Opera singer Jill Clayburgh is sucked into a sexually charged pas de deux with her rebellious drug addict teenage son after she whisks him off to Italy following her husband's untimely death. It may be that Italian arthouse incest movies just aren't up my alley, but between this and my viewing of Viscconti's Vaghe Stella dell'Orsa [TSPDT #718] I see a lot of cinematic talent stumbling to elevate the salaciousness of its subject, resulting in much incoherent hysteria. Vittorio Storaro's swirling tracking shots characteristically generate an energetic atmosphere, though their fluidness clashes with the Cassavetean awkwardness of the dysfunctional mother-son dialogues. For Bertolucci, the story falls within a career-long template of characters wallowing in bourgeois decadence leading to a search for a remedy, whether through Marxism (Before the Revolution, The Last Emperor, The Dreamers), non-Western cultural immersion (The Sheltering Sky, Little Buddha) or family revelation (Stealing Beauty, Luna). Here he seems less concerned with weaving a coherent narrative than in savoring isolated moments, whether sensory (a beautifully choreographed opera sequence; the arrival of mother and son in Italy in black limo heralded by an armada of skateborders) or sensational (boy stabs his arm with a fork in lieu of a needle to inject his fix; mom jerks off son to help ease his withdrawal). A mess, but it has its moments.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Luna in the TSPDT Top 1000 films:
Dennis Harvey, PopcornQ (1997) Don Ranvaud, Sight & Sound (1982) Rainer Gansera, Steadycam (2007) Stanley Kwan, Sight & Sound (1992)
Six minute family dysfunction highlight reel:
Bernardo Bertolucci's Jungian remake of High School Confidential!, with Matthew Barry as a strung-out teenager and Jill Clayburgh as his mother, who believes in unbounded maternal affection as a cure for his affliction. Clayburgh is an American opera singer living in Italy, a character ploy that allows Bertolucci to explore a clash of cultures as well as an operatic clash of emotions. Loud, vulgar, and frequently obnoxious, the film nevertheless has a perfect integrity in its excesses. This is filmmaking from the groin, unabashed and unrestrained.
- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
No matter how civilized we Americans think we are, we find it nearly impossible to walk with both feet off the ground at the same time. We are incurably literal minded. We keep thinking of gravity.
This, I suppose, explains my skeptical reactions to Bernardo Bertolucci's new film, "Luna," about a beautiful, successful, willful, American star of grand opera and her brief, unsatisfactory love affair with her 15-year-old son, who is a junkie — which may well be the most obscure movie metaphor of all time. The film, which opens the 17th annual New York Film Festival tonight at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center, is one of the most sublimely foolish movies ever made by a director of Mr. Bertolucci's acknowledged talents.
The difficulty in dealing with Mr. Bertolucci is that he doesn't seem to be an artist totally devoid of humor. Because of that, I kept feeling that "Luna" really intended to be funny — laughably funny — when it was being most outrageous. I don't think it is, however. I suspect he wants us to be both moved and shocked by the awful plight of Caterina (Jill Clayburgh), the opera star, and her deeply troubled son Joe, played by Matthew Barry in the snippy manner of the child actor who played Sidney-the-sissy in the Our Gang comedies of my youth.
Caterina, in the person of Miss Clayburgh, comes close to being a great character. She's a mass of contradictions. She's selfish but generous, loving but forgetful, self-absorbed but truly responsive to her art. When Miss Clayburgh says to her son, whose passivity infuriates her, "I come from a world where singing and creating and dreaming mean something," we believe her, for neither the first nor the last time. It's a fine, complex performance in a movie that isn't.
One of the movie's grand set-pieces is a scene in which Joe, beginning to feel the terrible need for a fix, is comforted by his ingenuously sexy mother. As she cradles him, he starts sucking at her breast. Her response is to masturbate him to a climax and then, we are led to assume, to a peaceful, drugless snooze. As bizarre scenes go, it is far less shocking than schematic. I also wonder about its medical accuracy, because I've always understood that such giddy sexual activity was impossible for an addict. Has Mr. Bertolucci discovered a substitute for Methadone? But there I go — being literal again.
- Vincent Canby, The New York Times, September 28, 1979
Bernardo Bertolucci’s press conference at the 1979 San Francisco International Film Festival got off to a rocky start. The Italian director’s most recent offering, Luna, had been receiving unfavorable reviews, including one by Chronicle critic Judy Stone, published just the day before.
Newspapers, the Italian director noted, “should help an audience that has had its sensibilities destroyed by TV to understand that films are different. Critics should offer analysis and see the films within a cultural perspective. But in America, there isn’t much sensitivity or a political vision of culture.”
