Stealing Beauty

(Io ballo da sola, Bernardo Bertolucci, Italy/France/UK/USA, 1996)


Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty (1996) – the title in other territories comes out as Stolen Beauty or, much better, I Dance Alone – is a deeply underappreciated and misunderstood film. And the key ingredient that has put it into this unenviable public position is precisely the one announced so bravely in its title: beauty. This is a compelling topic in movies of the mid 1990s, for instance in the romantic comedies The Truth About Cats & Dogs  (Michael Lehmann,1996) and Ted Demme’s Beautiful Girls (Ted Demme, 1996). But few films get to grips with beauty like Bertolucci’s does.


Beauty is one of the hardest topics of all to talk about honestly – beauty in the sense of physical beauty, beautiful people. Everyone tiptoes around the fact and the reality of human beauty. People speculate or worry about glamour in our modern world of media and show biz; they discuss the cult of celebrity and fame, or the culture of appearance – but, on many occasions, the one word they can never safely or unselfconsciously utter is beauty. It is hard to state these days, publically, socially, sometimes even privately, that you regard someone as beautiful.


Beauty is a topic that brings out all of our very well-founded political anxieties, especially in relation to gender issues. Anyone with even half a social conscience rails against the so-called Beauty Myth. We protest against the absurdly limited standards of beauty, the stereotypes of beauty for women or men, that are endlessly held up, recycled and reinforced in the media. We desperately, angrily try to claw some space for the rest of us ordinary human beings, with our real bodies and sensations, lives and loves, in the face of this whole frightening glamour-beauty-stereotype edifice – we who are “oppressed by the figures of beauty”, as Leonard Cohen sang in “Chelsea Hotel #2”. And yet we sometimes protest too much, and hysterically – as if even the attempt to comment openly on beauty constitutes a totally politically incorrect no-no, a purely pernicious, ideological myth … and nothing else, ever.


Movies and physical beauty are not so easily separated, even with the best or fiercest of political intentions. I once spotted a remark by the X-Files star David Duchovny; he was sagely quoting Roland Barthes to the effect that the camera eroticises anyone it gazes on – it makes them beautiful. You can take that as another lie, some trick of make-up and lens and idealising fantasy, just another part of the whole media machine of the Beauty Myth. Or you can admit to yourself not only that movies are full of beautiful people in that ideal, hyperreal sense – but that they also have an incredible knack of making people beautiful, of bringing out the inherent beauty of someone’s bearing, expression and physical character.  This is one reason why Plain Jane stories – examples include Circle of Friends  (Pat O’Connor,1995) and The Truth About Cats & Dogs – usually work so badly in cinema; when a film’s plot is trying to tell you that a character is ugly, or stuck in their plain-looking phase, it’s too easy to disagree – because the camera and mise en scène are showing you otherwise.


Stealing Beauty is in many respects the complement, in Bertolucci’s career, to La Luna  (1979), about a teenage boy’s search for his lost father, and his intense relationship with his mother. Here, in novelist Susan Minot’s superb screenplay, Lucy (Liv Tyler), 19 years old, travels to Tuscany to stay with a gregarious, extended family. Lucy is searching for a few things – a boy she fell for some years previously; the identity of her real father (amidst a full span of and symbolic, possible and actual father figures); sexual awakening; and traces of her deceased, free-spirit mother (the play of character names here – a familiar game of intertextual allusion in Bertolucci – will, if diligently followed, lead you back, rather magically, to Gena Rowlands’ role in John CassavetesLove Streams [1984]).


But this is not a weighty story of a personal journey. It is about something far more delicate, whimsical and lyrical. Bertolucci captures the tender, extremely sexy flux of emotions and moods that run between all his characters, young or old, vibrant or terminally ill, artists or jokers. Personal agonies, marital crises, senility and skeletons in the family closet are dissolved in sudden experiences of frivolity, euphoria and intimacy.


Everything in this film revolves around Lucy; she’s there on screen virtually all the time, everything is channeled through her eyes, sensations, movements and emotions. Is Tyler beautiful? Her looks, her bearing, the whole dance of her being, are an absolute spectacle, a true phenomenon in Bertolucci’s film. She’s magnetic – the heart, and the revelation, of this movie. Tyler s photogenic in the profound sense that Jean Epstein meditated on the medium’s capacity for photogénie. But not beautiful in some hyper-conventional, fashion magazine, supermodel kind of way. There’s an oddness about Tyler, an almost gangly quality, that goes with a sometimes disconcerting intensity.


