Bernard Bertolucci’s ‘Partner’

[originally written for NoShame Films, August 27, 2005]

Our subject is primarily life, but if you feel that life’s missing something, steal a camera and try to give life a style.

Partner, Bernardo Bertolucci’s third feature film, has always been one of the most elusive of the director’s endeavors: a forthrightly experimental work—”a film that comes from the head,” in Bertolucci’s own phrase, “a totally deconstructed film”—that willfully declines to satisfy audiences’ conventional expectations regarding narrative and emotional identification with characters. Nominally based on the Dostoevsky novella The Double, the movie centers on—and largely transpires in the imagination of—a rather priggish young drama teacher in Rome played by Pierre Clémenti. Clémenti also plays the wilder, looser alter ego who begins to share the teacher’s life and, to an extent, identity; both go by the name of Giacobbe (or Jacob, in English-language commentaries).

The first words spoken in Partner are: “What do you want?” They’re addressed by a waiter to Giacobbe as he sits in a café, brooding over a book, with a Godard-like street vista all but glowing outside the nearby plate-glass window. What does Giacobbe want, and indeed, which Giacobbe is he? Logically it should be the “real,” uptight Giacobbe at this point; the alter ego won’t make a decisively ascertainable, screen-sharing appearance with Giacobbe the teacher till about half an hour into the film. Yet this Giacobbe is a wild-haired individual whose body in profile hunches and curls into a distinctly simian silhouette as the scene goes on—a Bertolucci homage, perhaps, to the first lethal manifestation of the title character in the opening of Howard Hawks’s Scarface. And like that movie gangster, this Giacobbe proves to have a gun, albeit concealed within the pages of a book he pretends to study. Momentarily a young man enters a doorway across the street, and Giacobbe rises and follows. And a couple of moments later, he will shoot that young man dead. Would the uptight Giacobbe do such a thing? Then again, does such a thing actually take place? The victim is never identified, never even mentioned … though later in the film the priggish Giacobbe will revisit the murder scene just long enough to spray air freshener on the corpse.

Giacobbe II is Giacobbe I’s vehicle for interacting with the world in ways Giacobbe I could never find the audacity to do himself. As the film unfolds, this psychic makeover takes on more and more of apolitical, rather than personal or emotional, cast (though there are a couple of additional “murders,” both of women and both enacted in a parody of romantic or sexual embrace). Giacobbe the teacher seeks to inculcate in his students the notion that Theater is the only way to restore wholeness to the modern world, that actors and audience must be brought together in real space and real time to banish the evil of unreality (read: capitalist/materialist society). No one quite says, “Hey, kids, let’s do the show right here!” but they might as well: within the dazzlingly skewed reality-system of Partner, “the show”—or “the spectacle,” as Giacobbe persists in calling it—is nothing less than the Revolution.

Did we mention that the year is 1968? Bertolucci was shooting Partner when “les événéments” of May in Paris marked the official onset of the political upheaval that would rock the Western world. Already in spiritual kinship with the French New Wave, and specifically emulating Jean-Luc Godard with his radical discontinuities, primary-color palette, and agitprop, j’accuse form of address, Bertolucci effectively abandoned his screenplay and began freely to improvise, directly tapping into the currents of political and artistic passion swirling around him. In a 2003 interview the director reminisced that Pierre Clémenti used to catch the plane for Paris every Friday night, spend the weekend literally collecting the latest rad slogans from the activists in the streets, and fly back to Rome on Sunday to share them with Bertolucci so that they could be incorporated into the film!

Yet it would be unfortunate to see Partner only as an incidental offshoot of the larger street theater overtaking history at that moment. Bertolucci has said he didn’t want “the only political thing to be the plot.” Politics and aesthetics are inseparable here. Besides the ideological and confrontational aspects of the film’s attack inspired by the Godard of La Chinoise and Weekend, Bertolucci was rebelling against the ingrained methodology of his native cinema; the use of raw, direct sound (versus the post-dubbing commonplace in Italian sound cinema to that time) was a way not only of flouting “the Establishment” but also of adding an entire dimension to the film’s theme of wholeness. The director was also determined to keep his movie out of the hands of “the labs” (today it would be the CGI department) and to realize all the special effects necessary to doubling-up Pierre Clémenti onscreen in the camera. The kids doing the show right here were going to be the filmmakers themselves.

Bertolucci’s various ways of juxtaposing Clémenti vis-à-vis Clémenti make for some visually extraordinary passages. At one point, in best Gothic-novel tradition, Giacobbe tries to out-strut his own shadow in a nighttime street, only the shadow takes on a life of its own and towers building-high over him. At other junctures the camera will prowl Giacobbe’s apartment in long, unbroken takes, discovering first one partner and then the other amid the stacks of books as they keep up a conversation. But when the two absolutely had to be seen onscreen together, this was accomplished via the silent-film-era technique of exposing only half the frame, containing the one twin character, and then rewinding the footage to film the same actor as theother character in the other half of the image area. Perhaps the most audacious stroke is a scene with Giacobbe I and his mirror reflection in the left half, and Giacobbe II in the right. In addition, one or the other periodically fades out as the light level is lowered in that portion of the screen. Something’s got to give, and finally it’s Giacobbe I, who steps forward and simply disappears into the invisible black hole at center screen. And a moment later, so does Giacobbe II. The very form and style of the film—and the filmmaking—wink at us.

It’s cheekily apt that a movie that so relentlessly invokes and endorses the primacy of theater should finally, intractably, be a writhing, nervy specimen of pure cinema. Dual identity is in the movie’s DNA.The most vital creative thrust in the realization of Partner wasn’t didactic or political but, in Bertolucci’s own fond recollection, “a joy in making contradiction—in contradicting itself!” It’s an impulse, perhaps, that only one who had lived before the Revolution could know.

Copyright © 2005 by Richard T. Jameson


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