Sep 23, 2012
Is The Conformist too beautiful?
Can a film be too beautiful? I was pondering this while rewatching The Conformist the other day, only to be newly gobsmacked by Giulia's zebra-shadowed apartment, and that blue, late afternoon light which suffuses the Parisian section. Storaro brings up the artificial lights (in the shop windows, at Sanda's dance studio and at the dance) to the point where they just starting to compete with the declining day light — peaches and oranges and blues all intermingling to the point where if you printed the scene in black and white, they would all come out the same tone. Watch this film with the sound down — the sure test of any great movie — and you would be hard pressed to guess that it was about a conformist, or the intersection of bourgeoisie and fascism, or the rage for normalcy in Mussollini's Italy. You would guess that it was about a sleek, stylish spy, with a chic, sexy wife, who travels to Paris for a menage-a-trois with a bisexual Frenchwoman married to the spy's French nemesis. It's the least conformist movie ever made, and up to a point this may have been intentional. You could argue that what is visually dramatised by the film is not Clerici's conformity, but the opposite — his subconscious, all the roiling abnormality he is attempting to hold back. Certainly the scenes in which he visits both parents (at the abandoned mansion and the asylum) have the depopulated nature of a dream. But Bertolucci's Rome is just as empty. He never gives us an idea of what Clerici is trying to conform to — the crowd into which he wishes to blend. His wife, Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), is supposed to represent petit-bourgeois small-mindedness — a hausfrau, thinking only of the "bedroom and the kitchen", who worries she may not be glamorous enough to go to the dance. Who is Bertolucci kidding? Does he have any memory of the Sandrelli who danced through that zebra-striped apartment in a dress to match at the start of the film, looking as if she had recently escaped from the pages of Italian Vogue? All the film's contrasts — between the two women, the two countries — are overwhelmed by it's uniformly lush production design. It's themes are merely scripted. I suspect Bertolucci couldn't stop himself, like a boy gorging himself on birthday cake; ever the sensualist, he simply couldn't find a point of contact with the cold, reptilian Clerici, who in the film's very first scene primly covers Sandrelli's bottom with a bedsheet. (He later receives a homily from his blind friend about how the essence of normality is a man checking out a woman's behind: here, Bertolucci speaks loudly and clearly on the subject). So the film never beds down into a character study the way The Godfather did. Clerici is not Bertolucci's alter-ego the way Michael was Coppola's, or Terry Malloy was Kazan's. That three-way synergy between actor, role and director which lies behind so many great films simply didn't take place. Clerici remains as mystifying to Bertolucci as he is to us.