by Will Aitken
Cut, no. 16, 1977, pp. 23-26
What follows is an examination of gay motifs and images as they figure in six films by Bernardo Bertolucci—THE GRIM REAPER (1961), BEFORE THE REVOLUTION (1964), RIGOLETTO (1970), THE CONFORMIST (1970), LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972), 1900 (1976).
Gay sexuality has never been the central concern of any of Bertolucci's films; none of his films has been more than incidentally "about" homosexuality. On the contrary, his films seem to be more consistently concerned with the incessantly political nature of existence.
There is, however, underlying this central political concern a constant fascination with/abhorrence of homosexuality. It runs through these six films and in many ways reflects or even intensifies the political concerns that lie at these films' surface. This article deals with how gay sexuality appears in Bertolucci's various films, how he presents and deals with it and, finally, how the appearance of gay sexuality has altered in his films as he has matured as a filmmaker.
BEFORE THE REVOLUTION
If there ever comes a time when I've forgotten what it feels like to be twenty-one, I'll go see Bernardo Bertolucci's BEFORE THE REVOLUTION again.
An adaptation, in spirit if not quite in exact plot, of Stendhal's celebration of youth, The Charterhouse of Parma, BEFORE THE REVOLUTION offers an exceptional experience: the evocation of the audacity and tentativeness of the time when we're still young but aging fast. What is unique about this evocation comes from the fact that it arises from and we see it through the eyes of youth—Bertolucci was twenty-two when he made BEFORE THE REVOLUTION, his second feature film, in 1964.
The black and white film begins with a series of intentionally disjointed scenes in which Fabrizio, the young central character (Stendhal's Fabrice), walks about the outskirts of Parma with his friend Agostino. Fabrizio tries alternately to convince Agostino to grow up, to reject his bourgeois origins, to join the Communist Party (all things Fabrizio has, with admirable perspicacity, already accomplished). At their final meeting, Fabrizio offers to take Agostino to visit his mentor, an older unmarried man, Professor Cesare.
We next see Fabrizio standing at the edge of a smooth-surfaced lake. On the opposite shore, naked working-class boys leave the water to dress. At Fabrizio's feet lies a neat pile of clothing. Agostino has at last followed Fabrizio's urgings, rejected his life and walked into the water.
The eve of Agostino's funeral, Fabrizio talks, compulsively, incessantly, about Agostino—"he had hair like the feathers of a canary"—trying to make sense of the friend's suicide. Fabrizio's aunt, Gina, visiting from Genoa, listens, her pensive smile revealing the understanding she has of Fabrizio's love for Agostino.
There's a subtle, elliptical beauty in Bertolucci's handling of this love, not because he attempts to disguise it, but rather because he reveals that love through the developing tenderness between Fabrizio and Gina.
It is finally Gina and not Agostino whom Fabrizio takes to meet Professor Cesare. There in his cluttered monastic quarters, Cesare and Fabrizio talk about Agostino's death while a suddenly jealous Gina attempts to drown out their conversation by playing the radio. And it is here that Gina and Fabrizio read to each other from Oscar Wilde ("The only man with more illusions than the dreamer is the man of action").
What becomes increasingly clear as the film sweeps along through the confusions of youth (and the stunning visual equivalents Bertolucci finds for that confusion) is that Fabrizio is attempting to build his life by rejection-first his family and their bourgeois politics, then his love for Agostino, finally his love for Gina. The film becomes Bertolucci's buildingungs movie, a series of farewells to the past. (The film's title comes from Talleyrand: "Who has not known the life before the revolution doesn't know the sweetness of living.")
The replacement of Agostino by his aunt, Gina, the substitution of one taboo for another—a sort of homosexuality by a sort of incest—ultimately leads Fabrizio, in his quest for an unremarkable life, to ditch Gina and marry a respectable bourgeois. By the end of the film Fabrizio realizes his nostalgia is for the beauty of life as it is in the present. He repudiates the Party and his socially unacceptable relationship with Gina (she is, after all, quite obviously his senior by many years) and avidly pursues a normal life, devoid of radicalism, be it political or sexual.
