You may remember back when all this started (lo these not-very-many months ago), I said I avoided films by auteurs. Apparently I’m prepared to make an exception when these films bomb horribly, because even if he remains best known to philistines like myself for Marlon Brando’s ‘get the butter’ moment from Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci is definitely an auteur. And Stealing Beauty was definitely a flop.
In 1996 Liv Tyler was almost the next big thing. After a winning turn in Empire Records (Just for you – it’s Rex Manning Day!) she just needed the right vehicle to turn her stellar, and luckily, Bertolucci was in the market for his next muse. Unfortunately for both of them, whatever film they were trying to make, it wasn’t the one fans wanted to watch at the Cannes Film Festival where it was roundly booed. And – whisper it quietly – Liv Tyler never really did break out into superstardom, elf-ears notwithstanding.
I’m not totally sure why it got such a bad reception at Cannes – honestly I think it might have been the odd soundtrack which careens from generic classical to woozy Portishead via some jarring and ill-chosen 90’s non-classics which have aged it more quickly than any film aside from the medieval harp-cum-80’s electro delights of Ladyhawke (of which more later, inevitably). There’s certainly aspects of it I don’t love, though I suspect they’re not the ones Cannes hated, given that with a Bertolucci film you should probably be prepared for feeling slightly unclean after watching.
The feeling of being an unwilling voyeur is pretty overt here, given we start off in grainy retro camcorder style as our teenage heroine Lucy is covertly filmed on her flight to Italy, through the airport, unconscious on a train (cue lascivious close-ups of her acid-wash crotch) and finally being courteously woken by her stalker at her stop before the unseen man hands her the tape through the window with the incredibly unreassuringly words ‘I was on the plane with you.’ For most directors this would be the set-up of a slasher movie. Here it’s never mentioned again.
This very much sets the tone for the rest of the film. After the death of her mother, 19-year old Lucy is visiting relations in Tuscany she barely remembers from her last visit five years ago. The beautiful villa at the top of a hill is owned by her aunt and artist uncle and rounded out by a variety of fucked-up children (including Joseph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz in early roles) eccentric oldies and random hangers on. Ostensibly Lucy is there to be immortalised in sculpture by her chainsaw wielding uncle, though she’s more interested in a) finding out who her real father is and b) rekindling romance with the local posho she snogged when she was last there. Everyone else, improbably clued in to the fact that Lucy is a virgin in the first ten minutes of her stay, is instantly fascinated and overly invested in who she’ll find to pop her cherry. Everyone is watching Lucy and we are watching everyone right back – which, given everybody is thinking about sex, talking about sex and occasionally even having sex really does make this a film with a one track mind, even if Bertolucci always seems to pull back from anything genuinely shocking or disturbing.
At first blush, the Venn diagram of prospective fathers and lovers offers far too much crossover for comfort, given that in this film, the women tend towards the practical and kind (Rachel Weisz’s fun bitch being the exception) whilst all the men are varying degrees and combinations of creepy, intense, weird and inappropriate. This includes her chain-smoking uncle (‘Let me look at you…’), Jeremy Irons, dying by unspecified wasting disease in the guesthouse next door (‘You’re in need of a ravishing’ he declares, dragging his IV pole behind him), a hard-bitten war journalist who used to correspond with Lucy’s mother, sexually ambivalent cousin Joseph Fiennes who impersonates Lucy in internet chat-rooms, the aforementioned posh Italian playboy and his enthusiastically-haired clarinet playing mate.
The back of the DVD tantalisingly promises ‘A sensual adventure that leads to the ultimate enlightenment’ though it’s telling that the pull quote above it reads ‘Delightfully romantic…a rare treat’ and comes from that bastion of respectable film criticism, the Daily Mirror. The contradiction between these two statements perhaps explains why Cannes hated it quite so much.
The main problem with Stealing Beauty as some great erotic masterpiece is that Liv Tyler… isn’t sexy. She’s just not. She is very, very beautiful. But she’s kind of goofy, and sweet, and she married the skinny singer of some obscure British indie band and lived improbably for a time in Harrogate and her kid is called Sailor. None of these are the actions of a femme fatale. Eva Green (of Bertolucci’s later The Dreamers’) probably bathes in the blood of her sacrificed lovers and uses their ground down bones as eye liner. She’s sexy. Liv Tyler willingly incorporates animal crackers into foreplay. It was never going to work, was it? So despite the promises of a wild ride and attempts at hot scenes (Lucy joins Rachel Weiz’s objectionable beefcake lawyer boyfriend in licking a mirror for…reasons), it’s much better if you just treat the film as an unusually atmospheric rom-com with an amazing cast and some lovely shots of Italy. This will also help you contextualise the odd bits of slapstick, such as when Lucy (sporting oh-so-sexy red wine smileys) throws up on her perspective beau’s crotch. Think of it as Bridget Jones 3: A Tuscan Summer.
I am being deeply unfair. Lucy’s choices for her lover may boil down to nothing more complex than your average teen movie (will she go for the heartless hunk or the sensitive nerd?), but the reason I keep going back to Stealing Beauty is that it’s a fascinating, compulsively detailed and immersive film that drags you in by having you notice different things every time you watch it. So much in the claustrophobically intimate setting is left unsaid or unresolved and every character hints at layers and layers of pasts and futures that you’ll never know about. The unreal beauty of the setting is contrasted against tiny moments of lives lived by real people ‘I’m tired of being here’ said Sinead Cusack’s weary mother hen. ‘I’m tired of looking after people’) and small intrusions by the outside world – the stranded Army Lieutenant on ‘top secret business’, the improbable gaggle of prostitutes by the side of the road.
I’d watch the whole thing all over again just for the party scene which plays out as the kind of shindig you’d kill to be invited to – starting out decorously with the local marching band and cocktails on the lawn with the neighbours and rapidly descending into a hedonistic tangle of trysting in the formal hedges, bump and grind to Stevie Wonder and unsettling sexual revelations soundtracked by Nina Simone. One of my favourite parts of the whole film is the androgynous, flame bearing dance troupe that shows up inexplicably halfway through and proceeds to twine sinuously through the rest of the evening like a grassroots Punchdrunk, passing almost uncommented on and upping the suggestion of unsettling sex by a factor of about 20.
More than anything, the whole film is suffused with such a sense of wistful longing and stretched-out, sun bleached summer-specific time that you don’t need to have gone to Italy, been reunited with your real father or lost your virginity to (spoilers) a mop-headed clarinettist to feel an odd sense of familiarity and a fierce pull of nostalgia. It’s possibly the only film I’ve ever seen that could make me tempted to relive the dubious pleasures of being 19 again.
In the end, it doesn’t matter who Lucy finally loses it too, or indeed who her father really is, despite the endearingly awkward tenderness of the former scene and the attempt to give the latter some last minute emotional weight. What you remember is the ending aerial shot of Lucy, walking home alone in the early morning after her big night out. The sun is out, the road is ahead of her, and it’s going to be a beautiful day.