Re View

by wjw on October 16, 2009

I revisited my teen years recently by viewing Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970). In my youth I saw both of these movies multiple times, which might just possibly have to do with the fact that both these films have a lot to do with sex.

Both these films were clearly of their time, created in a period in which barriers were not merely falling, but being blasted into oblivion by dedicated saboteurs carrying plastique on their backs through the sewers. Women in Love was the first theatrical release that featured full frontal male nudity, a fact that impressed some of my women friends as much as Glenda Jackson’s breasts impressed me.

Even given their vintage, these films hold up remarkably well. Though they’re both filled with the sorts of questions people were asking in the late Sixties, but they both have a story to tell, and it’s the story that pulls the viewer through.

I noticed this time that both films are stylistically post-Godard. Godard had done his job of deconstructing cinema, and both Ken Russell and Bertolucci were left with trying to make sense of the bits and pieces left lying around. Each in his own way, they both did a pretty good job.

Among the things that haven’t survived from my original viewings is the sorts of questions I was asking of the films. As a teenager I was frankly bewildered by the human beings that surrounded me, and one of the things I wanted from cinema was an explanation of why humans do what they do. Now, with forty years’ more experience, I just see these characters working away at their s0lutions to life, and I just think, Oh. That.

The Conformist is about an Italian professor named Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who becomes a Fascist spy for Mussolini because, as a child, he killed the man who was trying to molest him. That motivation was a big What the hell . . . ? for me even as a teenager, but I was willing to cut the film some slack because of my own ignorance of human behavior. Now I’m older, and I’m less willing to make the leap of faith that the film wants me to take. I don’t know why defending yourself against a paedophile would make you a Nazi. I just don’t see the connection.

Be that as it may, Clerici views himself as an outsider, and feels he needs camouflage. To give himself a kind of normality, he marries a brainless but sensual bourgeoise, then goes off on a secret mission-cum-honeymoon in Paris to set up for assassination an anti-fascist professor who had formerly been one of his mentors. Once there, he finds himself attracted to the professor’s wife (the gorgeous Dominique Sanda), who is in turn attracted to Mrs. Clerici.

The Paris interlude, filmed in luscious color by Vittorio Storaro, is utterly seductive, all warm colors and beautiful vistas. The scenes in Fascist Italy are stark and drained of color, and are mostly filmed against the brutalist architecture of Rome’s model Fascist suburb, EUR.

The violent climax to the Paris section is wonderfully, horrifically done. And the final scene, when Clerici comes completely unraveled on the night of Mussolini’s overthrow, is just brilliant.

What fails in the film are the human motivations. On this recent viewing, I kept asking myself, Why is he behaving this way? Why is she sleeping with him? Why is he waving that gun around? Why is he so moved when he meets the prostitute? What the hell is he after? The film provided no answers. Trintignant’s acting style, with its sudden grand gestures and abrupt switches in mood and tempo, suggest that he was as bewildered by his character as I was, and was determined to exaggerate the character’s contradictions at every turn. Or maybe that was Bertolucci’s idea of direction.

In retrospect I think I was seduced not so much by Bertolucci, but by his cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. The film was just so freakin’ beautiful that I was swept up in it whether I understood it or not.

Women in Love has survived into the present century rather better. The characters are a good deal more comprehensible: We have two sisters, the conventional schoolmarm Ursula (Jennie Linden) and her artistic sib Gudrun (Glenda Jackson), who is named after a Viking lady who was about as good at family life as, say, Medea. Ursula gets involved with a school inspector named Rupert (Alan Bates), and Gudrun finds herself pursued by Gerald Crich (Oliver Reed), a mine owner. I kept wondering if his name was a contraction of creepy rich.

Ursula wants a man to love who will love her exclusively, whereas Rupert vaguely wants a sort of vaguely polyamorous, polysexual lifestyle in which everyone sort of vaguely loves everybody, preferably in a big naked heap in front of a roaring fireplace. Gudrun, like her namesake, is a kind of natural destructive force, spontaneous but not caring much about anyone, and Gerald is obsessed by her in a possessive, unhealthy way. He’s an extremely rich stalker.

Ursula and Gudrun each lose their virginity rather unpleasantly on separate nights of extreme urgency, in which kindling cohabits with death. The rest of the movie constitutes their revenge on their partners.

Ursula keeps pointing out to Rupert that, insofar as he admits that he loves her, she should be quite enough for him, and it’s useless to go yearning after others. Gudrun keeps goading Gerald into one violent jealous outburst after another, and it becomes clear that one or both of them is going off to a bad, nasty death.

And all the while they talk. Rupert keeps babbling about spontaneity and naturalness and his vision of free love and how men should love each other as well as women, and Gerald keeps pointing out that he’s just not built that way. Ursula smothers Rupert in monogamy. Gerald follows Gudrun on his knees while shaking his fist at her. And Gudrun, who is the only natural person in the story, does whatever the hell she wants. Usually it’s dangerous.