“Here, critics say, ‘I like. I don’t like.’ That’s not the point. It’s quite irresponsible, sitting in this ivory tower.”
Stone (who sat directly in front of the director in the press room) had described Bertolucci in print as “the man who introduced Marlon Brando to the erotic potentialities of butter,” a reference to the infamous sex scene in Last Tango in Paris. She’d also noted that Bertolucci’s native Parma is a region famous for its hams.
Luna may be outrageous, Bertolucci admitted, but it’s “not ashamed of emotion.” Cinema, he added, “is the language of reality, reflecting the way people live.” He was trying to make films that are “dialogues with the audience. Before, we were making monologues.”
But he did concede that casting an American was motivated by fear. “I couldn’t stand the idea of an Italian mother and an Italian son, with the Pope and the Church and all the Italian implications…. It would have been too much for me. I had to keep some distance.” In response to criticism that Clayburgh had been miscast, Bertolucci called the actress “a natural woman” who has “great allure.” A lot of people, he added, think an opera star must have big breasts and be fat.
In defense of the film’s apparent disjointedness, its shifts from the son’s perspective to the mother’s and back again without ever saying who was looking, he explained, “I’m trying to deal with the inconsistencies of life, the incoherence of life, the confusion that’s around us and within us. In the ’60s, I was more attracted to revolution; in the ’70s, I started to follow my own language. Luna, in its increased experimentation, is a return to my past.”
- Barbara Alexandra Szerlip, Great Moments at the San Francisco Film Festival
In the wake of the debilitating struggle over 1900 (he has often described the experience as akin to having all his bones crushed) Bertolucci's next two films could be seen as a calculated retreat: Luna (1979) is the small-scale, though no less gorgeous, story of an American opera singer (Jill Clayburgh) struggling with her disaffected teen son (Matthew Barry) and his drug addiction during a trip to Italy. One senses in the film a deliberate attempt by Bertolucci to reinvigorate his career by re-examining his work, especially in the charming manner in which the film becomes a travelogue through the director's earlier career – from the farm in 1900 to an appearance by Pasolini regular Franco Citti, to a small but inspired moment when the boy's father, right before his sudden death, discovers a piece of gum stuck under a balcony railing – right where Brando's character in Last Tango left it, immediately before his own demise.
- Bilge Ebiri, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography
This mix of melodramatic spectacle, schocking behavior, Verdian grand opera and Hollywood-style flamboyance results in a highly uneven, unfocused, manic, and bizarre film of muddled intentions. In La Luna, Bertolucci includes characters that break into spontaneous and bizare behaviors similar to the characters on Last Tango in Paris, but he also adds other elements of Hollywood films like Rebel Without a Cause and even Saturday Night Fever. But all of these elements not only not blend well but they literally clash, collide and collapse especially in the last section of the film when Bertolucci attempts to justify his out of control storyline with the most preposterous Oedipal explanation.
The truth is that Bertolucci seems to be pushing the limits with no other purpose than to see how far he can go. There is no attempt to explain why Joe has become addicted to drugs, except when he whines during his heroin withdrawal “I just don’t care about anything!” But the truth is that he cares about a lot of things. We see his genuine interest towards his mother’s singing, exploring sex with his new Italian girlfriend, and caring enough to say no to marijuana when offered to him. If anything, Bertolucci is using the drama of drug addiction as a catalyst for the story of incest. Once again there is no hint on why such a relationship develops. Bertolucci introduces some ridiculous scenarios, as in Caterina scouting heroin from her son's drug dealer, a hysterical scene in which Caterina releases her anxiety in a Jane Fonda-like workout routine with her apparent lesbian friend, and that infamous but also ridiculous mother-son masturbation scene. And then, there is that Oedipal conclusion concerning Joe’s real father written and developed so poorly that it ultimately sinks any credibility left in the film. In short, Bertolucci’s story lacks logic and and credibility due a script weak on character development that ultimately serves as feeble excuse for the gratuitous , laughable and not so erotic set pieces.
- Pablo Vargas, The Spinning Image
Coming in around the middle of Bertolucci’s career, La Luna feels almost like a caricature of his greatest films. Once again he tries to push the boundaries of taboo and erotica, but unlike Last Tango in Paris, this attempt was not nearly as successful or well received. It just isn’t as whole of a film and it almost always feels like something is missing. There is so much build-up, but so little payoff, and the drama and conflict feels contained and exploited. Perhaps in trying to push audiences even further, Bertolucci was forcing too much out of his film, and ended up turning it over on itself, with bland oddness and overlong moments of emptiness. It’s frustrating to think that he may have approached this film with less than the best in purely artistic intentions. However, that does not mean La Luna isn’t delicately polished with lush mise-en-scène, which Bertolucci will always be proficient at. Unfortunately, it just isn’t nearly enough to overcome the tired shock value of the story, or the uninspiring flatness of the main characters, despite their excellent performances.
