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Bertolucci’s ‘Luna’: The Surrealist’s Stratagem

By Peter Hogue and Marion Bronson

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Luna is just a word, a magic word, by means of which everyone can project his or her own dream. The moon, of course, is a very rich symbol, but the only reference to it Id accept is the simplest one: just as the moon has two faces, so every character and situation in the film has two facesthat which appears and that which is hidden.
—Bernardo Bertolucci in Sight and Sound

Luna is, in a very important sense, a surrealist film which makes use of the stylistic possibilities opened up by Buñuel in the 1960s. Belle de jour, for example, used a basically realistic mise-en-scène for all of its sequences: dreams, fantasies, and flashbacks were permitted to exist on the same plane with everyday experience; no perceptual reality, no level of experience, was treated as more (or less) real than any other. Advancing the surrealist attack on the conventional distinction between dream and reality, Buñuel demonstrated that matter-of-fact realism is much more appropriate than expressionistic exaggeration in presenting the basic validity of surrealist perception.

The stuff of dreams
The stuff of dreams

Luna, in turn, might be viewed as a seamless blend of realistic narrative and surrealist psychology. In Belle de jour, one can still deduce that some scenes are dreams and others are not—though the film’s stylistics render this process comparatively irrelevant. But in Luna, Bertolucci extends this ploy even further: no scene is clearly marked as a fantasy or dream, and none is entirely free of the irrational associations and impulse that we customarily link with the world of dreams. With or without the director’s public statements about the film’s conception springing from his own dreams and memories, Luna‘s events are simultaneously the stuff of dreams and the stuff of realistic drama.

Moon images, for example, turn up at crucial points in Luna with a regularity and an insistence that bespeak obsession. The lunar images are never imposed; they always emerge “realistically,” within an ongoing narrative context. But the mere recurrence of the images evokes another order of experience, one which goes beyond the realist’s sense of probability and leads toward the surrealist’s faith in the dictates of desire. The sequence in which the moviehouse roof opens and the opera singer’s son looks up to see the moon against the night sky is a realistic one (some Italian cinemas do convert to open-air in the summertime), but its implications and consequences are surrealistic. The sight of the moon acts as a signal to the son that he must go to his mother’s opening night: rather like the sleepwalkers of surrealist lore, he walks away from the girl with whom he had been trying to make love, and proceeds to an opera house where he soon will see his mother singing beneath a stage moon.

This extraordinarily extensive refusal to make any distinctions between customarily separate realities is surely related to the rather cool reception the film has gotten so far in this country; but this same facet of style also makes Luna far more genuinely “new” than any of Bertolucci’s previous successes.

If youve seen a Douglas Sirk movie, thats melodrama; if youve seen a Fassbinder movie, thats melodrama. Its a formula. Its finding the space where passions can go very far.
—Bertolucci in Cineaste

Bertolucci has frequently referred to Luna as a melodrama. There can be little doubt that he is thinking less of Way Down East than of Stella Dallas, Mildred Pierce, Written on the Wind, and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Indeed, this latter group of films is every bit as relevant to Luna as Belle de jour. But this, too, is perhaps part of the problem: people have been watching Bertolucci’s movie with the same misguided disdain that they would bring to a Douglas Sirk movie from the 1950s. (Are these also the same people who considered Belle de jour nothing more than a kinky case study?) But the director’s remark seems very apt: this movie, the whole of it, is melodrama—Sirk in reverse, if you will. Sirk works through melodrama toward modernism while Bertolucci works through modernism toward melodrama. Lunas characters have the incompleteness, the fractured impulsiveness, the drifting self-destructiveness that go with the modernist’s basic assumptions about life in the 20th century. But Bertolucci has them working, like passionately entranced dreamers, toward the kind of wholeness which melodramatic narrative takes as a basic assumption.

Consequently, Luna is melodrama renewed by surrealist vision, and it is a liberating dream given form by melodrama. Put another way, it is amour fou applied to the family: the mad love celebrated by the surrealists, in the century’s chief examples of love poetry, was limited to the couple; Bertolucci, giving free rein to the erotic forces implicit in family relationships, embraces and extends mad love in ways that go well beyond the couple. For the surrealists, love that is sane and proper is no love at all. Bertolucci’s premise is that this may be true for the family as well, and the result—in his movie—is more daring and more trenchantly revolutionary than anything in Last Tango in Paris.

