MAYBE BERNARDO Bertolucci can't work simply. Maybe he can't do love affairs without a few labored layers of dialectic argument, some sort of fascistic milieu and oodles of lavishly choreographed camera work.
Whatever the problems, "Besieged," a romance between David Thewlis and Thandie Newton, is crashingly listless. In the words of John Cleese in the famous Monty Python "parrot" sketch, it is bereft of life. Romantically speaking, it's toe-tagged and dead on the slab.
Written by the usual creative conspiracy of Bertolucci and Clare Peploe, "Besieged" tracks the growing relationship between two lazily sketched creations: Shandurai (Newton), a proud medical student from an unnamed, repressive third world country, whose husband has been imprisoned for his political beliefs, and Mister Kinsky (Thewlis), a wealthy English pianist, who becomes her landlord.
While Shandurai cleans his house, in exchange for her room, Kinsky plays moody pieces on the keyboard. He rarely leaves his house. He's an eccentric without human impulses, except a freaky crush on the tenant. It isn't long before Kinsky declares his love for Shandurai.
She has been aware of his pointed admiration and has warded him off politely. But he presses the matter: Is there anything he can do to win her love? Full of conflicting emotions, Shandurai tells him about her husband -- which is news to Kinsky. She also tearfully implies that the door to her heart might be open if the Englishman saves her husband from imprisonment.
Uh-huh! A story threatens! Or does it? As if concerned that his project will be overrun with clarity, coherence and entertainment, Bertolucci takes immediate measures. Aiming for the hip, modish generation that is relatively unaware of his curriculum vitae, Bertolucci uses a frenetic, jarring editing style at times, then long, almost-documentary takes with handheld cameras at other moments.
This telegenic hipness doesn't disguise the skin-deep plot. Shandurai and Kinsky are so lightly etched, we barely care whether they fall in love or walk in front of an Italian truck. We see Shandurai in action at medical school, with a flashback in that far-off country for good measure, but we learn nothing about her. As for Kinsky, he registers a zero. Who is he? Why is he that way? Beats me. Beats Bertolucci and Peploe too. Did the director simply like the idea of a beautiful black woman sharing digs with a weird, pallid Englishman -- and nothing else? We already have Gap and Benetton commercials, thanks.
The acting does nothing to boost the conceptual nothingness. If ham acting could be measured in pork futures, Thewlis's performance would have the stock market reeling. And Newton, star of Oprah Winfrey's "Beloved," can't do much more than look variously exotic, proud and moody. If Bertolucci had really wanted this film to fly, he should have considered making fun of himself and the culture. With a few minor adjustments, "Besieged" could have been a sendup of MTV shorthand, an overextended exercise in character inarticulation as seen in "The Real World." But that would be another movie. -- Desson Howe
BESIEGED (R, 92 minutes) -- Contains sexual scenes and nudity. In English and Italian with subtitles. At the Cineplex Odeon Shirlington 7 and Outer Circle and the Crown Eastport 2.
CAPTION: Thandie Newton and David Thewlis are inexplicably drawn to each other.