Bernardo Bertolucci, in a wheelchair after back surgeries, returns with his first film in nearly a decade — his third consecutive feature where the action takes place in a confined space
The first voice you hear in Me and You, Bernardo Bertolucci’s first film in nearly a decade, is that of an unseen psychiatrist asking his patient, “Allora?” (“So?”). Then the point of view shifts and you see the doctor sitting in a wheelchair, rolling himself closer to his desk and his patient, a troubled 14-year-old boy who looks at the floor and answers, “Nothing”.
The wheelchair is a visual fillip, adding interest to the scene and accentuating the psychiatrist’s helplessness in the face of the boy’s sullen intransigence. But for Bertolucci it carried another significance: The long gap in his career, dating from the release of The Dreamers in 2003, was caused by a series of supposedly routine back surgeries that put him in a wheelchair, no longer able to walk.
“I was depressed, of course,” he said recently by phone from his study in Rome. “Very depressed. And trying to fight something that was a lost battle.”
The 73-year-old director’s long career has encompassed masterpieces like Before the Revolution (1964), The Conformist (1970) and Last Tango in Paris (1972), as well as the historical epic The Last Emperor, which won nine Oscars in 1988, including best picture and best director. But as the new century ticked away with no word of a new film, it seemed as if he might be done.
Then in 2010, while making the difficult trip to New York for a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art, he received a copy of a new book by the Italian novelist Niccolò Ammaniti, Io e te (Me and You). It was about a teenage boy who pretends to go on a school ski trip but instead hides out for a week in the dusty basement storage area of his apartment building, which he has meticulously stocked with food and other necessities, like a power strip for his laptop and cellphone. His underground idyll is disturbed, though, when his older, estranged half sister, Olivia (Tea Falco), appears, looking for some of her childhood possessions.
“I found immediately that the book gave me the chance to go back to make a movie,” Bertolucci said, “because it was just very few actors, because it was more or less only in a cellar, so in a kind of place that you don’t have to go too much back and forth. Everything seemed perfect.”
“Of course there was a strategy which allowed me to go to the set easily, to move in the set easily. And then I even forgot I was in a chair. Sometimes I was thinking, maybe the normal POV is something, oh, 50 centimetres higher, but who cares! The pleasure of doing a movie again was stronger than anything else.”
Ira Deutchman, chairman of the film programme at Columbia University and managing partner of Emerging Pictures, which released Me and You (it opened Friday in New York), said he was struck by the film’s “youthful energy, something that one wouldn’t have expected from an ailing, aging director.”
“But thinking about it later,” he added, “it made perfect sense that something so intimate and raw would be invigorating.” Me and You does not take place entirely in the basement — introductory scenes of the boy, Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori, 14 at the time of filming), giving his mother a hard time and carrying off his escape from the ski trip establish him as imaginative, manipulative, slightly obsessive and fiercely solitary.
“I think the boy, as we see him at the beginning, is somebody who wants to enjoy his loneliness,” Bertolucci said. The arrival of Olivia, a former artist and recovering heroin addict who knows things Lorenzo doesn’t about their father, overturns the boy’s world. He is alternately irritated, enraged, beguiled and solicitous, and Olivia is drawn to him too, telling him: “It’s time to get a life.”
Bertolucci said: “I think that it’s a coming-of-age story, but I think that he has a real experience and when we see him at the end, we see that he grew up. The smile in the freeze frame at the end of the movie, in that smile I think that there is satisfaction of being able to help his sister.”
About that freeze frame: The film ends with a close-up of Lorenzo’s face that recalls the acclaimed final shot of Jean-Pierre Léaud in François Truffaut’s 400 Blows. “I always did homage to Godard,” Bertolucci said — The Dreamers included several loving references to Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders — “and I wanted to pay homage to Truffaut. I’ve been very unjust with him.” And as an adult, Léaud played a prominent role in Last Tango in Paris.
Other references flash by as Bertolucci’s camera takes its typically seamless, dreamy course. (Me and You was shot by Fabio Cianchetti, who was also the director of photography on The Dreamers). As Lorenzo leaves the doctor’s office, he trots down a long spiral staircase that recalls a central motif of Bertolucci’s Besieged (1998), another film that demonstrates what he calls his claustrophilia. Besieged, Last Tango, The Dreamers and now Me and You all centre on two or three people who retreat to enclosed spaces to play out their personal, often erotic dramas.
“I love closed places,” he said, noting that in his movies they provide not just protection but also a space for joy, if only temporarily.
Within the confines of the Me and You set, Bertolucci found his own kind of joy. “It had a very good effect,” he said. “I felt that I was like before. Acceptance is kind of a difficult thing to do. To accept and not to fight constantly or to deny constantly the condition in which you are. I started to forget. I was doing a lot of jokes about the fact that I was a film director condemned to the electric chair.”
Now, he said, he is “secretly thinking of something else” but would not discuss it beyond saying: “It will be a kind of a big story compressed to a piece of chamber theatre, Kammerspiel. My dream is to do a colossal Kammerspiel. Which is a contradiction in terms I like.”