Sweetly, the film does have an almost epic quality which I was able to, at times, get lost in. This is brought about by the sinuous camera, sexual undercurrents and prominent use of opera, which heighten the experience considerably above simple depravity and exploitation. There are multiple themes laden across La Luna, the most prominent of which being the incestuous relationship between mother and son. As if this wasn’t enough to work with on its own, there is also a bout with heroin addiction and the search for a father figure. It’s heavy, no doubt about it, but it doesn’t go far enough into the characters, or even far enough outside them, to justify so much transgression. Perhaps there was just too much involvement needed that I wasn’t able to find, so I ended up feeling distanced when I should have felt embraced and affected.
Some old fashioned motherly love:
ABOUT THE ARTHAUS GERMAN REGION 2 DVD
A characteristically stunning transfer from Arthaus, which has apparently emerged as Germany's equivalent to America's Criterion. The image is crisp, clean, and sharp, with vivid colors and natural contrast and grain, with only occasional noise visible over black in darkly lit scenes. The disc is dual-layered with a progressive transfer, and the monaural sound presents no problems. The original soundtrack, included on this disc, is 99% in English, yet there's the odd instance of Italian dialogue here and there. Although the disc contains only removable German subtitles, I didn't sense that the Italian dialogue contributed anything vital to the film.
This disc comes with a catalogue insert of Arthaus's other releases. Special features include filmographies, a photo gallery (whose images look culled from the pressbook), advertising materials, and additional text supplements -- such as an interview with Bertolucci -- all written in German. While the supplements are not a significant selling point, the film has probably not looked this good since its release. Despite its critical reception at the time, "La Luna" has its followers, and it's long been an elusive film to obtain, existing only as bootlegs (recorded from cable airings) and a Japanese laserdisc (with frontal nudity censored). Those awaiting a proper DVD release of this won't be disappointed.
- Paul Haynes, DVD Beaver
ABOUT BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI
Biography at Film Reference.com
Quotes found on the TSPDT profile page for Bertolucci:
“At the age of twenty-one, Bernardo Bertolucci established himself as a major artist in two distinct art forms, winning a prestigious award in poetry and receiving high critical acclaim for his initial film, La commare secca. This combination of talents is evident in all of his films, which have a lyric but exceptionally concrete style.” - Robert Burgoyne (The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, 1998)
“One of the cinema’s greatest masters of visual beauty, especially when assisted by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Bertolucci’s films are also dramatically naive and pretentious far too often, even addled at times, resulting in risible scenes even when respected actors are used. But at least the nine Oscars won by The Last Emperor, one of his three near-masterpieces, have assured that Bertolucci will not simply go down in history as the man who made Last Tango in Paris.” - David Quinlan (Quinlan’s Film Directors, 1999)
“One of the most accomplished directors of the contemporary Italian cinema…Bertolucci, who believes that “cinema is the true poetic language”, had applied his celluloid poesy mostly to political-human themes, but with Last Tango in Paris (1972) he moved into the realm of the purely human. It established Bertolucci as a commercially viable director as well as a highly gifted one.” - (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)
“The psychological and intellectual man in society has been brilliantly explored by Bertolucci.” - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff’s Catalog, 1978)
“I’m no longer interested in making political films. There’s something old-fashioned about them. Young people now don’t care for politics. It isn’t present in life as it used to be. And increasingly I like films which reflect present-day reality.” - Bernardo Bertolucci (1999)
Biographical Entry from Ephraim Katz‘ The Film Encyclopedia
Interview with Bertolucci by Nathan Rabin, The Onion A/V Club, 2004
An even better interview by David Thompson at the BFI National Film Theater, 2003
Very few international directors in the past four decades have managed to remain at the “critically successful” as consistently as Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, whose career has straddled three generations of filmmaking, four continents, and several movie industries. Alongside his provocative explorations of sexuality and ideology, his highly kinetic visual style – often characterised by elaborate camera moves, meticulous lighting, symbolic use of colour, and inventive editing – has influenced several generations of filmmakers, from the American “movie brats” of the 1970s to the music video auteurs of the ’80s and ’90s. Perhaps the most important reason for Bertolucci’s continuing relevance has been the intensely personal nature of his movies: although he makes narrative features, very often based (albeit loosely) on outside literary sources, Bertolucci’s films over the decades reveal distinct connections to their creator’s private dilemmas and the vagaries of his creative and intellectual life. In other words, he has been able to fulfill his dream of being able “to live films” and “to think cinematographically” – to lay bare his inner life through his work.
- Bilge Ebiri, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography