The most thought-provoking critique of the Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist was by Pauline Kael in the March 27, 1971 issue of The New Yorker. While she declined to call it a “great movie,” she nonetheless declared it a “sumptuous, emotionally charged experience.” Bertolucci, she wrote, “moves into the past, as he works in the present, with a lyrical freedom almost unknown in the history of movies.” She reserved special praise for Jean-Louis Trintignant’s performance, writing that he “has an almost incredible intuitive understanding of screen presence.” Finally Kael’s extended review—really more of a meditation—becomes a lament for the dampening effects of Puritanism, regardless of political affiliation, on the art of film, which she considered “the great sensual medium” and Bertolucci one of its poets. It is a perfect example of why film criticism is so much poorer today without her.
by Pauline Kael
What makes Bernardo Bertolucci’s films different from the work of older directors is an extraordinary combination of visual richness and visual freedom. In a Hollywood movie, the big scenes usually look pie- arranged; in a film by David Lean, one is practically wired to react to the hard work that went into gathering a crowd or dressing a set. Bertolucci has been working on a big scale since his first films—La Commare Secca, made when he was twenty, and Before the Revolution, a modern story derived from The Charterhouse of Parma, made when he was twenty-two—and his films just seem to flow, as if the life he photographs had not been set up for the camera but were all there and he were moving in and out of it at will. Most young filmmakers now don’t attempt period stories—the past is not in good repute, and period pictures cost more and tend to congeal—but Bertolucci, because of the phenomenal ease of his sweeping romanticism, is ideally suited to them; he moves into the past, as he works in the present, with a lyrical freedom almost unknown in the history of movies. He was a prizewinning poet at twenty-one, and he has a poet’s gift for using objects, landscapes, and people expressively, so that they all become part of his vision. It is this gift, I think, that makes The Conformist a sumptuous, emotionally charged experience.
Bertolucci’s adaptation of the Alberto Moravia novel about the psychology of an upper-class follower of Mussolini is set principally in 1938 (Bertolucci was born in 1941), and I think it’s not unfair to say that except for Jean-Louis Trintignant’s grasp of the central character—it’s an extraordinarily prehensile performance—the major interest is in the way everything is imbued with a sense of the past. It’s not the past we get from films that survive from the thirties but Bertolucci’s evocation of the past—the thirties made expressive through the poetry of images.
Trintignant, who has quietly come to be the kev French actor that so many others (such as Belmondo) were expected to be, digs into the character of the intelligent coward who sacrifices everything he cares about because he wants the safety of normality. Trintignant has an almost incredible intuitive understanding of screen presence; his face is never too full of emotion. never completely empty. In this role, as an indecisive intellectual, he conveys the mechanisms of thought through tension, the way Bogart did, and he has the grinning, teeth-baring reflexes of Bogart—cynicism and humor erupt in savagery. And, playing an Italian, he has an odd, ferrety resemblance to Sinatra. Everything around him seems an emanation of the director’s velvet style—especially the two beautiful women: Stefania Sandrelli, an irresistible comedienne, as Trintignant’s deliciously corrupt middle-class wife, and Dominique Sanda, with her swollen lips and tiger eyes, as the lesbian wife of an anti-Fascist professor he is ordered to kill. (She’s rather like a prowling, predatory stage lesbian, but she’s such an ecstatic erotic image that she becomes a surreal Figure, and Bertolucci uses her as an embodiment of repressed desires. She also appears, only slightly disguised, in two other roles—conceived to be almost subliminal.) The film succeeds least with its ideas, which are centered on Trintignant’s Fascist. I think we may all be a little weary—and properly suspicious—of psychosexual explanations of political behavior; we can make up for ourselves these textbook cases of how it is that frightened, repressed individuals become Fascists. In an imaginative work, one might hope for greater illumination—for a Fascist seen from inside, not just a left view of his insides. Yet though the ideas aren’t convincing, the director makes the story itself seem organic in the baroque environment he has created, and the color is so soft and deep and toned down, and the texture so lived in, that the work is, by its nature, ambiguous—not in the tedious sense of confusing us but in the good sense of touching the imagination. The character Trintignant plays is by no means simple; when he says “I want to build a normal life,” it’s clear that he needs to build it because it’s not normal for him. He shows a streak of bravura enjoyment as he watches himself acting normal.
