A fine mess

Anyone who thinks the films of 50 years ago placed the virgin/whore shackles on female characters should check out Molly Haskell's perpetually irritated book, From Reverence To Rape. Given the obvious gender constraints of that time, Haskell insists, actresses at the height of their careers--women like Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn, and Bette Davis--weren't just in the driver's seat; the women they played were, too. Sure, bad girls usually met bad ends and good girls wised up and went back to their husbands, but the emotional terrain of women's lives and their choices regarding love--commitment, motherhood, adultery--were painted across the screens of America's movie houses in scorching detail.

It was, Haskell insists, during the '60s and '70s that celluloid misogyny reached full bloom. The creation of a national ratings system, the explosion of international cinema's popularity among mainstream American ticket buyers, and the destruction of the studio monarchy all contributed to an atmosphere in which women's thoughts and feelings were eclipsed by the continuous sight of their naked bodies. Auteurs both European (Bunuel, Fellini, Truffaut) and American (Cassavetes, Bogdanovich, Jaglom) stopped talking about women and started talking for them, often through dangerous, highly sexualized situations. Movies like Juliet of the Spirits, A Woman Under the Influence, and last year's huge rerelease hit, Belle De Jour, purported to dig around in the gray cells of the female brain. But instead of exploring the consequences of a woman's decisions, they used women as pawns to illustrate lessons about cruel, capricious fate. (So why did Catherine Denueve decide to work days at a brothel? Bunuel never bothered to show us, but you can almost hear his dismissive snort from the grave for us daring to pose such a trivial question in the face of Art.)

Bernardo Bertolucci is the 55-year-old Italian filmmaker who, like the aforementioned directors, came to international prominence in the '60s. Unlike the others, he has never displayed a sustained interest in female sexuality. He is best known in America for Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor. Filmed 12 years apart, these vastly different movies somehow manage to reflect the polarities that exist in every Bertolucci exercise: a taut magnetic attraction between film technique and character psychology. Basically, the Bertolucci formula sticks beautiful, confused people in front of breathtaking scenery and records their travails with measured warmth and a hint of brutality. He records conversations as cinematic set pieces, gradually escalating the stylishness of the art design and camera work in each (think especially of The Last Emperor or his last rough gem, Little Buddha) as the personal conflicts of his characters reach climax.

"Climax" describes what happens every 10 minutes or so in the director's latest lush portrait, the overheated Stealing Beauty. At least that's what we feel happens to the various members of the ensemble cast in this amiable study of an indecisive 19-year-old American woman (Liv Tyler) and the colorful acquaintances who indirectly help her lose her virginity one summer. The eccentrics gathered together in the Italian countryside of Tuscany are forever flirting and fighting, having sex and dying, creating and destroying, all the while wallowing in the ennui that doubles as reflection in Chekhov's universe.

Somehow our heroine, the comely Lucy Harmon, plays a decisive hand in all these turmoils. It's probably because, like most comely film heroines "on the cusp of womanhood," she is a blank slate to both the older men and women who encounter her--an object of desire or envy. Lucy is vacationing at a villa with friends of her late mother, who was a famously tragic, beautiful model-turned-poet a la Anne Sexton. The lot of the elders, in fact, are tragic and beautiful despite the lines that deepen on their faces. There's nostalgic, brooding Diana (Sinead Cusack), the den mother of this artists' collective; her red-blooded Irish sculptor-husband Ian (Donal McCann); an acerbic playwright hovering near death (Jeremy Irons, whose thin-lipped anemia has never been cast to better visual effect); the grave, curly haired older beauty Noemi (Stefania Sandrelli from Bertolucci's The Conformist and 1900); and dotty antiques dealer M. Guillaume (Jean Marais, lover to Jean Cocteau and star of Le Belle et La Bete and Orpheus).

You could heat and light the Vatican for a month on the sexual electricity that crackles among this motley crew. In addition to all her thorny entanglements with the elders, Lucy still pursues the cute neighbor boy who kissed her for the first time four years ago; she's also seeking to discover the identity of her father.

All of this is supposed to kindle an environment of mystery, intrigue, and longing. Instead, the script by American novelist Susan Minot flounders as a series of incoherent plot lines that converge as gracefully as a wet pile of spaghetti plopped on a plate. Throughout his 35-year career, Bernardo Bertolucci has used stories mostly as loose frameworks on which to drape his extravagant cinematic tapestries. The problem with Stealing Beauty is that, while there's a lot happening in a very small, photogenic space, most of it feels phony because the characters are little more than thumbnail sketches. It's difficult to fault a cast of such proven talent, so you have to blame Minot and Bertolucci for the superficiality that deflates the movie's big moments.

Perhaps because she's given so little to do, Liv Tyler shines bright as Lucy Harmon. If Bertolucci's postcard-pretty riff on youthful feminine lust contains, at its core, a convincing point of view rather than just another male wish-fulfillment fantasy, thank Tyler. The real test of screen acting is facial expression, and since Bertolucci threatens to take us inside Liv's nostrils with the frightening proximity of some of his closeups, we get ample evidence of the young woman's simple, fluid emotionalism. Because she's not afraid to hold the gaze of both the veteran actors in the cast and the parade of young men with whom she flirts, Tyler makes Lucy a character who loses her virginity, not just a beauty to be deflowered by some lucky male cast member. When she and Bertolucci's undeniable visual mastery harmonize in this frequently discordant erotic romp, the sparks fly off the screen and into your lap. When left to fend for herself, Tyler is a game trouper left in the care of just another dirty old European movie maker.

Stealing Beauty. Fox Searchlight. Liv Tyler, Sinead Cusack, Jeremy Irons. Written by Susan Minot, from a story by Bernardo Bertolucci. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Opens June 28.


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