Jill helped Matthew like a mother helping a calf at birth when it had trouble standing up. The mother prods it with its head, and then the mother animal licks its baby.
—Bertolucci in Film Comment

Almost all my friends who are mothers are always talking about their sexual feelings toward their children…. What do you do with these feelings? But whats bad about incest is that the child has no choiceits the parents act. With Caterina its a way of controlling Joe. Its political sex.
—Jill Clayburgh in Newsweek

One of the problems that Luna presents for audiences is that its Freudian elements are at once tritely obvious and daringly frank. The patterns of the Oedipal conflict are a familiar, widely accepted aspect of our post-Freudian era’s folklore, and yet Luna is disturbing in part because Bertolucci has taken these commonplaces quite literally. Add to this the against-type casting of Jill Clayburgh and the thoroughly nonprofessional performance of Matthew Barry, and you have a film that is not destined to gain easy audience acceptance. But of course this is no sign of a lack of merit. And the large number of thoughtful interviews given by Bertolucci on behalf of Luna reflects a recognition that the film’s ambitions, as well as its unfamiliar blend of deceptively familiar materials, require extensive prefatory remarks—all the more so in an artform where stereotyping and immediacy of response play such large roles. The Oedipal aspects of the movie perhaps leave Bertolucci in a no-win situation: a genuinely trivial film might be enjoyed for its stylistic felicity, but Luna is too serious for that to take place; stylistic felicity it has in abundance, and yet the subject is such that a neutral response from the audience is an impossibility.

Mother and son: Jill Clayburgh and Matthew Barry
Mother and son: Jill Clayburgh and Matthew Barry

But the film’s style and its surrealist elements, when properly understood, ought to clear the audience’s way to a full experience of the liberation process Bertolucci seems to have in mind. The film’s stylistics signal situations which are not to be taken as strictly realistic. The boy’s trancelike behavior or the nightmarish stares of bystanders peering into the limousine at the funeral of his stepfather should alert us to the subjective nature of the imagery we’re encountering. Likewise, the small touches of irony born of the main characters’ obvious shortcomings in the early going (particularly their moments of unguarded self-centeredness) should make it clear that Bertolucci is neither asking us to identify with these people nor trying to palm off flawed people as heroic figures intended for our admiration. Similarly, the casting of Clayburgh in a role that seems a priori unsuited to her serves much the same purpose that Barry’s off-putting performance does: the process in which the characters are involved takes precedence over any emotional involvement we may think we should have,

As it happens, Luna eventually does emerge as a very moving film—but not because of any attachment to the characters. Rather, Bertolucci has given us characters to whom there is no special reason to feel attached, and yet whose development away from destructiveness—away from that ironic self-centeredness—becomes very moving, once it does take bloom. Moreover, the Freudian elements of the story are never quite as simple as they may appear to be. The Oedipal aspects in particular defy simplification: the father dies and the son takes his place; the father is rediscovered and the dynamics of the father-mother-son triangle tentatively renewed. That the above fathers are two different men, the first actually being a stepfather, only serves to highlight the multiple nature of the film’s psychology. Thus, while Luna may be vulnerable to reductive paraphrases and psychoanalytic commonplaces, its Oedipal themes are not ends in themselves—not “the point” of the film. For Bertolucci’s movie focuses attention on a process rather than a set of conclusions. He’s showing us the dynamics of a set of relationships in which the Oedipal pattern has been accepted quite seriously as something which must be faced, must be lived with, must be engaged, if the psyche of anyone involved is ever to be complete.

The recurrence of a search for the father in Bertolucci’s films may lead those familiar with his work to assume that the Matthew Barry character is the absolute center of the film. But the climactic scene of Luna embraces a set of relationships that is familial and more. Two androgynous characters are part of that final ensemble—more than just bystanders in the new bonding of father-mother-son. Yet even without them, this final scene shows us once and for all that the film’s concern is not just with one young male’s destiny, but with the forces, the processes, that draw people together into something that might he called a family. Bertolucci is not psychoanalyzing his characters; rather, this distinctive blend of surrealism and melodrama is styled and structured so as to initiate a rediscovery of the erotic forces that draw a family together, that make the family a risky, vital complex of relationships instead of a social institution maintained by guilt and authority.

