On Film

Bertolucci’s Dream Worlds and Female Realities

A recent re-watch of The Dreamers prompted me to think about the links between the film and Bertolucci’s earlier ‘coming of age’ work, Stealing Beauty. In essence, both films tell the story of a female protagonist grappling with the demands of impending adulthood. Superficially these demands centre on the discovery of female sexuality (sex in a Bertolucci film?! Do try to contain your surprise…) – both leading ladies are virgins at the outset – but I interpret the underlying message to be more broadly about facing up to reality and responsibilities.

In Stealing Beauty, we travel to a Tuscan rural idyll with Lucy, played by Liv Tyler. The stated purpose of the trip is for Lucy to have her portrait done – a rite of passage for the daughter of a (deceased) artist. Yet in returning to the place in which she knows she was conceived 20 years ago, she ultimately hopes to find her lifelong-estranged father. As Lucy assesses various possible father figures, she becomes the object of attention for several male characters, her sexual purity enhancing her allure. The story centres on how Lucy negotiates her relationships with these men, all but one of whom are considerably more experienced than she is.

Both Lucy and Niccolo appear to have found something they would like to chew on
Both Lucy and Niccolo appear to have found something they would like to chew on

The Dreamers is ostensibly about Matthew (Michael Pitt), the young American studying in Paris, and his ascent – or descent, depending on your perspective – into the collective dream world of siblings Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo. As the 1968 student riots rage around them, the newly-formed trio avoid the outside world and remain within the confines and comforts of the family home. Life is a game: the characters act out scenes from their favourite films and dish out sexually-humiliating forfeits when these can’t be correctly identified.

... It's a look
… It’s a look

Lucy and Isabelle both appear on the surface to exemplify maturity and independence relative to their youth, and yet initial appearances are quickly betrayed. Lucy has travelled solo to unearth her mother’s romantic history in the wake of her passing – a brave endeavour, but she is often awkward and unsure of herself in her interactions with male characters. She wants to give herself to Niccolo, with whom she shared a kiss four years ago but their re-acquaintance does not live up to the fantasy; she is side-stepped by an older (and taken) man whose lesson in sensuality involves crawling on all fours and licking a mirror; and she tries to proposition a man at a party to prove a point, much to the amusement of those around her. Lucy yearns to be seen as a woman, but rarely do we feel that she is in control of situations. Very telling is a scene with her in her bedroom, listening to Hole’s Olympia, screeching along and doing what is better described as a flail than a dance. She is at her most care-free when not under the gaze of others, and thus without compulsion to act in a ‘mature’ way.

Don't try this narcissism at home
Don’t try this narcissism at home

In contrast, we are given the impression that Isabelle is worldly by how she speaks and carries herself. However, much of her knowledge evidently comes from the movies and not from real-life experience. Isabelle’s equivalent of Lucy’s dance is her posing at the Venus de Milo, topless and wearing black gloves to give the impression of no forearms. Whilst we may not suspect it from her behaviour, she too is a virgin at the outset of the film. Isabella and Theo are (disconcertingly) comfortable being naked around each other, but this is very much familial, asexual intimacy. The fact that the siblings can share a bath at their ages perhaps highlights their sexual innocence. It is newcomer Matthew’s presence that inadvertently transforms playtime into something more ‘adult’: Isabelle and Matthew end up copulating on the floor, resulting in tears as the usually composed Isabella is more affected by the experience than anticipated. Later we learn that the girl has never even been on a date before. This is quickly remedied with a trip au ciné, which she relishes.

As Andy Warhol said, "Two's a crowd, three's a party"
As Andy Warhol said, “Two’s a crowd, three’s a party”

Arguably, both characters make the transition to womanhood as the respective films draw to a close: Lucy by choosing to give her virginity to a sweet fellow virgin over one of the more predatory male figures, as well as by connecting with her father, the sculptor doing her portrait; Isabella by joining the student protests with Theo, leaving behind Matthew and her escapism. In spite of the focus throughout both Stealing Beauty and The Dreamers on sex and sexuality, it is Lucy posing for her father that is the lasting image of her as a young woman, and Isabelle being subsumed in the crowd of protestors the defining moment for her. Once the female leads are no longer fixated with acting a certain way, they are able to embrace the realities unfolding around them and finally shed their dream worlds.

