Noting that the spontaneous style and spartan production of “Besieged” reminded him of the way he had made movies “a long time ago,” Bertolucci pronounced himself liberated from the encumbrances of astronomical budgets, weighty dialogue and conventional structure. “Because I did ‘The Last Emperor’ and those big movies, I don’t have that kind of need anymore,” the former poet said with obvious delight. “I can float on the liquid surface of low budget with great joy.”
As an examination of a relationship that traversed class and cultural differences between its protagonists — one an African medical student, the other her white British landlord — “Besieged” was very much in keeping with the themes that had consumed Bertolucci throughout his career, which began when he was an apprentice to the radical Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini. An abiding passion for politics and pure cinematic language suffused the film, which, like so many of his previous movies, featured two people navigating conflict and attraction within a confined space. Two decades before tribalism and xenophobia would engulf the European continent, Bertolucci conceived of “Besieged” as a deeply personal rebuke “at a moment when people are killing themselves in a kind of mad nationalism. . . . Because nationalism is not accepting the difference. This film is about not only accepting but loving the difference.”
That Bertolucci, who died Monday, couched an essentially humanist critique within a movie consumed with romantic desire was also very much in keeping with an oeuvre that proved as confounding as it was essential. A few years before I spoke with Bertolucci about “Besieged,” I had written about “Stealing Beauty,” in which he cast a coltish, teenage Liv Tyler as a virgin who works out issues of absent fathers and her own sexual awakening amid a cosmopolitan group of expatriates in Tuscany, Italy. As both an example and occasional critique of what is commonly called the male gaze, “Stealing Beauty” aptly summed up Bertolucci’s effect on modern cinema and how our agreed-upon notions of pictorial beauty, formal perfectionism and sensuality have been conditioned by the preoccupations of the male auteur — which in Bertolucci’s case could be prurient and fetishistic one moment, discreetly observational the next.
So much of my informal film education was conducted by way of his films. I was transported by the richly extravagant production values of epics such as “The Sheltering Sky” and “The Last Emperor,” the latter of which won nine Oscars in 1988. Even more memorably, I learned to appreciate compositional precision by watching Bertolucci’s stunning 1970 political thriller “The Conformist,” which features one of cinema’s greatest tracking shots, as well as a delicate latticework of shadow and light that pushes cinematography to its gorgeously expressive heights. (“The Conformist” was the first of Bertolucci’s exquisite collaborations with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who would become his longtime director of photography.)
But as a woman and filmgoer, I felt increasingly uncomfortable within Bertolucci’s imaginative frame, or locked out of it altogether, whether it had to do with the way he lingered over the female body or reduced the watchwords “the personal is political” to questions of seduction and erotic entanglement. In 1972, when Bertolucci released “The Last Tango in Paris,” it might have been possible to see it, as Pauline Kael did, as a transgressive masterpiece on a par with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
A generation later, the spectacle of Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider portraying strangers embarking on a series of violent sexual encounters looked far more problematic, especially with Schneider’s recollection of feeling “humiliated . . . and a little raped” by Brando and Bertolucci, who were several years her senior when she made the film as a 19-year-old. As much as he prided himself on his leftist, anti-fascist ideals, Bertolucci — who based the film on one of his daydreams about anonymous sex — was supremely uninterested in exploring the gender politics embedded within his films, dismissing Schneider’s accusations as a “ridiculous misunderstanding.”
Like so many of his contemporaries — the auteurs who built the canon — Bertolucci refused to countenance how his own fantasies and impulses became part of film’s fundamental grammar, internalized by men and women alike as what counts as beautiful, desirable and worth aestheticizing in the first place. Unwilling to interrogate his own work, now Bertolucci has left it to audiences to reconcile its contradictions — or at least allow them to coexist in an uneasy standoff. Bertolucci’s contributions to cinema are enduring and undebatable, not least because they add up to so many opposing ideas being true at the same time. His gaze demands that we create one of our own, capable of perceiving pleasure and pain in equal and disquieting measure.