In the course of Stealing Beauty, we come to see Tyler/Lucy as beautiful in the fullest, richest sense possible. Sublime and soulful, she becomes many things, adopts many personae, thanks to the extraordinary eye and guiding hand of Bertolucci: a poet, a child, a detective, a riot grrrl, a lover, a portrait of the artist as a young woman. The film even plays with besmirching Tyler’s media-established beauty, bringing it down to earth so it totally doesn’t take off and become some ethereal fetish-object: during the opening credits, an unseen man videos her as she sleeps, and the image zooms into the drool on her chin. All in all, the film achieves an incredible transmutation of this woman’s spirit, her soulful character, into a body, into a mobile continuum of physical presence. That is one of the great beauties of cinema as a medium, this kind of transmutation, that constant interchange between (as Raúl Ruiz once put it) spirit and matter.


Of course, Tyler is also young. One of the things that most galls people about the Beauty Myth business is the endless, absurd emphasis on youth in our society: the untarnished, ideal perfection of a young body, an unwrinkled face, pure unblemished skin, and so forth. Now, youth – in its purest and indeed most virginal moment (since Lucy at least starts out as a virgin) – is a primary topic in Bertolucci’s film. Youth as set against age, extreme old age, and imminent death. There’s a senile guy in the film, the character of M. Guillaume played by Jean Cocteau’s famous starand companion Jean Marais (this was to be his final film role before his death in 1998), who sometimes forgets things, blinks out and throws sudden, weird tantrums; he also sleepwalks, and sometimes laughs like a cheeky kid.


There’s also a novelist dying of cancer in the film, Alex played by Jeremy Irons – a man who is affecting in his frailty and his despair, as well as his provocations, rages and demands, the final spurt of his “lust for life”. The feeling that passes between Lucy and Alex in this movie is tender, cryptic and sometimes inexplicable – it trembles with everything that cannot be said or lived out. Then, between these extremes of youthful life and those knocking on heaven’s door, there are the passions, tremors and crises of the middle ages of life, which Bertolucci depicts in a terse, glancing, off-hand but powerfully truthful way. Although the film’s main attention is firmly on Lucy, Bertolucci is able to capture the full poignancy of these less central characters – the span of which also includes the intense, gruff sculptor Ian (Donal McCann), and Noemi (Stefania Sandrelli from The Conformist [1970]), suspicious of the advances offered by a younger man. On the principle (often publicly stated by this director) that every film is a documentary about its actors, Bertolucci offers a wistful, heartbreaking tribute to these great, adult players – however much they may be cast into Liv Tyler’s shadow.


I find myself trying to desribe Stealing Beauty through details and characters, or more precisely through those mysterious interactions between the large number of people who populate this film. It’s very easy to vulgarise and coarsen the film, to completely misconstrue it and send it off in some dreadfully wrong direction, by summarising its bare plot badly. Yes, it’s about a community of people, about eating rituals, parties and dancing, about the flux of birth and death, innocence and experience – but it’s not some gregarious, feel-good feast like Babette’s Feast (Gabriel Axel,1987) or Burnt by the Sun (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1994). It can be more fairly compared to Jean Renoir’s classics, Chekov’s plays or the great contemporary film Wild Reeds  (André Téchiné, 1994). But even then, you won’t exactly get a handle on what’s unique, tender and also sometimes splendidly nutty about Stealing Beauty.


It’s possible to say that Stealing Beauty is about three Big Themes: sexuality, as in sexual discovery or initiation; family, and more particularly finding your parental origin, as Lucy sets out to do here; and, finally, art – the sometimes painful, difficult mysteries of the artistic process (and on this last topic, Bertolucci is surely evoking another marvellous film about body-and-soul beauty, Jacques Rivette’s La Belle noiseuse  [1991]). We could say, with equal validity, the film is about the beauty of a place, a landscape – trying to give some dignity to that very tired chestnut about “landscape being a character” in cinema – for Tuscany does look pretty damn incredible here.


And we could also say that it’s a film about the 1960s, the radical free spirit of the that decade and its half-corrupted, half-renewed legacy. There’s a whole essay about the 1960s and its relation to the ‘90s in the fantastically diverse selection of musical tracks and styles that fill the film and alter its texture in so many seductive and daring ways – music-wise, this a film that’s up there with the best of Jean-Luc Godard or Martin Scorsese. If it’s true that all art (as Walter Pater once remarked) aspires to the condition of music, then Stealing Beauty is an art film aspiring to be a musical. The soundtrack selection (not completely represented on its popular CD release) is a stirring, always surprising collage of classical, rock, blues and soul music. And when Bertolucci marries this sound to the prowling, strolling, lounging, forever dance-like movements of his characters, the result is entirely intoxicating. As in Wim Wenders, there is a primal blast of pure cinematic thrill – soaring far above simple craft-like facility – that endures, even in projects (such as The Million Dollar Hotel  [2000] for Wenders or Little Buddha  [1993] for BB) where the story-inspiration may be weak.


Ultimately, most of the Big Theme ways of wrapping up Stealing Beauty are far too crude, too literary in the worst way. I call this the best Bertolucci film in 17 years; that puts it next to my favourite film of his, La Luna. I have to admit here I’m not one who fixates nostalgically, as so many cinephiles do, on the memory of The Conformist and  Last Tango In Paris (1973), although they’re both terrific films. Bertolucci has been fetishised as a once great director of the 1960s and ‘70s – and also (with increasing frequency) derided for his supposed conversion to apolitical, lush, Hollywood-compromised spectaculars – The Last Emperor (1987) was the turning-point in that regard. Even some of his stellar national compatriots, such as Nanni Moretti and Marco Bellocchio, have joined in with this communal bashing.


As I’ve mentioned, Stealing Beauty is in many respects the complement-film or matching book-end to La Luna. The deepest affinity between the films, though, is not in their inverted plot basics, but on the level of style. In both, Bertolucci conjures a wayward path of narrative incidents and details. Scenes begin and end abruptly, in lyrical or disconcerting swirls of movement. There are sudden moments of show-off inventiveness, like the pages of a diary flashing before us, or the words of Lucy’s poems materialised as words on the screen, trailing across or up and down, as she looks straight into the camera and at us. Characters sometimes behave in ways that are comprehensible only to them, sharing the comedy of some private joke or code.


There is a marvellous sense of airiness and lightness to both La Luna and Stealing Beauty, a lightness which releases these characters from their burdens of identity or their slate of past errors. This lightness that Bertolucci imbues into the film also releases objects and gestures from the ponderous duty of earnest symbolism. In the moments when Stealing Beauty almost becomes a musical – when the songs begin, and people start their walking, their erotic prowling, their cat-like, bird-like or beast-like dancing – it absolutely transported me to a better world. In its big Tuscan party scene, Bertolucci can even stick in a whacky bunch of mime-artists-cum-dancers, who parody, extend and transform all the gestures of love and agony and seduction going on around them – and he can make even that hackneyed old device work well.


I once read a criticism of Bertolucci’s films (by Robert Kolker) which claimed that he raises images to the level of symbols, but these images often have nothing to symbolise or express. I think this is true of his best films – and I take it as a good thing, a fine thing. Quite simply, Bertolucci is an artist of excess, airy excess – he’s a baroque artist in that sense. Things are something before they mean something to him; they have weight and colour and movement; they have a material soul or substance or life. The carnival of all this materiality is always, in his films, a kind of divine jest aimed at the ponderousness of meaning, and morality, and fixed personal identity.


And that’s to say that for Bertolucci, the world is beautiful – beautiful above and almost beyond it being anything else. Thinking over Stealing Beauty, I believe that it ultimately works on two levels of beauty. First of all, beauty, for Bertolucci, is a material, physical, real thing: it’s something you can film and put on screen and celebrate through the senses. Yet it’s not only purely physical or animal. Bertolucci rejoins one of the great Hollywood traditions, wherein intense physical beauty – including the rapture of being a movie spectator and beholding that beauty – serves as a species of metaphor or abstraction. It’s like that beloved classic, The Enchanted Cottage (John Cromwell, 1945): two people who are completely in love will always see each other as absolutely, perfectly beautiful, even if, objectively, in some dreary real world, they are not so beautiful. And love, the transforming power of love, the soulful poperties of feeling, they are also certainly what Stealing Beauty is about. We should be mindful of all this before being tempted to reduce Bertolucci’s work to cut-and-dried issues of contemporary gender politics and identity representations; there is more reciprocity at play here than fixed gender positions and identifications can allow.


Stealing Beauty gives us such a unique bouquet of feelings: it’s sad, whimsical, delicate and kooky – and also incredibly erotic. We have been blind to Bertolucci’s talents for far too long; this movie, one of the best of the 1990s, re-opens our eyes with an intensely pleasurable jolt.

MORE Bertolucci: Besieged, The Dreamers, The Sheltering Sky, Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man

© Adrian Martin July/August 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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