“Who doesn’t want to be rescued by their narrator?”
Sometimes a film’s camera takes you on one track, while its music sends you on another, wider one: it offers you a more spacious route to travel, independent of the film’s plot. In this case, which way do you take? I would suggest that most viewers tend to go with the sound: in a film like The Russia House (1990), it’s barely possible to keep sight of the story when the melody is following its own, circuitous path, coasting right over the top of unlikely events. Sound gives us a glimpse of structure: when a song appears to be describing something of length, it makes us feel that the scene takes place along these lines; if a noise surges off to one side, it predisposes us to heading that way.
The best times happen when the music and the film’s movement coincide: they’re not an exact match, so neither is redundant, but somehow the two close together. It’s rare for this to occur: in, say, Donnie Darko (2001) or Lost in Translation (2003), the use of “floating” songs to define a transient experience is agreeable but all too self-conscious — the soundtrack and the visuals remain distinct entities. Whether music “works” or not may be a matter of opinion, but perhaps it’s possible to break it down like this: what kind of a curve is this sound describing? And how does it relate to the space we’re moving through, the way we’re exploring it? If the music is forcing us out in certain directions — creating juts and peaks in our minds — then how does that make us see the screen? When a sound pushes us towards a point, does it make us gather the images together? Maybe the fact that we need to backtrack and look at our response is a sign that a film’s score is indeed “working.” But when the motion of a film corresponds with its music, it’s an exceptional moment — and I’d argue there’s no director who makes it happen more often than Bertolucci.
In Last Tango in Paris (1972), the camera takes frequent turns around the apartment, but Gato Barbieri’s score actually implies a greater scope — a wider clearance — than the camera’s movements. The build-up of strings seems to etch out an arc, so that it feels as if a second space is being cleared out, an extension of the film’s eye. Together, the music and the camera take us on little whirls, little divings around the room — they spin us out to pick up a hat, take in a window fragment, and then deposit us back onto the ground when the sound stops. The manipulation of mood is so precise that we constantly feel as if we’re being taken into depth, and then out of it: the film’s objective seems to be to send us and leave us — there’s the shiver of being pulled into a particular mood, and then not.
In The Last Emperor (1987), music is used to give a driving line to jerky, or haphazard movements: the stroke of the violin formalizes a character’s indecision, or his walk down a corridor, with its punctuating force. But the note ends just as quickly, without echo, leaving us on the edge of that sudden plunge — primed for something. Only at the very end of the closing credits, when the blue screen fades to black, does Bertolucci give full rein to the energy of the music: finally we get the sizzling press of the bow on the cello, but we’ve no place to invest it in — nothing but darkness.
Perhaps Bertolucci’s most committed use of music is in The Sheltering Sky (1990), a film that draws heavily on the idea of mental immersion, even more than in Paul Bowles’ novel. Thus music becomes an ideal way to convey “transport”: a character being moved by an enclosed, bubble-like idea. From its opening credits, The Sheltering Sky appears to be a film about adapting fiction. The title sequences give us the spectacle of old New York: there, showing through white and black grains, is the skyscraper and the ocean liner; there, with a spray of silver dust, is an old apartment building with awnings; and there, in its lovely shabbiness, is the Roseland, which knowing Bertolucci’s passion for jazz, can only be a sincere homage. The film seems to be saying, here are all the old and great romances — there’s no denying that they were great. So the movie’s background is the glitter of then — the sense of coming out of a past of romantic achievement, and moving into a new world.
But what happens when people go to Africa with pre-set stories in their heads? When Kit (Debra Winger) and Port (John Malkovich) first emerge in Morocco, it’s as if they’re coming into a cardboard world: a flat, featureless place that offers them no suggestions about how to reshape themselves. As for Godard in Le Mépris (1963), the straight-edged plane is like a frustratingly neutral zone, which can either be seen as empty, or completely invested with one’s preoccupations. Eventually, the Americans get the beauty they came for: the magic mountains, and the different phases of moon — the white crescent stamped over the cityscape suddenly turns it into fiction, and hence makes it livable and real. The Sheltering Sky alternates between giving the travelers what they want visually, and challenging their expectations. Even the “great” moment of the film is given but partially denied. At the end, when Tunner (Campbell Scott) is about to find the long-lost Kit, the swelling orchestration prepares us for a coup, but a lively, clanking trolley gets in the way, and the scene is intercepted; however, the film manages to find an equally romantic substitute — the just-missed meeting.