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On Film

A Short Education in Israeli Film, Courtesy of Israel’s Winner of the Voice and Sir Patrick Stewart

The most auspicious London Israeli Film & Television Festival (SERET) was in town last week. Who needs Cannes when you can watch films about unyielding intrastate conflict and old age pensioner high jinks in North London cinemas and Jewish cultural centres?

I had the honour of attending a screening of Bethlehem at Bafta. The actual showing was sandwiched between a drinks reception and a Q&A session with the leading actor – a kind of cushioning to soften the blow dealt by the heavy subject matter of the film. Bethlehem depicts a longstanding relationship between Israeli secret service agent Razi (played by Tsahi Halevi) and a Palestinian informant, Sanfur, as it falters. Sanfur’s brother Ibrahim is implicated in terrorist attacks and future plots; Razi discovers that he knows details about Ibrahim’s whereabouts and is hurt by his little buddy’s concealment; he pushes the boundaries to capture the brother; and as a result of alienating the already frustrated Sanfur, takes a sizeable rock to the head. There is far more to this complex tapestry of Israeli and Palestinian narratives, but those are the main threads of the story.

Bethlehem is gritty and faithful to the reality on the ground, but also reaches beyond the political discourse to tell the story of Sanfur: the luckless victim of circumstance. The boy has a serious case of Daddy issues, living in the shadows of his local hero, Bomberman-esque brother and often scorned for little apparent reason. He is let down by Razi, the more likeable and seemingly more compassionate paternal figure in his life, and then by the different factions of the Palestinian resistance movement. Sick of being treated like a pawn in the conflict by the various parties involved, Sanfur decisively takes control by shooting Razi and then bashing in his head with a rock. Smart move, Sanfur…

Then Razi appears from behind a curtain – seemingly unscathed – to take questions from the audience. Incredibly, this was Tsahi Halevi’s first major acting gig; he was better known previously for winning Israel’s version of televised singing competition The Voice! In the words of a proud Jewish mother: “Have you met my boy?! He sings, he plays guitar, he sympathises with the Palestinian cause, he speaks fluent Arabic, he takes rocks to the head…” The actor who played Sanfur (Shadi Mar’I) was also a non-professional actor. He now has another film under his belt and more work in the pipeline.

Seven days later, an entirely different kind of Israeli film was on the agenda: Hunting Elephants. Granted, the film was chosen from the week’s programme largely because Sir Patrick Stewart was turning up for Q&A. Cue an obnoxious question from the audience on whether he regrets Star Trek (FYI the answer is a decisive “no”).

The slightly ridiculous story is as follows. When Jonathan’s father dies of a heart attack at the bank where he works in security, the insurance “small print” means that widower and son are left penniless. Jonathan’s estranged grandfather, Eliyahu, is in an old people’s home where his wife Roda lies in a coma. Roda is of wealthy British heritage and inherited her father’s estate in Israel, while her brother Michael (Patrick Stewart) received nothing because he chose to pursue a theatre career. So both Jonathan and Michael are in need of some serious dosh – and thus a plan is hatched to rob a bank. Jonathan knows the security systems well; Eliyahu and his buddy Nick used to rob banks to fund Zionist terrorist activities; and if it all goes to pot, the oldies can claim senility. An iron-clad plan if there ever was one.

On the face of it a black comedy, Hunting Elephants is heavily weighted in favour of comedy. There’s a laugh a minute thanks to either elderly tom-foolery or Patrick Stewart playing the quintessentially British buffoon.

There’s also plenty wrong with Hunting Elephants, and it’s not just all the sex gags involving old people. There are no good female characters: Jonathan’s mother prostitutes herself to her deceased husband’s boss before his body’s even cold; the scantily clad attendant at the old folks’ home is eye candy for the male residents and the butt of sponge bath-related jokes; and Eliyahu’s wife is in a coma.

But the underlying message of the film does a lot to redeem it: children and the elderly are often overlooked or mocked in society, when they have just as much to offer as anyone else. In fact, Jonathan and Eliyahu successfully carry out the bank heist by playing on misperceptions of ineptitude to their advantage.

This film steers clear of politics – the line “So much for Israel’s open door policy!” in response to a slammed door doesn’t make the final cut – but this doesn’t dissuade a (mostly Jewish) British audience from asking Patrick Stewart what he thought of his time in Israel. Being confronted with the reality of a land surrounded by less-than-friendly neighbours, he was struck by Israel’s “intense state of vulnerability”.

And which country was next on Stewart’s around-the-world tour? Why, Bulgaria of course! Snap decisions to accept less orthodox roles are part of his newly-found joie de vivre – “In my earlier years, I wasn’t quite brave enough.” Next stop: Azerbaijan perhaps? Or another galaxy on the good ol’ Enterprise?

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On Film

Watch Me Move

For a slice of on-screen nostalgia, I strongly recommend a visit to Watch Me Move: The Animation Show at the Barbican Centre. The exhibition showcases short films and clips from feature lengths spanning the history of film, and ranging from family-friendly familiars to the experimental, to the downright disturbing!

The numerous screens and projections are the prime focus in the minimal space. Here are some of my favourite film shorts from the exhibition…

The Serpentine Dance (1899) - The Lumière Brothers

The Serpentine Dance (1899) – The Lumière Brothers

This short is one of the first films ever made. It was shot in black and white, and then hand-coloured frame by frame to create beautiful colour transitions that complement the fluidity of the dancer’s graceful movements, injecting vibrancy and spirit into the dance.

Duck Amuck (1950s)

Duck Amuck (1950s)

In this cartoon, the ill-humoured Daffy Duck is mocked by his creator, who humiliates the character by sketching unfortunate situations for him and threatening his very existence with the rubber on the end of his pencil. These actions provoke the most indignant squawks you are ever likely to hear from a duck. In the closing scene, the shot pans out to reveal that it is none other than Bugs Bunny who is responsible for Daffy’s suffering.

Le Nez (The Nose; 1963)

Le Nez (The Nose; 1963)

This film by husband and wife team Alexeieff and Parker is based on Russian writer Nikolai Gogol’s tale of a young man who loses his nose. The story of the desperate search and the need to conceal the missing facial protrusion is not quite as impressive as the animation itself; the directors used a black canvas full of pins and pushed these in to greater and lesser degrees to create changing shades of grey.

Dimensions of Dialogue (1982) - Jan Svankmajer

Dimensions of Dialogue (1982) – Jan Svankmajer

I’d unknowingly watched one of Svankmajer’s films before seeing Dimensions of Dialogue, as a good friend of mine presented me with Little Otik a few years back. This feature-length film is based on a Czech fairy tale about a tree trunk carved into the form of a baby and adopted by a family, who then struggle with the creature’s insatiable appetite for human beings. Clearly, this director has a penchant for the bizarre, and Dimensions is no exception. This short film is very clever in its portrayal of two-person interaction, and beautiful in its own way. On this note, I feel I can only do it justice by describing it in more depth.

The film begins with the confrontation of two heads: one crafted out of vegetables and one constructed from kitchenware. One devours the other and vomits out a hybrid of the two; this demented rock-paper-scissors-esque sequence continues until two bald human heads remain.

In the second ‘dialogue’, a man and woman made out of clay become intertwined and melded together in a passionate embrace. A clay sex scene ensues, in which they become one indistinguishable entity but for the odd fleeting emergence of a face, hand or other body part. After the figures have separated again, a small lump of clay appears between them. The clay baby is rejected by both and prompts them to become increasingly angry, to the point that they begin to claw chunks out of each other’s faces!

The final scene shows two heads engaging with one another through the medium of everyday objects. They start with complementary pairs, such as a pencil and pencil sharpener, or a toothbrush and toothpaste. Yet before long, the heads fall out of accord and the toothbrush is met by the sharpener, the pencil by the toothpaste, etc. The tension climaxes with the implosion of the two.

****

Watch Me Move has reaffirmed my belief that animation is not just, or even chiefly, for kids. The relatively boundless creativity for which it allows is great for expressing adult subject material as well as ‘Disney emotions’ (which, looking back, aren’t all that child-specific in the first place – the witch in Snow White frightens me today as much as she did when I was four). So pop along to the Barbican Centre to sample the wonderful world of animation, which seems to err between the surreal and something much closer to home.

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