Bernardo Bertolucci was once famous you know. As a director of the brilliant political drama The Conformist, the controversial Last Tango in Paris, Bertolucci’s was one of the big names in cinema. Since that early 1970s heyday he’s stopped making headlines but continued making films. Often they have been marked out by the director’s keen eye both for a well composed shot and for women with strong, beautiful faces. Both figure centrally in this romantic drama from 1998, which in so many respects apart from its troubling message (is there one?) delivers few surprises.
It’s the story of an exiled African woman (Thandie Newton) skivvying for a Rome-based classical pianist (David Thewlis). Is Bertolucci really asking us to make the obvious reading as the European Thewlis embarks on the curious courtship of the African Newton – the “civilised” white man versus the “soulful” black woman? Is he really being that crass? And what of her husband, languishing in jail and unable to understand that his wife’s beauty and ravishingly photographed body have bought her a ticket to a different life. If she wants it. In its fetishisation of Newton, Besieged, like the later The Dreamers (which did similarly unforgettable things with Eva Green), veers uncomfortably towards the sticky fantasies of middle-aged males. But then Bertolucci’s camera is fetishising everything in this film – a glimpse of Thewlis’s apartment and you’ll be hooked; even Newton’s vacuum cleaner looks pretty damn sexy. If that’s what this is all about – the druglike shift in visual perception that love/lust/attraction causes – then Bertolucci’s masterly dancing camera, moving to the beat of Bach, Grieg or Salif Keita – is a minor poetic masterpiece. Or it could just be a film about a rich white guy nicking a jailed black guy’s missus, while another rich white guy photographs the whole thing.
© Steve Morrissey 2013