Stealing Beauty - dir. Bernardo Bertolucci - 1996 - Italy/France/UK
After the international success of The Last Emperor, Bernardo Bertolucci, once a powerful voice in world cinema, stopped making important films and started adding entries to Mr. Skin's database. Stealing Beauty was probably his more memorable of the 90s, but when up against The Sheltering Sky and Beseiged, it's not saying much. The film's a familiar tale of a young American girl Lucy (Liv Tyler) who comes to an artists' commune in Tuscany where her mother, a poet, once lived. The commune is inhabited by a variety of European folk: an Irish sculptor (Donal McCann), his wife (Sinéad Cusack), and adult children (Rachel Weisz, Joseph Fiennes), a former art dealer (Jean Marais), an Italian sex columnist (Stefania Sandrelli), and an English writer dying of cancer (Jeremy Irons), among others. All of this, though in the foreground, is simply a catalyst for the swiping of Lucy's virginity. Characters give her advise that appears to relate to some internal quest Lucy's seeking, but really, it's just aiding her in finally getting fucked.
When Bertolucci is honest about its intentions (those being about Lucy's fuckquest), Stealing Beauty works. It's a highly romanticized coming-of-age tale, beautifully set in Tuscany and with a fitting soundtrack. Along with The Dreamers, we get the feeling that Bertolucci believes that Americans can only become fully-realized sexual beings once they've been immersed in Europe, and that's fine, for it leads to visually lush, skin flicks. But when he tries to pretend his films are about more than that, we lose our trust. There are subplots about Lucy's search for her real father and a desire to rekindle a romance with an Italian boy (Roberto Zibetti), but all these, though still closely linked to Lucy's V-card removal, lead to obvious conclusions. Eventually, the film plays like a sexual whodunit, where characters are simply placed around Lucy just to steer you offtrack as to whom she's gonna bang. We can appreciate that Bertolucci rounded up some iconic screen icons like Marais (Jean Cocteau's former lover), Sandrelli (of his 1900), and Leonardo Treviglio (Italian stage actor, made famous by playing the title role in Derek Jarman's Sebastiane). But, don't be fooled; there's only one thing on Bertolucci's mind here.