[originallywritten 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).
[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]
Partner is the film Bernardo Bertolucci made following BeforetheRevolution and prior to The Conformist, TheSpider’sStratagem, and Last TangoinParis. It is nominally based on Dostoevsky’s TheDouble. There are some really extraordinary things in it, but it is also the least satisfying of the five Bertolucci films that have found their way to the United Stares (his first feature, TheGrimReaper, is not in distribution here). While there are sometimes two Pierre Clémentis on screen at once, the movie and the character suffer less from split personality than from multiple fractures. Clémenti plays Jacob, a young intellectual haunted by his own double; and here, as elsewhere, Bertolucci is concerned with the gap between political awareness and political action. But despite the film’s basic conceit, he has failed in Partner to find illuminating forms and figures for this very contemporary emotional ailment. The double device signifies in only the most obvious ways: mostly it provides opportunities for Bertolucci to create some fascinating shots. Toward the end, we are told that the revolutionary side of Jacob is a part of all of us that may some day find expression. But this neither suggests nor compels much conviction, especially since Bertolucci, his film, and the characters trail off into self-doubt … at which point the film ceases to continue.
Man, Pride and Vengeance (Blue Underground, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – There were hundreds of spaghetti westerns produced by Italian studios in the sixties and early seventies. Only a small percentage of them were particularly good, and fewer still genuinely great. You’d think we’d be running out of discoveries by now but Man, Pride and Vengeance (1967), from director Luigi Bazzoni and star Franco Nero, is a respectable find. Based on the novel Carmen by Prosper Merimee, with Nero as the loyal, straight-arrow soldier José demoted after he’s tricked by gypsy hellion Carmen (Tina Aumont), it’s the rare spaghetti western that is actually set in Spain, where it was shot.
In this take, José is has no fiancée to betray, which perhaps makes him more susceptible to Carmen’s flirtations, and Nero plays him as an affable career man whose equilibrium is completely upset by the surge of emotions—lust, rage, resentment, jealousy—that the wild free spirit brings out in him. Aumont makes a cheeky Carmen, not malicious so much as unapologetically mercenary and sexually independent but with a code of conduct that she follows faithfully. She pays her debts, which complicates José’s life more than he can handle. Soon he’s on the run from a murder charge and joins her criminal gang, where he meets her husband Garcia (Klaus Kinski), fresh out of prison and ready to take charge of the gang and take on anyone he sees as a threat. While José earns the nickname “Preacher” for his insistence on a disciplined plan and a non-violent execution of the stage robbery (both a moral and practical decision; murder brings out the soldiers in force), Garcia is like unstable dynamite pulled from the storage of a long prison sentence and ready to blow at the slightest nudge.
Sergio Martino’s Torso opens by ogling naked flesh. A couple of anonymous models writhe around while a photographer (face unseen, only a camera in close-up) snaps away softcore shot, interrupted by shards of flashbacks involving a child’s doll, not exactly threatening but still a bit weird. Which pretty much us gives all the building blocks for what would become standard for the stalk-and-slash horrors of the seventies: nudity, voyeurism, a traumatic memory pounding away at our killer’s perspective while his identity remains pointedly hidden. All that’s missing is the violence and we don’t have to wait long for that. Not even the first murder, in fact. An art history lecture at the international university in Perugia shows us the images of suffering saints in renaissance paintings. But there’s no blood in these paintings, as the students remark after the lecture. Rest assured that Martino makes up for that in his scenes of assaulted flesh.
One female student drives off with her boyfriend for a little car sex in the woods. The killer, his face hidden behind a white stocking mask, strangles her with his own scarf (which he gently wraps back around his own neck with slow satisfaction) and then sinks a knife into her chest (a jarringly unconvincing effect with a pasty dummy that cracks open like a shell and oozes red paint). The killer, intimidating under black leather jacket and gloves and a ratty mask, straddles two clichés, the haunted psychos of the Norman Bates variety and the hooded zombie-like automatons of Halloween and Friday the 13th.
And so begins the spectacle. For the next hour or so the audience is treated to scenes of topless dancing, languid make-outs at a hippie hangout, Sapphic seduction, nude sunbathing and skinny dipping, inevitably followed, sooner or later, by the killer strangling said lovelies, removing their tops for a little post-murder findling and then hacking up their bodies. It’s familiar slasher movie territory, right down to a cadre smirking and suspicious men constantly hanging around and peeping in, and there’s no shortage of suspects – a stalker boyfriend, a creepy professor, an ogling scarf salesman, an older lover who is always “traveling.” It gets even more familiar when four female friends, headed by British art history student Jane (Suzy Kendall of Bird With the Crystal Plumage fame) and her Italian friend Daniela (French actress Tina Aumont, Fellini’s Casanova), head out to a villa in the country and the killer follows. Meanwhile, the girls make quite a splash in the small town; they lounge around the village square looking like supermodels in a rustic shoot and the men all but gape in stunned silence at these international beauties.
[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
In his autobiography I Remember It Well,Vincente Minnelli registers a very pragmatic regret that his producer-partner Arthur Freed took such good care of him all those years at MGM. Left to dream his cinematic dreams, cast fragile spells with camera and decor, and build to the visual equivalent of crescendos through flamboyant mise-en-scène, he never had to learn how to deal with the front-office boys, the money men, the guys who had the power to say when and how and even whether he would get to make a film. With the passing of Freed and the extravagant studio armament of Metro, Minnelli was left defenseless in the New Hollywood, and the effect was startlingly apparent: gross conceptual misfires like Goodbye Charlie, the pointlessly transatlantic misadventure of The Sandpiper, several years’ wait for an expensive Barbra Streisand musical liked by neither Streisand fans nor musical aficionados, and then more years waiting for … nothing at all, it appeared, until a couple of seasons ago we began to hear about an adaptation of Marcel Druon’s Film of Memory.
At last it’s here—A Matter of Time—and again Minnelli has been done in by the logistics of the nouveau cinema: the Italian locations obligatorily and tediously paused for, the Italian cast impossible to direct in any mode supportive to the stellar likes of Bergman, Boyer, and (for the sake of discussion) Liza Minnelli, the Movielab color a tawdry, enervating substitute for a man who dreams in richest Technicolor, the sets inadequately realized, the post-dubbed soundtrack deleterious to any evoking—let alone sustaining—of mood…. Whatever Louis B. Mayer might have been, he wasn’t Samuel Z. Arkoff, and if there be a prototype for co-exec-producer Giulio Sbarigia he’s that Italian who made Cinecittà hell on earth for “directors” Edward G. Robinson and Kirk Douglas in Minnelli’s now-prophetic Two Weeks in Another Town.Vincente Minnelli can swoop around corners with the utmost elegance, but he can’t cut them—and corner-cutting shows all over A Matter of Time.