This attempt at rejection of family and class is explicable and, considering the class, entirely laudable. Bertolucci, though, instead of seeing Agostino and Gina and the homosexuality and incest they represent as destructive challenges to the family (and therefore to the central essential unit of the capitalist structure), insists on viewing them as manifestations of bourgeois decadence. It is here we first view the ambivalence that will intensify with each successive film: Is variant sexuality decadent or subversive? That Fabrizio ends up sacrificing Agostino and Gina in order eventually to regain bourgeois respectability indicates one aspect of Bertolucci's enduring ambivalence.
What gives BEFORE THE REVOLUTION its tone of ineffable sadness is the confluence we sense between Fabrizio's life and Bertolucci's own. All his central heroes, until LAST TANGO IN PARIS, are roughly Bertolucci's own age at the time he is making each film. His films, like Fabrizio's life, have grown decreasingly political, nearly anti-political—that is, until the radical surprise of 1900—because love for the sensuality of life as it appears to him is contradictory to the necessity for political upheaval. (And yet, I want to add, a sensual involvement with the world must surely precede the impulse to change it, improve it.) Similarly, the replacement of Agostino by Gina is presented as necessary growth, a gaining of adulthood through mature heterosexuality.
The irony then arises that Fabrizio must put behind him even that heterosexual love because it exists outside established norms, too erotically informed to be completely acceptable in Fabrizio's milieu. The deliberateness of these rejections, particularly as Fabrizio is aware (and, evidently, Bertolucci, too) of their deliberateness, gives the film a quality more elegiac than valedictory, a character and its creator mourning what he was and what he won't allow himself to be.
THE GRIM REAPER
Moving from Bertolucci's second feature to his first is going reluctantly from the startling operatic lyricism of the Godard-influenced BEFORE THE REVOLUTION to the somber, highly formal structure and compositions of THE GRIM REAPER (LA COMMARE SECCA).
THE GRIM REAPER essentially is an homage to the late Pier Paolo Pasolini. Prior to making it in 1961 at the age of twenty, Bertolucci's chief film experience had come from working as assistant director on Pasolini's ACCATONI Bertolucci's father, the respected Italian poet and film critic, had introduced his twelve-year-old son to Pasolini. The young Bertolucci admired Pasolini's poetry, and when Bertolucci himself became a prize-winning poet several years later, Pasolini returned the compliment. Soon Bertolucci was being touted in the Italian press as Pasolini's young protégé.
THE GRIM REAPER is the work of a protégé; stiff and restrained, we sense Bertolucci is uncomfortable working in Pasolini's lower-depths tradition. A prostitute is found murdered near a public park in Rome. A RASHOMON-like structure allows the events leading up to the murder to be described from several viewpoints, with a late afternoon rainstorm interrupting each retelling in order to provide the viewer with a still point from which chronologically to link up the separate viewpoints. Each person in the park prior to the murder remembers a man lurking in the shadows: we're led to assume that he is the murderer. But then, when the police have finished their investigation without reaching a solution, the man from the shadows comes forward. He's a young gay man who was cruising the park that night. After much hesitation, he has found the courage to blow his cover (remember, this is 1962) and lead the police to the actual murderer.
RIGOLETTO/THE SPIDER'S STRATEGEM
Bertolucci made RIGOLETTO, released in North America as THE SPIDER'S STRATEGEM, for Italian television in 1970. Here he begins to develop the twinning motif that will run through THE CONFORMIST, LAST TANGO IN PARIS and 1900. This time round, a young man returns to his father's town to investigate the legend of his murdered father as anti-Fascist hero. The twinning comes up first because both father and son are played by the same actor, Giulio Brogi). In addition, flashbacks from the son's present to the father's past (as narrated by the father's mistress and comrades) work as enigmatic mirrors.