The film does a good job of pointing out that these stances are only possible because these people are privileged. All but Gerald are middle class, not rich, but they’ve got enough money to explore life’s possibilities, and the proletariat around them do not. Russell keeps reminding about this by showing us scenes of Gudrun and Ursula walking through packs of soot-blackened miners while prattling about their relationships, along with occasional shots of limbless First World War veterans begging in the streets. Class is clearly an aspect of what’s happening here.

Whole swatches of dialog from DH Lawrence’s novel are thrown whole into the film. Nowadays that would be rather brave thing to do, but back then movies were expected to mean something. Even so, the novel is an invisible subtext running through the film— there are gaps, sort of, in the movie that I expect can be filled in by the book. (I haven’t read the novel is decades, either, so I could be wrong.)

The film fails when Ken Russell is trying to do something shocking or provocative, because forty years on we’re no longer shocked or provoked. It’s all overstaged and overwrought, with annoying, blaring violins telling us that something dramatic and important is happening. (That said, it’s all fairly restrained for Russell.)

I quite enjoyed my brief visit to adolescence, though I’m glad I’m no longer that young and that bewildered. I don’t think I ever learned much about human beings from the cinema, I did that by trying to be one, and (usually) failing. Still, you’ve got to give credit to these films for actually daring to search for meaning, something the current cinema, with all its merits, is too small to do.

Oz October 16, 2009 at 2:29 pm

Oh man. Flashback. I saw "Women in Love" when I was in high school. My big sister took me, got me into the R-rating.

Oh wow. Ken Russell overkill. Oh wow. Oliver (heart, heart, pant, pant) Reed, my one and only Athos. Alan Bates I liked from King of Hearts, Glenda Jackson from Elizabeth R.

The film blew my little high school brain away. I didn't get ANY of what they were doing, other than the sex part. The relationship part was just right over my head. If I could get beyond the Ken Russell stuff, it would be interesting to see it again.


Ken Houghton October 16, 2009 at 2:41 pm

"The film fails when Ken Russell is trying to do something shocking or provocative, because forty years on we're no longer shocked or provoked. It's all overstaged and overwrought, with annoying, blaring violins telling us that something dramatic and important is happening."

In the days of Cronenberg and Alan Ball cable serieses, that Russell's "daring" remains interesting is to his credit. I suspect his scorings have always been suspect, in the way that hearing a piece conducted by Colonel Klink's dad can be.

(Try Gothic again, though the point where Natasha Richardson hits her head has become wince-making for different reasons.)

S.M. Stirling October 17, 2009 at 2:34 am

Actually, the EUR is creepy not because it's Fascist, but because it's Modernist. Early-variety Italian fascism had a close link with some types of Modernist art.

What people usually think of as Fascist architecture — marble, columns, statues — is just a rather overblown neo-Classicism mixed with late Art Deco, of a type common in many contexts in the 1930's.

It's not much different from WPA art in the US; New Deal Socialist Realism, that 'stripped classical' look you can recognize instantly in Post Offices and such, complete with murals of brawny workers and farmers. I rather like that stuff, myself.

Both have a more than passing resemblance to Soviet Socialist Realism, of course.

Modernism proper, the Bahaus variety, had a very much unrequited crush on the USSR.

Personally I detest Modernist architecture and almost all its spinoffs.

dubjay October 17, 2009 at 5:13 am

Modernist architecture itself is pretty much devoid of ideology— if you look at EUR's "square colosseum," you could put a swastika, a hammer and sickle, or an American eagle on it, and it wouldn't make much of a difference to the building. It's just there to say, "I'm important, and you're not."

Whereas the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building can't be anything but American, just as the Arche de la Defense can't be anything but French, and St. Petersburg can't be anything but Russian at its most Western-looking.

As for New Deal art, with its brawny industrial workers, that holds true for everywhere in the Lower 48 except for New Mexico. New Deal art in New Mexico looks like nothing from anywhere else.

Anonymous October 18, 2009 at 8:34 am

Talk about frustration. No Region 2 DVD edition of "The Conformist" that I know of, and I'd love to see this movie–as well as "1900", another Bertolucci epic.
As for the "Arche de la Defense"… but I loathe modern architecture.
See you soon.

S.M. Stirling October 20, 2009 at 5:41 am

Nah, Modernist architecture is chuck full of ideology; we just don't see it as such because it's so pervasive, like water to a fish.

We have distance on 1930's Classico-Grandiose and so the links are apparent.

Big public buildings SHOULD say "I embody something bigger and more important than you", IMHO.

After all, they'e supposed to be visual representations of the community and its extension through time.

In most cities until very recently, public buildings — government quarters, museums, monuments, churches/mosques/temples, etc. — were visually dominant.

Downtown Paris will give you an idea of this, because they've mostly kept high-rises out of the core.

As recently as my wife Jan's childhood, the first things you saw driving into Boston were church steeples and the State House.

That was, IMHO, a much healthier state of affairs.

We should just have put a height limit on, forbidding visual competition with the community structures. Say four or five stories; that's as tall as an office building or whatever needs to be.

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