Bertolucci’s view isn’t so much a reconstruction of the past as art infusion from it; The Conformist cost only seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars—he brought together the decor and architecture surviving from that modernistic period and gave it all a unity of style (even with the opening titles). Visconti used the thirties-in-extremis in The Damned—as a form of estrangement. Bertolucci brings the period close, and we enter into it. His nostalgia is open; it’s a generalized sort of empathy, which the viewer begins to share. You don’t think in terms of watching a story being acted out, because he provides a consciousness of what’s going on under the scenes; they’re fully orchestrated. Bertolucci is perhaps the most operatic of movie directors. I don’t mean simply that he stages movies operatically, in the way that other Italians—notably Zeffirelli—do, but that he conceives a movie operatically; the distinction is something like that between an opera director and an opera composer. Visconti in The Damned was somewhere in the middle—composing, all right, but in a single, high-pitched scale, as if the music were to be howled by wolves. The Damned was hysterical; The Conformist is lyrical. You come away with sequences in your head like arias: a party of tin* blind that opens with the cry of “Musica!”; an insane asylum situated in a stadium—a theatre-of-the-absurd spectacle of madness; a confession-box satirical duet between priest and non-believer; a wedding-night scherzo, the bride describing her sins, to the groom’s amusement; the two women on a late-afternoon shopping expedition in Pans; a French working-class dance hall (a Bal Populaire) where the women dance a parody of passion that is one of the most romantic screen dances since Rogers and Astaire, and where the crowd join hands in a farandole. The political assassination in the forest—an operatic love-death—is the emotional climax of the film; Trintignant sits in his car, impotent—paralyzed by conflicting impulses— while the woman he loves is murdered.
Two years ago, Bertolucci made Partner, an inventive but bewildering modernization of Dostoyevsky’s The Double, in which the hero, a young drama teacher (Pierre Clémenti), had fantasies of extending the theatre of cruelty into political revolution. This basic idea is shared by many young filmmakers, including, probably, Bertolucci, but Clémenti never conveyed enough intellectuality for us to understand the character, who seemed to be a comic-strip Artaud. Despite the fascination of Partner (I recall one image in particular, in which books were piled up in heaps on the floor of a room like the Roman ruins outside), the film was shown here only at the 1968 New York Film Festival. It was a political vaudeville for the movie generation bred on Godard’s La Chinoise; the meanings were lost in the profusion of images and tricks of his original, daring high style. Bertolucci seemed to have forgotten the story of his own Before the Revolution, in which his Fabrizio discovered that he was not single-minded enough to be a Communist—that he was too deeply involved in the beauty of life as it was before the revolution. Bertolucci, like Fabrizio, has “a nostalgia for the present.” Phis may seem a bourgeois weakness to him (and to some others), but to be deeply involved in the beauty of life as it is is perhaps the first requisite for a great movie director. (And, far from precluding activity for social change, it is, in a sense, the only sane basis for such activity.) It’s a bit ironic that the young director who has the greatest natural gifts of his generation for making movies as sensual celebrations should have sought refuge for this talent in the Fascist period.