Shot in the miniature city of Sabbioneta (in the film campily called Tara), RIGOLETTO is a faithful working out of the central story of Borges' Labyrinth, "Theme of a Traitor and Hero." The father, leader of the local anti-Fascist resistance, is discovered by his comrades to be a double agent. At the father's insistence, his own assassination is arranged to occur in public (during the opera of the film's title) so as to appear as though the Fascists have murdered the leader of the resistance rather than that the resistance has murdered one of its traitorous own. By creating the myth of his own death, by transforming himself from traitor to anti-Fascist martyr, the father becomes both traitor and hero.
The fascination with the traitor-hero might have its roots in Bertolucci's own shifting allegiances. His bourgeois rebels, Fabrizio for one, reject their own class and end up feeling nostalgic over what they've rejected and apprehensive about their loyalty to a new cause. Marcello in THE CONFORMIST escapes his eccentric, decadent family in order to embrace the virile purity of fascism but ultimately betrays the fascists in their turn. The fear appears and is affirmed again and again: once a traitor, always a traitor. A critic in Ecran pointed out that, with 1900, Bertolucci has attempted to obliterate this enduring uneasiness of the apostate by becoming "more proletarian than the proletariat."
There are implicit homoerotic connotations to the doubling theme. For example, the father's mistress eventually offers herself to the son as a way to his father's love, recognizing that the son wants the father as much as he wants the truth; in the end the son actually becomes the father. However, RIGOLETTO seems less concerned with gay characters or gay love than either THE GRIM REAPER or BEFORE THE REVOLUTION. There does appear one memorable image of sexual ambiguity that Bertolucci will use again with even greater resonance in THE CONFORMIST. An ubiquitous servant boy seems to provoke curiosity in the son in RIGOLETTO; the boy is forever appearing and disappearing, wearing the farm boy's straw hat and flashing an indecipherable smile. Finally the son finds himself alone in a room with the boy. The boy smiles knowingly, seductively and then removes his straw hat: a mass of long black hair tumbles down and the boy saunters away, now quite obviously an adolescent girl.
THE CONFORMIST somehow represents the culmination of all Bertolucci's earlier work (he has said he makes "always the same film," just as "the robins always sing the same song"). It has the twinning, the mirror images and events confronting each other across the film; the investigation of the father-figure under suspicion; the hero's consuming quest for a normal rather than a double life; and, most notably, the complete emergence of gay sexuality as an erotic possibility.
THE CONFORMIST was Bertolucci's first real period-piece. And what a period—Italy, 1938. It's a highly stylized Art Deco Italy of grand shining marble spaces and tight bourgeois parlors leopard-striped by light slatted through Venetian blinds. Working again from a literary source-Alberto Moravia's novel of the same title—Bertolucci presents his main character, Marcello (played to fastidious perfection by a tight-lipped Jean-Louis Trintignant), son of an insane father and a dope-addicted mother.
Marcello could be BEFORE THE REVOLUTION's Fabrizio ten years older and a quarter of a century earlier. Desperate to grab onto some vestige of normality, Marcello becomes engaged to a marvelously amoral bourgeois woman (acted with rapacious gusto by Stefania Sandrelli). When he goes to prenuptial confession he counts among his sins that of murder.
In flashback we see Marcello, a young boy in short pants on his way home from school, first being sexually humiliated by a group of schoolboys, then followed by a chauffeur in an imposing limousine. The chauffeur, Lino (Pierre Clementi), eventually coaxes the young Marcello into his car and drives him to his employer's mansion atop a landscaped hill high above the city. The two climb to Lino's attic room, play hide and seek among the drying laundry hanging from washlines stretched between the rafters (the scene is eerily reminiscent of the hero's death at the conclusion of Wajda's great ASHES AND DIAMONDS).
