Name a filmmaker who maybe, maybe, spent a shade too long in psychoanalysis; Woody Allen’s name might spring to mind. But it was true, by his own admission, of Bernardo Bertolucci, who famously greeted the winning of a barrel-load of Oscars with the quip that Hollywood had become, for him, ‘the big nipple.’ He couldn’t stop himself.
That same year, 1988, John Boorman had done the rounds of Hollywood functions because he, too, was promoting a movie with multiple nominations; and in his diaries Boorman recorded a wonderful exchange with his fellow auteur. He asked Bertolucci quite why he’d done so much time on the analyst’s couch, and the reply was, as I recall: ‘Because I kept on making beautiful movies and nobody went to see them.’
The thing is, you can see Bertolucci making that joke, in all candour, with the delighting, semi-rueful smile that travelled halfway up the side of his face.
But, of course, not nearly so neglected! Bertolucci was, is, will be famous for Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor. The Conformist is widely considered his masterpiece, one of the all-time great movies. Before the Revolution and The Spider’s Stratagem are hugely admired. Much else in his body of work is extraordinary and brilliant. That’s plenty, no?
It’s The Conformist for me, too. It’s about politics, about Italy and fascism; but it’s about cinema, too – helplessly, ravishingly. Bertolucci would own up, candidly, to a case of ‘the disease of cinephilia.’ In this movie, he made plain, you could see Ophuls, Sternberg, Welles. But you saw Godard, too – the father he offended by taking Paramount’s money to distribute the film. You saw Bresson: Bertolucci, who venerated the great man, cast Dominique Sanda fresh from Une Femme Douce because, he quipped, he wanted to steal one of Bresson’s virgins, put her in a beautiful dress and take her to a party.
Bertolucci was always honourable towards his great collaborators, too, as on The Conformist: the visual powerhouses Vittorio Storaro and Nando Scarfiotti, and Franco ‘Kim’ Arcalli, who helped him reconstruct The Conformist in the cutting-room (‘an ex-Partisan, fantastic guy!’ as Bertolucci would describe him to years later.)
Bertolucci’s cinema has given me so many more joys: that apartment in Last Tango in Paris, with its strange Christo-like shroud; the umbilical links in Luna, and the pop-culture joys of Marilyn Monroe in Niagara and Matthew Barry’s café-jukebox dancing; the toast in The Last Emperor to ‘The Lord of Ten Thousand Years!’; The Sheltering Sky’s heartbreaking scene between Malkovich and Winger on the rocky plateau, that film’s heartbreaking score, its exquisite ending with Paul Bowles…
Bertolucci’s ambitions were so grand and romantic, his conception of sex and politics so heady, that you’d be hard-hearted not to see the life-enhancing charm of them, even if he sometimes bit off more than he could chew. If I remember it correct he wanted Novecento to be co-founded by Hollywood and Mosfilm, with US and Soviet actors in the two leads, as a means of engineering a little creative détente. That plan was doomed, a shade too schematic: as is any cinema, in my view, that tries to score points based on theories, that wants to editorialise rather than dramatise. Some of Bertolucci’s movies aren’t as dramatic as they ought to be; but they’re always ravishing.
When I was a research student at the British Film Institute in the mid-1990s I wrote a thesis on Nando Scarfiotti and his work, to which Bertolucci, with great grace, contributed in loving memory of his friend and colleague. I met him on the Tuscan location of Stealing Beauty, where he was commanding matters with the charisma I expected. Darius Khondji was the DP – no mean substitute for Storaro, who wasn't available, as he sometimes hadn't been ever since he was, in Bertolucci’s impish words, ‘unfaithful to him with Coppola’ for Apocalypse Now.
I will never ever forget that day, that conversation, all I saw on Bertolucci’s show. I have one or two friends who are filmmakers, and I like to address them as ‘maestro,’ jocularly, but in respect, too – because it’s very hard to make a good film. Bertolucci made some great ones, and when I watched him make cinema I was so struck by the easy way in which he was addressed repeatedly by his collaborators as ‘maestro.’ He certainly was. Buona notte e buona fortuna, maestro.