he shows us them. In ‘The Dreamers’ the young lovers re-enact scenes from their favourite moments in film history, as a game, but also as a torment; one cannot get the answers wrong. We listen to music. We read the books they read. An entire subplot is dedicated to the magical rite of filmmaking in ‘Last Tango In Paris’ as Tom tries to capture the life of his love. Bertolucci, post-modern and wild, reminds us of the moments we felt in connection with ourselves; when we were reading, listening, watching. And when we were making love.

The problem arises as to when one lives in the land of the heart for too long. ‘The Dreamers’ stop dreaming, but to speak of when their internal and external worlds collide would be an enormous spoiler. Instead, let us look at Paul, in his room, without names, in ‘Last Tango In Paris’.
It would be easy for a director who enjoys the lifestyle of the bohéme to show it through rose-tinted glasses. It is hard to show a man crawl into a corner of a room, and cry for his dead wife. Placing characters in the corners of shots, so the world smothers them. A colour palette where background, foreground and character blend into a seamless whole. A musical score to exemplify the internal rage, but only when internal. These characteristics are where Bertolucci shines. He does not just tell us that frolicking in literature, eating a baguette by the mirror, and having a remarkable mistress is an exciting life. He tells us that these lives come from a special place, where pain and pleasure interlock. When Paul and Jeanne rent their little world away from the world, there are no names. Why? Because Paul needs to dehumanise, because Paul needs to feel again, because names are solid and not fluid. Because Paul does not want to mourn in the way everyone else does. Paul wants to mourn with his lizard brain. That kind of pain cannot be depicted through a rose-tinted lens. This cannot be the bohemian lifestyle of ‘Midnight In Paris’. This is following your inner compass and getting lost, and rather than finding a bar filled with your favourite things, you find thorns, a woman, a slab of butter, and a long shower.
It isn’t all hiding in the shadows and craving a semblance of sanity in your loss of the self though. It isn’t all negatives. ‘The Dreamers’ dream hard, and big, and beautifully. They love each other. The Portrait of a Girl Tom is trying to create in ‘Last Tango’, though sad in its way that he misses the experiences he never wants to lose, is in of itself a beautiful attempt at flower-pressing something beautiful. The music is good. The wine is flowing. Bath time is as erotic as ever. Bertolucci reminds us that pain and pleasure are our mother and father; mirrors, lenses in lenses, films in films, stories in stories, metafiction in metafiction, a postmodern dream. It all boils into a single concept, that we must reflexively look at ourselves, then pull back, do the dream, and then return. It is a difficult idea to deliver, especially as it is something people rarely wish to accomplish. People do not want to have to face themselves and their truth, especially after they have got rid of their own names.
I end with a little thought. If you want to show people the truth of pain and pleasure, learn from Bertolucci that it is a delicate, bumpy, terrifyingly beautiful ride. And if you want to feel truth – if you want to look at yourself through two mirrors facing one another – then watch Bertolucci, and feel that delicate… bumpy… terrifyingly beautiful thing.