In Lino's tiny whitewashed room, the chauffeur first inexplicably produces a gun and then takes off his chauffeur's cap, his long black hair suddenly tumbling to his shoulders in a bizarre metamorphosis of the image first presented by the young servant boy-girl in RIGOLETTO. Lino dons a kimono, murmuring softly to the boy, "Kill the butterfly. Kill the beautiful butterfly." He pulls Marcello onto the bed, strokes the boy's bare legs. Suddenly Marcello holds the gun, shoots the walls, the blue Madonna above the bed. Lino lies crumpled on the floor at the side of the bed, blood gushing from his head. Marcello runs away.
Twenty years later, the priest absolves the bridegroom Marcello, relieved to know no sexual act occurred with the chauffeur and more than eager to give absolution to someone as closely associated with the Fascist cause as Marcello.
Just as Fabrizio in BEFORE THE REVOLUTION intended to take his first love, Agostino, to see Professor Cesare and finally ended up taking his aunt, Gina, so does Marcello in THE CONFORMIST end up taking his bride to Paris, ostensibly to visit Professor Quatri, Marcello's philosophy teacher when Marcello was at university. (On the hilariously sexy honeymoon train from Rome to Paris, Marcello's bride graphically relates how she lost her virginity at the age of fifteen to an older man and then, turned on by her own confession, proceeds to seduce and mount the passive Marcello as the train roars into a tunnel.)
This visit to the professor has an ulterior motive: Marcello is to kill Professor Quatri, the anti-Fascist in exile, in order to prove his allegiance to the party and therefore his normality. Marcello and his wife find Quatri living in a Paris flat with a group of devoted young men and his wife, Anna (Dominique Sanda). Anna, at first a butch-lesbian caricature—striding about, hands thrust firmly in trouser pockets—quickly becomes the epicenter of repressed erotic desires in the film. Anna, alone of all the characters in the perhaps oversimplified Reichean schema of the film, is a free sexual agent, radiating a determined sensuality that at once frightens and fascinates Marcello.
It is not so much Anna whom Marcello comes to love but rather the sexual possibilities she represents, her triumphant lesbianism mirroring his cowering in the closets of respectable marriage and ultra-respectable Fascism. Become voyeur, he watches silently from a hotel corridor as Anna seduces his only somewhat reluctant wife, watches Anna master his wife through the paces of a steamy tango performed at a public dancehall, later attempts to kiss Anna but suddenly pulls back, his bitten lip streaming blood. Anna in many ways provides a (temporary) resolution to the question of whether homosexuality is decadent or subversive, for she is firmly gay and firmly allied with the anti-Fascist cause. Marcello too is finally subversive in that he betrays both ends of the political spectrum in his continuing attempt to appear normal
He sets up Anna's husband for murder, flatters the unbeguiled Professor Quatri, reminds him of his lecture on Plato's myth of the cave, expresses a desire to join the anti-Fascist cause. After describing the image of Plato's shadows flaming on the wall of the cave, Quatri throws open the windows of his study, letting the clear light stream in. Marcello seeks refuge in the room's remaining shadows.
This Socratic relation—older man teaching impressionable youth—runs in an ambiguous refrain from BEFORE THE REVOLUTION to THE CONFORMIST and gets intermingled with another strain—murder of the father by the son. At the end of BEFORE THE REVOLUTION, Fabrizio has rejected Professor Cesare, rejected Cesare's Marxism and his unusual, womanless life. In RIGOLETTO the son comes to find, investigate and kill the legend of his flamboyantly heroic father and ends taking his father's place, becoming what the son simultaneously wanted to love and reject. At the end of THE CONFORMIST Marcello arranges and assists in the murder of Professor Quatri, denies his teachings and his trust, refuses to accept the loving teacher-pupil father-son relationship proffered. He also allows the avoidable murder of Anna, watches as she's hunted down in a forest like some wild beautiful animal, and sees the obliteration of her disturbing sexuality.