After Partner, Bertolucci made a television film about a plot to murder Mussolini during a performance of Rigoletto—The Spider’s Stratagem. Based on a Borges story, it was attenuated—it didn’t have enough content to justify the atmosphere of mystification. The Conformist is his most accessible, least difficult film from an audience point of view. I don’t put that accessibility down; despite the intermittent brilliance of Partner, it is a failure, and trying to figure out what a director has in mind is maddening when it’s apparent he hasn’t worked it out himself. The Conformist, though in some ways less audacious, is infinitely more satisfying. One may wish that Bertolucci had been able to integrate some of the Godard influence, but no one has been able to do that; Bertolucci has simply thrown the discordant notes out of his system and gone back to his own natural flowing film rhythm. (Is it perhaps an in-joke that the saindy bespectacled professor who is murdered faintly resembles Godard?) In this film, one knows that Bertolucci knows who he is and what he’s doing; young as he is, he’s a master director. Except for the unconvincing and poorly staged concluding sequence, the flaws in The Conformist are niggling. It’s very tempting for young filmmakers, through cutting, to make their films difficult; the filmmakers look at their own footage so many times that they assume an audience can apprehend connections that are barely visible. Bertolucci uses an organizing idea that puts an unnecessary strain on the viewer: the film begins with the dawn of the assassination day, and the events that led up to it unfold while Trintignant and a Fascist agent are driving to the forest. The editing at the outset is so fast anyway that cutting to and from that car is slightly confusing, but as one gets caught up in the imagery that slight confusion no longer matters. In a Bertolucci film, in any case, there are occasional images that have no logical explanation but that work on an instinctive level—as surreal poetry, like the piles of books in Partner or the desk here, in a Fascist’s office, that is covered with neatly arranged walnuts. However, I don’t think The Conformist is a great movie. It’s the best movie this year by far, and it’s a film by a prodigy who—if we’re all lucky—is going to make great films. But it’s a triumph of style; the substance is not sufficiently liberated, and one may begin to feel a little queasy about the way the movie left luxuriates in Fascist decadence.
One of the peculiarities of movies as a mass medium is that what the directors luxuriate in—and what we love to look at—has so often been held up as an example of vice. Except for the sophisticated comedies of the past and occasional thrillers about classy crooks, we get most of our views of elegance under the guise of condemnation. Our desire for grace and seductive opulence is innocent, I think, except to prigs, so when it s satisfied by movies about Fascism or decadence we get uncomfortable, because our own enjoyment is turned against us. One wants modern directors to be able to use the extravagant emotional possibilities of the screen without falling into the De Mille—Fellini moralistic bag. There are some sequences in The Conformist that suggest the moralistic extremism of The Damned—that party of the blind, for example, and the blue light on Trintignant’s and Sanda’s faces in the cloakroom of a ballet school.
The old puritanism imposed on moviemakers is now compounded by the puritanism of the left which coerces filmmakers into a basically hypocritical position: they begin to deny the very feelings that brought them to movies in the first place. The democratic impulse that informed the earliest screen masterpieces was to use the new medium to make available to all what had been available, through previous art forms, only to the rich and aristocratic. It was the dream of a universalization of the best work that could be done. As this dream became corrupted by mass culture produced for the lowest common denominator, the young filmmakers had to fight to free themselves from mass culture, and the fervor of the earlier democratic spirit was lost. Most young American filmmakers, in college and after, now think of themselves as artists in the same way American poets or painters do—and the poets have long since abandoned Whitman’s dream of the great American audience. Filmmakers often talk as if it were proof of their virtue that they think in terms of a minority art. American movies have now reached just about the place the American theatre did a decade or so back, when, except for the rare big hits, it had dwindled into a medium for the few.
The radicalized young are often the most antidemocratic culturally, and they push radical filmmakers to the point where no one can enjoy their work. Any work that is enjoyable is said to be counter-revolutionary. The effect may be to destroy the most gifted filmmakers (who are also—not altogether coincidentally—mostly left) unless the young left develops some tolerance for what the pleasures of art can mean to people. These issues become central when one considers a Bertolucci film, because his feeling for the sensuous surfaces of life suggests the revelatory abandon of the Russian film poet Dovzhenko. If anyone can be called a born moviemaker, it s Bertolucci. Thus far, he is the only young moviemaker who suggests that he may have the ability of a Griffith to transport us imaginatively into other periods of history—and without this talent movies would be even more impoverished than they are. The words that come to mind in connection with his work—sweeping, operatic, and so on—describe the talents of the kind of moviemaker who has the potential for widening out the appeal of movies once again. But movies—the great sensual medium—are still stuck with the idea that sensuality is decadent.
The New Yorker, March 27, 1971