In this, and perhaps all his films, Bertolucci’s style seems to be a matter of given and withheld moments, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the use of music. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s theme is a kind of condensation of European love traditions — with heightened notes, and a dramatic sweeping up that suggests a catharsis around the corner. Like Joe Hisaishi, Sakamoto (who also worked on The Last Emperor and Little Buddha, 1993) is able to distil the romantic cliché in a way that Western composers haven’t, and his tone is unashamedly limpid. (It works for me.) Having heard the theme on a Sakamoto record before watching the film, I was struck by how little Bertolucci actually uses it: it’s such a heady piece that he uses it sparingly, like a scent, sometimes dropping just one chord so that we feel a slight strain, a curvature to the image. As in Last Tango in Paris, music is used for “injection” — to give instant coloration to a scene. But in The Sheltering Sky, Bertolucci deliberately plays on the luxurious connotations of the music — it’s like an expensive perfume, and he knows exactly how much of it he needs to carry us into a narrative (the theme was later used in a fragrance ad for Maroussia, which dove right in and gave us the climax without hesitation). Sometimes we get a few bars during a non-dramatic scene, and it instantly becomes an infused space; when we hear the signature notes during the Americans’ arrival, we realize that the characters are wrapped up in a romance by themselves — sitting on the docks with their coats, surrounded by trunks and camel-colored leather.
So Bertolucci uses sound to indicate a character’s enclosure in an image — in fact, the music operates in a similar way to the presence of the narrator. The much-criticized use of the “author” — Paul Bowles in a suit to the side of the screen — disguises the fact that this is no conventional voice-over. Unlike, say, Joanne Woodward’s in The Age of Innocence (1993), the narration isn’t used to fill in gaps in the screenplay; the points it makes are self-evident, and in terms of content, there’s nothing we don’t know — but like the music, this voice serves as an addendum, rather than an obvious deepening of themes. At first, Bowles’ lines — a highly worked, “bookish” commentary on the characters — seem rather strange coming from a nearby coffee table, especially given his uninflected, “inscrutable” voice. It’s an awkward moment — to have a relationship summed up when its contradictions are being played out in front of us. But it soon becomes apparent that this dry English narration is deliberately out of place — and insufficient to contain the merging, growing world of the film. Bowles’ presence is undeniably moving — he is given his proper place at a side table, and we notice his gentle gestures — and yet a scene like this seems designed to show the limits of authorship. Clearly the idea of the café artist — the “observer of life” who meditates on the people around him, and depicts history “as he sees it,” as it happens — is a romance that’s being played one last time.
The interesting thing about Bertolucci is that even when he presents a jaded concept, there’s never a lack of energy in the frame. In Last Tango in Paris, the opening shots of Bacon paintings create no alarm in the viewer, because of the beautiful calm placement of the frames and credits. The first thing I noticed about this film was the clarity of the piano sounds; they create a drift, a feeling of lucidity, in which even meat and violence seem incidental. Though the ostensible subject matter may be frustration, you’ve never seen exhaustion depicted with such lusciousness and ease. The opening features trains slicing through the screen, but they create glowing green lines, and they seem to animate the black shapes around them. These are, by the way, some of the best blacks on film — the softest and most delve-able, with blacks set against pinks, and against flower tones, matching them for richness. By contrast, the angular edges of houses, bridges, and overhead passes are like lightning rods: borders where energy gets redirected elsewhere. In fact, while the downward lines may indicate despair, they actually help to define the film’s most striking images for us. The zooming trains make a window of Paris — a luminous, free-flowing space, a spontaneity set within strict limits.
For Bertolucci, even the trapped image can be a source of delight. In Last Tango, the mini-new wave film featuring Jean-Pierre Léaud is slightly mocking of the movement, but still joyful about the possibilities of cutting, and seen on the same level as the tango — a genre with its own pictorial requirements. The only time the director’s view hardens is when it comes to depicting a certain kind of “civilized” racism. Bertolucci has always been remarkable in his non-token treatment of characters — most notably in Besieged (1998) — but he brings in “race” even when it’s not “required”: for example, in Last Tango, where in the midst of a fun scene, a character is referred to as “faithful, admiring, and racist.” This occurs without clucking or complicity, as if the style of a person is so tired and familiar it doesn’t need to be explored. It’s Bertolucci’s observation of these dry “types” that makes him unusual amongst European directors — for him, it’s as if any kind of narrowness is inseparable from discrimination (as opposed to Godard, for whom cataloguing and restriction are the norm). In The Sheltering Sky, Bertolucci’s approach is unique; even though the plot centers on the Americans, our view of the Africans remains unstable, because his way of filming a still body constantly eludes objectification. Our gaze doesn’t pore over them or scan them, but floatingly takes them in, and it’s the sense of incomplete apprehension that gives an independence to these people we haven’t met: here, inscrutability actually works as a device to suggest individuality. What’s “inscrutable” for some of the film’s other characters comes across to the viewer as a thoroughly contained, consistent subjectivity. As we get further into the movie, the camera shifts more and more: everyone in the film is observed with a haziness that makes you drift into their consciousness. In the blur of music and senses, it’s possible to misplace one’s face and identify with virtually anyone.