In the odd epilogue to THE CONFORMIST, set the night of the fall of Mussolini, Marcello goes out into the streets of Rome to meet his Fascist mentor, a blind radio-propagandist. An interesting and chilling mirror image of Quatri and all his clear light, this blind man is a person whom Marcello always finds ensconced in shadows. And now Marcello completes the twin mirrors of his life by betraying and abandoning his blind sponsor to a rampaging vengeful Liberation mob.
This betrayal occurs because Marcello, while walking with the blind man, encounters Lino—the Madame Butterfly chauffeur he thought he had murdered as a schoolboy in that attic room—talking to a bare-chested young hustler. Letting his blind mentor be borne away by the crowd, Marcello returns to find the hustler. Our last glimpse of Marcello: the young hustler's naked back bends over the phonograph in his open-air quarters in a Roman ruin; he starts a pop Italian song and returns to his bed and the waiting Marcello.
LAST TANGO IN PARIS
In LAST TANGO IN PARIS, at a certain point Paul (Marlon Brando) has convinced the young Jeanne (Maria Schneider) that their sexual liaison should remain completely anonymous (no names), completely secret (Jeanne won't tell her fiancé, Paul seems to have no friends to tell), and circumscribed (by the walls of their apartment rented especially for the affair). It is at that point when Paul tells Jeanne, indicating the rooms of their empty apartment, "Everything outside this place is pure bullshit."
I think it was at this line that I realized, although I couldn't have exactly told you how or why, that everything within that place was bullshit too. At first, noting the camera showing us the name of the street—Rue Jules Verne—where Paul and Jeanne, both inspecting the same apartment for rent, meet and suddenly make love, I assumed the street sign was meant to indicate that Bertolucci was working out the prototypical heterosexual male fantasy-pure lusty fucks, no encumbering attachments. That this relationship ultimately failed, in fact proved fatal for Paul, seemed to indicate that Bertolucci was saying this sort of macho fantasy was over, impossible (after all, Jeanne won in the end, dressing Paul in her father's military cap and gunning him down in a scene curiously, touchingly reminiscent of the final scene of Godard's BREATHLESS).
LAST TANGO didn't really begin to make sense to me until I came across Norman Mailer's piece, half broadside against Pauline Kael, half illuminating critique. (Kael, it should be noted, has done more to establish Bertolucci's reputation in North America than any other critic writing. She did, however, warn in a perceptively prophetic article on THE CONFORMIST that Bertolucci's obsession with style for style's sake could lead him to make "luscious fruity movies." What's peculiar is that she didn't recognize her prediction come true with LAST TANGO.) The essence of Mailer's criticism states that Bertolucci goes a certain daring distance with LAST TANGO—in allowing his actors to improvise, in his stylization of Paris, in his unexpected touches of the surreal and the grotesque—but the distance gone is just far enough to tip us off he hasn't made it all the way, has tried for personal and artistic autonomy, but has pulled up just short of his goal.
Add to Mailer's assessment Ingmar Bergman's unexpected but certainly revealing comment that LAST TANGO would have been a much more truthful film had the Jeanne/Maria Schneider role been played by a boy, and suddenly the subliminal fragmentary feel of the film melds into an explanation. Suddenly all the pieces that did not, would not, fit—why does Brando, a recent widower, need to keep his affair with Jeanne a secret? Why the anonymity, the hiding? What's the sense behind Jeanne and Paul, two adult heterosexuals, leading double lives? What purpose does it serve? Why the anal-intercourse-with-butter-lubricant scene? All these questions come rushing together to meet Bergman's answer.
As one academic critic has recently noted, Paul and Jeanne's apartment forms "a desperately narrowed world, reduced … both spatially and temporally." The old closeted heterosexual routine. That two heterosexuals would want a secret affair is entirely plausible, but when the secrecy is extreme (no names), unwarranted—well, an absurdity envelops their closet. It's difficult to comprehend anyone choosing to perform a charade that isn't necessary.
LAST TANGO is to date Bertolucci's most commercial and least affecting film. After a history of delving into the ambiguities and possibilities of sexuality in his previous feature films, Bertolucci suddenly, inexplicably reverses his stand, moves from an oblique to a straight-on perspective. (In a Rolling Stone interview at the time of LAST TANGO's release, he was much more eager to talk about his ongoing Freudian psychoanalysis than about the widespread rumors concerning his bisexuality.) But even the new psychoanalyzed Bertolucci can't resist one provocative image: One of the most effective scenes in LAST TANGO occurs when Paul, visiting the hotel his wife owned and managed before her suicide, meets his wife's lover. The two talk and drink whiskey in the lovers' room, dressed in identical red-plaid bathrobes, robes given to each by Paul's wife.
We feel the loss of oblique angles in LAST TANGO, experience the resulting flatness. LAST TANGO is a lush beautiful movie, a movie on the brink. Its only problem is it never leaps, never soars into the sensual space we sense Bertolucci, of all working directors, could master.
It's impossible to include a definitive examination of gay themes and images in the new 1900 since its impossible to see the film in North America. Prospective distributors mumble a great deal about length, and five hours and twenty minutes is long, but a source at Paramount (which recently waived distribution rights) told me the extremely political nature of the film was probably more to blame.
Originally and more aptly titled NOVECENTO (or TWENTIETH CENTURY or THE NINETEEN HUNDRED), 1900 takes up the twinning motif with a vengeance. Two children, one the son of an Italian landowner, the other the son of one of the landowner's sharecroppers, are born at the same time on the same day. The film presents them in systematic opposition as they grow up together and then apart. 1900 ends on April 25, 1945, Liberation Day, with the peasants briefly seizing control of the region where Olmo and Alfredo have grown up—the Emilia Romagna area that has been socialist ever since socialism, and communist ever since communism. Here the peasants become the film's true protagonists, abruptly severing plot's severe dual structure to celebrate jubilantly their victory over fascism and capitalism. Their joy is brief, however, for on the same day they are ordered by the Committee of National Liberation to surrender control. Bertolucci has called the film as a whole a Gramscian work that presents both "the optimism of the will and the pessimism of reason."
As a critic in Positif notes, for Bertolucci in 1900 the working class has become the embodiment of virility. In one early scene, Olmo (Gerard Depardieu), the sharecropper's son, and Alfredo (Robert De Niro), the landowner's son, compare penis size, and Olmo jokingly notes his is longer because he's a socialist.
Later, Alfredo, exempted from military service, is distraught over the fact that Olmo must go to war and may be killed. The night Olmo is to leave, Alfredo lies down on the railroad tracks and waits for the train that will bear Olmo off to war to pass over him.
But this examination of the obvious sexual aspects of the twinning motif is soon dropped as political concerns escalate, the Positif critic remarks; then it is reinstituted in a radically different context. The rise of fascism in Italy is represented by Attila (played by an eye-rolling Donald Sutherland), the provincial Fascist leader of the Emilia region. With Attila, fascism "becomes bad melodrama where the fascist becomes sexually unbalanced, bloodthirsty, one of his defects being a homosexual inclination for young boys that he rapes and kills." As Bertolucci makes clear in an interview in Cineaste, "Fascists in my movie haven't reached a mature sexuality and so they move in a totally sado-masochistic universe."
Bertolucci goes on to say (to anyone's surprise?): "A Freudian influence is always present in my movies, not because I read Freud, but because I have been undergoing analysis for six years."
Has no one pointed out to Bertolucci that Freudian psychoanalysis is a whole bourgeois cosmology unto itself? He blithely and unquestioningly accepts its central premise that the only mature sexuality is heterosexuality. Does he also mean to indicate that if your sexuality is immature and homosexual, you are concomitantly a closet fascist? Hitler made the reverse charge—if you're queer, you're Bolshevik—and made his point by having nearly a quarter of a million homosexuals executed in Nazi death camps between 1937 and 1945. And how does all this reflect on Bertolucci's mentor, the late Pier Paolo Pasolini, a dedicated Marxist who many people feel was the victim of the Italian neo-fascist movement? I suppose in the Freudian arrangement of things it's still necessary to kill off the father figure, even if someone else has already done it for you.
At the same time as he unquestioningly accepts the Freudian premise that only heterosexuality is mature, Bertolucci, strangely enough, uses Freudian imagery—the old throw-yourself-in-front-of-a-moving-train image (a slight homosexual variation on the heterosexual train-enters-tunnel image in THE CONFORMIST)—to illustrate the binding love between two noble men, Olmo and Alfredo.
All the contradictions, the vacillations, the ambivalences running through his previous films seem to be accentuated, even horribly distorted, in 1900—on the one hand two men of differing classes united by birth and love, on the other the monster-pervert fascist.
The image of dance as a visual metaphor for life informs all of Bertolucci's films. In THE GRIM REAPER two teenage girls seek refuge from an afternoon rainstorm in the room of an older woman friend, and there they dance a loose joyous cha-cha to the rhythms of the radio and rain. The gay cruiser leads the police to the murderer—they find the murderer mingling with the dancers at an open-air dance-stand in the same park where he lured the prostitute to her death.
Easter Sunday, after the requisite and over-abundant noon meal, Fabrizio and his Aunt Gina, in what is the most intensely erotic moment in BEFORE THE REVOLUTION, move together in a slinky dance of illicit desire to the soaring banalities of an Italian pop song coming from the radio. For all its unanticipated carnality (they are, after all, just dancing, making love standing up to music), the scene also teeters back and forth between anti-bourgeois satire and unapologetic Oedipal clichés. Grandmother snores upright and open-mouthed in her chair, Grandfather unperturbedly scans the Sunday newspaper, Fabrizio and his aunt move tight into the clinch, Gina's adolescent son observes from the salon door. Gina notices his stare of dawning comprehension and quickly corrects the situation, satisfying, one must note, more than one forbidden desire. Now she dances with the boy, holds him tightly to her breast as Fabrizio looks on. It's a splendid foreshadowing occurring early on; then it's only vaguely recalled in the film's final scene when, just after Fabrizio's wedding, Gina stands in front of the cathedral, arms wrapped tightly around her son, running her fingers back and through his fine dark hair, wets his shoulder with her copious tears.
A blend of eroticism and aggressive defiance attaches itself to the dance, which is apparent in RIGOLETTO, dance having moved from THE GRIM REAPER's unselfconscious cha-cha to the almost motionless coupling of nephew and aunt, aunt and son in BEFORE THE REVOLUTION. The father-hero of RIGOLETTO reeks of bravado as anti-Fascist pretender (our impression of his swaggering admirable boldness stays even after we learn he's a double agent). Appearing at the local Fascist celebration, he strides into an open-sided pavilion, where dancers halt their hard-angled movement in anticipation of the Fascist anthem with its solo cornet. He abruptly takes possession of the nearest woman and waltzes her, thrusts her across the dance floor. I don't know if we respond more to the artifice in Bertolucci's brazenly theatrical set-pieces or to the humor and the daring of movie clichés unexpectedly transformed. The audacity in RIGOLETTO is as much Bertolucci's as the father-hero's.
Anna, the icon of unrepressed desires in THE CONFORMIST, teaches dance. It is Anna who parades Marcello's happily dissembling wife (to her new husband, to Catholic morality, to society itself) about the public dance hall. This scene is so erotically charged and giddily transparent that it reminds us of Marlene Dietrich in MOROCCO, dressed in her cabaret-act tuxedo, first courting and finally kissing a pretty woman in the audience as Gary Cooper looks stoically on. The two women tangoing in THE CONFORMIST provide what is surely the most affirmative (rather than merely easily defiant) image of dance in Bertolucci's work: Dominique Sanda, in a white gown that fairly steams like dry-ice, kneeling down, Jeanne d'Arc before the Dauphin, as Stefania Sandrelli circles her majestically, delightedly. This private tango quickly becomes a swirling chain of dancers, a gracefully seductive spider's web that encircles but does not include the non-dancing Marcello, the man who would be normal.
