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Desson Howe - Style section,
Lucy (Liv Tyler) has come to Italy to have her portrait done by Ian Grayson, an old family friend. Lucy's true purpose in coming is to learn more about her mother, but her other motive is to find a handsome Italian boy whose kiss has lingered in her memory. At the time, Lucy fought off the boy's advances; now, as she prepares herself emotionally to lose her virginity, she entertains the fantasy that he might be "the one." When confronted with the blank slate of Lucy's seductive innocence, the characters are forced to examine their own motives. -- Hal Hinson
'Stealing Beauty': Youth and the
Grace of Age
By Hal Hinson
When Bernardo Bertolucci began work on his latest film, "Stealing Beauty," he saw it as a return to Italy, a return home. Set in the Chianti district, this story of a 19-year-old American girl who travels to Tuscany for her summer vacation is also a return to form for the Italian maestro.
For the past 15 years, the creator of "The Conformist" and "Last Tango in Paris" (among others) has lived in self-imposed exile from his homeland. During that time, he has worked on his "Eastern Trilogy": "The Last Emperor" (1987), which won nine Oscars including Best Picture, "The Sheltering Sky" (1990) and "Little Buddha" (1993). In those films, his style was magisterial, epic.
"Stealing Beauty" is the polar opposite of these towering projects; it's compact, intimate and subtly personal. Because the movie features a teenage protagonist and stars teen-dream Liv Tyler, most reviewers have taken the director at his word when he's described "Stealing Beauty" as a "little" film. But the ideas the filmmaker wrestles with in this complex, lyrical motion picture are as rich and penetrating as any he's ever tackled.
What's more, Bertolucci's voice is stronger, clearer and more effortlessly confident than it has been in years. He's stolen the beauty of Tuscany and his youthful star and transformed it into an exquisite work of movie art.
The focal point of the film is a house in the rolling Tuscan hills owned by Ian and Diana Grayson (Donal McCann and Sinead Cusack). Ian is a sculptor, and, ostensibly, Lucy (Tyler) has come to Italy to pose for her portrait. The Graysons are old family friends of Lucy's late mother, Sara, an acclaimed poet and free spirit known to her daughter mainly through the often cryptic clues left behind in her diary.
Lucy's mission in coming to this idyllic outpost for various expatriate artists and aesthetes is to learn more about her mother. But she has another motive as well. Four years earlier, she developed a crush on a handsome Italian boy whose kiss has lingered in her memory. At the time, Lucy fought off the boy's advances; now, as she prepares herself emotionally to have sex for the first time, she entertains the fantasy that he might be "the one."
However, when Lucy arrives, her sexual status instantly becomes the main topic of conversation and concern. "There's a virgin in the house," one character exclaims, drawing attention to the weird vibe hovering over the group. The atmosphere that Bertolucci and novelist-turned-screenwriter Susan Minot create is a combination of sophistication and decadence.
Confronted with the blank slate of Lucy's seductive innocence, the characters are forced to examine themselves. Alex (Jeremy Irons), for example, is a playwright with a terminal illness, living out his final days. Lucy's presence, though, seems to revive him. An aging Lothario, Alex has devoted his life to sex and art, and somehow, Lucy comes to embody the essence of both. As Alex confronts his own death, he clings to Lucy, as if her youthful vitality might cure him.
Alex isn't the only character to feed on Lucy's purity. From the opening shots of an unknown cameraman sneaking footage with his videocam while Lucy sleeps on a train, voyeurism -- and the artist's relationship to his subject -- is one of the filmmaker's main motifs. The gaze that the director and his characters focus on Lucy is predatory, vampiric. For Ian, who pulls her aside periodically to sit for his preliminary sketches, Lucy is his muse, but also grist for the mill of his art -- raw material to be used, stolen from and discarded.
Lucy's role for Bertolucci is much the same, a fact emphasized by the director's casting of McCann in the sculptor's role. (McCann bears an uncanny resemblance to Bertolucci.) At its most basic level, "Stealing Beauty" is an artist's meditation on the inspirations of his art. And in Tyler, the filmmaker has found the perfect mixture of coming-of-age sensuality and vulnerability.
The true star, though, is Bertolucci. "Stealing Beauty" is a fluid, intoxicating work. The flow of the director's images creates a sense of heightened awareness; every frame is eroticized, potent. (The Italian countryside has never looked more alluring.) Working for the first time without the aid of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Bertolucci seems looser and more spontaneous in his attack, yet more engaged, more expressive. Film is a medium for the young, and it isn't often we're given the opportunity to experience the work of a mature artist -- much less one in full flower. And that's what "Stealing Beauty" is. It may not be epic in scale; in artistic terms, though, it's huge.
Stealing Beauty is rated R.
Bertolucci's Shallow 'Beauty'
By Desson Howe
If Mel Brooks ever decides to make a parody of arty, European movies, he should start with "Stealing Beauty," Bernardo Bertolucci's hilariously inscrutable exercise in pseudo-profundity. Set in Tuscany, it's about a small community of pretentious, eccentric expatriates (Americans, Brits, French), who congregate in a villa owned by British earth mother Diana (Sinead Cusack) and her sculptor-husband Ian (Donal McCann).
The daily function of these self-absorbed lemmings is to speak in pseudo-mysticisms, discuss their indolent dilemmas, work on their etchings or, in the case of ailing playwright Alex (Jeremy Irons), take a long and chatty time to die.
No wonder they get all excited when luscious 19-year-old Lucy Harmon (Liv Tyler, the daughter of Aerosmith rock star Steve Tyler) enters the scene. Ostensibly visiting so she can pose for sculptor Ian, her real purpose (in this dirty-old-man reverie of a flick) is to stir up the collective testosterone -- old and young. She also affects the women, who are either challenged or reminded of their youth.
"There's a virgin in the house," intones Noemi (Stefania Sandrelli), an Italian Miss Lonelyhearts columnist who frequents this aesthetic hangout.
There are two bits of "suspense" in this movie: Who's going to deflower Lucy and who was her real father? Lucy's poet-Mom, it seems, got around a bit -- and some of these old, artsy guys enjoyed her generosity, oh, about 20 years ago.
The movie concentrates almost exclusively on surface sensuality. For those who simply want to drink in the northern Italian countryside and Tyler's physical details, it's quite an experience. But as a story, "Stealing Beauty" (which Bertolucci wrote with Susan Minot) is a misbegotten, sentimental reunion with old European cinema: Sandrelli, who acted in Bertolucci's "The Conformist," and Jean Marais, well known for his performance in Jean Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast," make idiots of themselves. And this trip to the Italian artland is suffused with artificial characters and moments. "She reminds me so much of me," says Irons's Alex with a fussy little hand flourish, talking about Lucy. (Jeremy, what were you thinking when you took on this project?)
"I can feel the night behind me," coos Lucy, as she poses, seminude, for her portrait. You can feel the what, Luce?
STEALING BEAUTY (R) -- Contains sexual situations, nudity and the kind of weirdos you only encounter in European movies.