When it comes to visual rhythm, Bertolucci is alert to the moral and emotional implications of filling space — we can see this especially in his credits, where the use of titles shows a particular attention to “imprint.” He carefully paces language, so that the words tend to seem “released” or emitted: whether it’s the stamp of a particular letter, or color softly flushing onto the screen, Bertolucci is sensitive to the way patterns of light affects us. Think of the flower-like opening of the images at the beginning of The Last Emperor: the way the picture moves towards us and is clarified, then almost imperceptibly stilled. Even though the film doesn’t totally deliver on their potential, the opening credits for The Dreamers (2003) are stunningly alive: with their crossing letters and slanted images, these jagged figures are utterly memorable — their jut stays in the mind, and promises to be a new, oblique way of looking at icons.
If Bertolucci’s openings are a proposition, his closing scenes are no less suggestive — no less of a plunge into something new. In The Dreamers, the characters’ “real life” begins at the end of the film, with the credits coming the wrong way down the screen — it causes a momentary upset, reversing the natural order of things. All of a sudden, the film seems like an inverted history: these immersed, self-consciously banal young people are now being exposed to the light of day. In fact, many of Bertolucci’s endings have the suggestion of, this is the where the story begins — or rather, this is where history begins, this is where it starts writing over what we’ve just seen. Last Tango in Paris ends on the note of a new genre: when Maria Schneider begins reciting her “alibi,” a new story unrolls out of the heat, mess, waste of the past, rather than the shattering conclusion we’ve come to expect. In Bertolucci, the surprise ending is a way of stamping our impressions of the last scene, but it also suggests a regretful closing to a personal chapter of experience. The Last Emperor ends with a shot of decaying splendor, as the credits — faint, white letters out of a ’70s museum catalogue — pass over it. The words seem to form a complex and mournful procession as they shuffle past: in fact, end credits always seem like a passage in Bertolucci — like a historical verdict, as if to say, “…and this is the way history sees it now.” It’s an effect similar to the use of Peter O’Toole, as a fading colonial presence in the film. For me, it’s the sharpest and most characteristic appearance of this actor — more so than Lawrence of Arabia (1962), or his jovial, scene-stealing roles of the ’80s. In this film, it’s as if we’re examining an icon for the first time: with a few quick, glancing shots, the camera sketches out the dimensions of the face — we notice its unusual length, and the way dismay stretches it even further. With his top hat in the royal court, and the distracted but energetic way he turns on his heel during the farewell, O’Toole has never seemed more beautiful — or more Anglo-Saxon.
In The Sheltering Sky, elegance also has its part to play: the last scene ends when Kit, who seems to have been desperately searching for something, is reclaimed, and the camera moves past her to find her rescuer — Paul Bowles. It’s something of a homecoming, and a huge relief for Kit: to escape into the arms of your author is something every character wants — who doesn’t want to be redeemed by their narrator? Yet the film is aware that it’s a “cheating” comfort on some level. Like Peter O’Toole, Bowles is conspicuously a refined speaker of English — it’s a “book” voice that speaks to us at the end — but somehow more fragile because of it. What strikes us is the frail face of the author — the way it burns seemingly because of its tenuousness. Then come the credits: flowing all the way, until the calmly poised “THE END,” which looks suspended from the top of the screen, and comes at a note of indecision in the soundtrack, when the feelings could either abate or take another dive. The lack of resolution is key: it’s what stops the film from settling down, and keeps its disorganized relationships intact. For Bertolucci, it’s the ultimate “given” moment — a last-minute rescue from apathy — and yet the embrace of a complex person by the narrator somehow makes sense. What with the complications of marriage, the endless betrayals, the sensual abandon to an Arab — some things only an author can understand.