What has happened between THE CONFORMIST and LAST TANGO IN PARIS is difficult to fathom—the life-giving dance becomes, almost without warning, a danse macabre. Brando and Schneider (for here they go beyond being stars playing roles to roles revealing stars) stumble upon a tango contest. The participants are almost manikins, lacquered with impotency and decay. Brando hauls down his pants and moons this display of mock-passion, a gesture that is an uneasy blend of the father-hero's defiance in RIGOLETTO and Marcello's refusal to participate in the tango in THE CONFORMIST.
A surprising scatological preoccupation seems to have LAST TANGO in its grasp. Brando's bare-ass up-yours-to-the-elbow gesture to the dance of life is one of several visual and verbal equations of anal eroticism with death. Brando tells Schneider she must go "right up the ass of death, right up his ass until you find a womb of fear." And when he assfucks her, we are asked to view the act as humiliating and brutal. Not to mention the awesome tone that pervades the scene in which he solemnly bids her to trim two fingernails so she can stick those two fingers up his ass. (The very presentation of anal sexuality causes certain problems to arise—whether for the filmmaker or for the viewer. Anal intercourse, for instance, is probably generally more acceptable to gay males than it is to the heterosexual population. People who have not experienced anal intercourse or who have found the experience unpleasant rather than pleasurable frequently find it humiliating and in many ways akin to the act of rape. Certainly some heterosexual women see the act as both painful and degrading. Bertolucci's depiction of anal intercourse in LAST TANGO seems to enforce this view.)
The dance of life is found to be decadent and grotesque in LAST TANGO and should therefore be rejected. But it's the only dance there is. Rejecting it means death—Brando-Paul-Father staring incredulously at the gun Schneider-Jeanne-Daughter (or is it Son?) aims and fires. The dance of life may be threateningly carnal, but carnality must finally be redemptive. Paul in LAST TANGO can only join in the dance furtively and can only recreate his fantasy of anonymous passion-fucks in a secret apartment on rue Jules Verne.
The linking of homosexuality and death then emerges as a consistent theme. Agostino kills himself in BEFORE THE REVOLUTION, partly because of his unrequited love for Fabrizio. Marcello in THE CONFORMIST thinks he has killed the chauffeur who attempted to seduce him as a child but is haunted throughout the rest of his life by the combined image of homosexual seduction and death. In 1900, Alfredo's love for Olmo must inevitable become a fatal one, for sexual as well as political reasons. Alfredo seems to worship Olmo's peasant virility and his socialist cock, but Alfredo can only accept his longings for both symbolically-by lying down in front of Olmo's train. And the fascist Attila becomes the final gruesome expression of Bertolucci's sexual phantoms, phantoms that seem half fears, half desires. Attila becomes the ultimate equation-through his sodomizing and then killing of young boys—of homosexuality, decadence, anal intercourse, fascism and death.
What a long way Bertolucci and his films have come from the frightened but brave gay cruiser who becomes the hero of THE GRIM REAPER. What a long way from the tender love of Fabrizio for the boy with hair like canary feathers or from Anna and her triumphantly erotic lesbianism in THE CONFORMIST. We can speculate from the sudden self-important wails of existential despair in LAST TANGO IN PARIS—a quality entirely missing from THE CONFORMIST—that Bertolucci's spiritual and erotic malaise has its source in a director trying to express himself in terms of a passion he does not feel. And, in light of Bertolucci's own comment stated at the beginning of this essay about 1900, were led to wonder if it's only the critics who have been fucked up the ass but refused to come.