Richard Roud: What surprised and excited me was the change in style from your previous films. Its more direct because its less psychological and much more existential.
Bertolucci: …I think Luna resembles Breathless more than any other film…. [O]ne must avoid consistency if one is to portray the sudden contradictions which we find in life.
—in Sight and Sound

Because of this heady mixture of private imagery and family psychology, Luna is at once Bertolucci’s most personal film and his most accessible. It represents the fullest working-out of his filmic obsessions with the family, sex, and personal identity, and it is the least encumbered with the political concerns that the director has never wholly absorbed into the stylistic richness that constitutes the basic appeal of his movies. Because of this special standing, Luna casts new light on its predecessors. The politically trite 1900, for example, can now be understood as a family drama on which the director has imposed matters of political dogma which give misleading labels to events demanding an existential erotics. The mixture of honeymoon, murder, and the cuckolding of father-figures in The Conformist, and of mourning, murder, and sex between a widower and a fiancée in Last Tango, are now more clearly than ever images of self-thwarting quests for completeness. And The Spiders Stratagem, aspects of which are strikingly echoed in Luna, may be understood as the gorgeous fragment that it is: it is Luna without a true mother and without the moon; it can only reach a dead end because it is only part of what Bertolucci has been throwing himself toward.

The subjective tendencies of Bertolucci’s films have always been evident, but Luna provides a perspective from which we can more fully grasp the dynamics of the earlier films that groped so eloquently for a vision that somehow always ended up out of reach. For example, the stunningly offbeat lyricism of the shot in The Conformist where the main character and his mother lean into a wind that drives a sea of autumn leaves about their ankles has now been partially saved from the gratuitousness that seemed so apparent in 1971. And the peculiar shifts in tone of Last Tango are perhaps now more evidently the signs of a cold, tragicomic surrealism at work. Indeed, from the vantage of Luna, Last Tango is the culminating example of an artist’s despair lashing back at the visionary force which he has never, until now, set fully free.

I tried to leave in every kind of energy.
—Bertolucci in Rolling Stone

Bertolucci’s interviews on Luna constitute the most illuminating commentaries on the film so far. Academically oriented critics tend to be wary of statements of intention, and such wariness is especially justified with an intensely self-absorbed artist like Bertolucci. But while his remarks do lapse over into the merely personal, and while he may have overestimated some aspects of the film and underestimated others, Bertolucci’s comments on melodrama and on his film’s multivalenced psychology are genuinely helpful—especially given the widespread resistance to the film. His remarks do more than just clarify his intentions: they constitute valid critical insights—insights, that is, which are validated by firsthand experience of the film itself. The director has perhaps overestimated the uniqueness of some aspects of his film and underestimated the dangers of mixing old and new forms. But the man who speaks, for instance, of melodrama as a “space where passion can go very far” is offering an apt reading of his own film’s actual achievements.

No less apt is Bertolucci’s remark about trying to “leave in every kind of energy.” The point here is not just diversity, though that is very definitely a point. The impulse toward inclusiveness, toward not filtering out or censoring or narrowing “energy” already present in the material and in the filmmaking process—this too, seems exceptionally significant. For Luna is rich in allusions, recurring images, “primal” patterns, etc. In a lengthier discussion, one might examine in detail the resonances set up by the film’s allusions to Verdi and Il Trovatore, to Marilyn Monroe and Niagara, to The Spiders Stratagem, to Visconti (the subject of a book on Caterina’s table) or Pasolini (the telling one-scene role of Franco Citti, from Accatone, on which Bertolucci served as assistant director) or Fellini (whose 8 1/2 is obliquely echoed and revised in a number of key scenes, most especially the last one). Likewise, much more might—and probably will—be said about the richly orchestrated interplay of images of food, sex, and nurture—with acts of slapping and licking as the gestural intermediaries. Or the images of water: the shimmering, dreamlike views of the Mediterranean; the movie clips of Niagara‘s Niagara; and the stage illusion of falling water at the opera house in Rome. Or the images of Joe as child-artist: trailing a chalk line on a wall, dancing for Franco Citti, making a dinner table into a drum set—primitive acts of creation which are ways of getting attention, of making one’s presence felt, of breaking out of the solitude that would otherwise prevail. Indeed, it is yet another sign of Lunas brilliance, and of its peculiar difficulty, that it defines art—including Bertolucci’s own—as unmistakably selfish and irresistibly social.

© 1980 Peter Hogue and Marion Bronson

Direction: Bernardo Bertolucci. Screenplay: Giuseppe Bertolucci, Clare Peploe and Bernardo Bertolucci; English adaptation: George MaIko. Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro. Art direction: Maria Paola Maino, Gianni Silvestri. Costumes: Lina Taviani. Production: Giovanni Bertolucci.
The players: Jill Clayburgh, Matthew Barry, Veronica Lazar, Tomas Milian, Alida Valli, Fred Gwynne, Franco Citti, Renato Salvatori.

Peter Hogue has been many kinds of contributor to Movietone News since its inception. He teaches English and film at California State University, Chico, where Marion Bronson is an M.A. candidate in Cinema in the Women’s Studies Program.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.