Bernardo Bertolucci


Can a man change, that’s all I want to know ?
“Well… it’s a big question.”

Bertolucci sighs heavily, as if after so much time and work, it’s all he can do. ‘The Last Emperor’ is, after all, “a film about a metamorphosis.”

“You know,” he says, “I’ve been very interested in psychoanalysis – not as an end, but as an instrument, a way of leading to identity of the personality. I had a very long analysis, what Freud called an ‘interminable’ analysis, in Rome, for 15 years… I learnt, er, how to be a bit more in peace with myself and with the exterior world…”

The anxiety on the face of the man who directed ‘Last Tango in Paris’, and whom Pauline Kael described, along with Marlon Brando, as having thereby “altered the face of an art-form” is as gravely beautiful, strained and strong, and as great as Brando’s was in that same film. Indeed, it’s difficult not to identify the same tragic dignity, the deeply intelligent sense of agony.

“I have done this very long period of analysis because I wanted to be able to survive my anxiety… Anxiety is not a particularly nice thing to have. You cannot cure it. It can suffocate you completely… But since you cannot survive anxiety, you have to be able to cope with it. You have to make anxiety some kind of richness…”

Fifty minutes, let me tell you, is enough to tell me Bernardo Bertolucci is a lovely man, both profoundly troubled, fiercely generous with a sort of innate idiot-kindness roaring out of him.

Wrapped up in a huge black coat and sunglasses, Bertolucci has big, strong features and big sad eyes. Heavy sighs and contemplative silences mark his conversation, which combines a soft, sexy foreigner’s English and hypnotic storyteller’s Italian, with his Italian accent as entrancing as any I’ve heard. Even before he speaks of it, he seems terribly susceptible to an intensity of emotion and melancholy, matched, after his many months in China, by a contemplative calm and a tolerance great enough to reduce even the Rome traffic to a minor irritant.

When I ask him about the result of his analysis and ask him to put a figure on his happiness, he gives a warm chuckle, which does little to disguise the rich sadness inside him, and he says: “haha, you want a percentage ? I feel, oh, 51%, 52%. There is still a long way to go. But, you know, I don’t think you can have a 100% anyway. You’re never completely cured from your, er, ghosts. From the terrible presence within…”

Born in Parma in 1941, Bertolucci was introduced to cinema through his father, a well known Italian poet and critic, who would take him to as many as three screenings a day when he was still a child. At 15, he was given his first 16mm camera, and at 20 he left his course on Modern Literature at Rome University to work as Assistant Director on ‘Accatone’, the debut film of Pier Paolo Pasolini, a friend of his father’s, and in many ways Bertolucci’s early mentor. At 22, his first book of poetry won a prestigious prize in Italy, but he stopped writing the following year when he directed his first film, ‘The Grim Reaper’, and he has never returned to it.
“It was an identity clash. I was imitating my father. I wanted my own area. I stopped the day I started the movie.”

Indeed the presence/absence of the father figure in his films has often been significant.

The main themes of his earliest films – the battle between head and heart, pleasure and politics (in particular his strong Communist sympathies), have remained, most successfully in the rich sensuality of ‘The Conformist’ and the films that followed ‘Last Tango…’ (which we will come to), ‘1900’ and ‘La Luna’, which dealt with sexual and political extremism, namely fascism, terrorism, incest and decadence. In each, sex and death are portrayed as the two forces at the centre of human behaviour, and reviewing ‘Last Tango…’ last year when it opened in Italy after a fifteen-year ban, it was this that gives ‘Last Tango…’ an overpowering emotional intensity that few films since have equalled. It is in this film in which the clues to Bertolucci’s ‘ghosts’ most probably lie.

With ‘The Conformist’, ‘Last Tango…’, ‘1900’ and ‘La Luna’, he developed a sweeping cinematic style with films that have consistently been emotionally demanding, involved, heavily innovative and improvised (he talks of “discovering the film as I make it”), with a visual elegance and sensuality that has now culminated in the ravishing quality of ‘The Last Emperor’. But the theme underlying almost all of his work has been the binding influence of family background, social class and the seemingly inevitable importance of their values, even for the most isolated and anguished individual, such as Paul (Brando) and the resulting conflict between conventionality and rebellion, outward appearance and inner compulsion. It is this that fascinates, even dominates him, and having met him, his films seem to be deeply personal attempts to deal with this outstanding issue.

England will be almost the last country to see ‘The Last Emperor’ – just a month before China itself – and after the dramatic financial failure of the bold Italian epic ‘1900’, ‘La Luna’ and 1981’s ‘Tragedy of A Ridiculous Man’, it’s nice to hear Bertolucci referring to the “reasons for the film’s success everywhere – in Paris, Italy, America”, particularly as the film cost $25m to make.

His first film for seven years, and the first to be made by a Westerner in China, about China or use film shot inside the Forbidden City – which Bertolucci calls “the set Hollywood dare not build” – the film is one of the most ambitious independent films ever made.

‘The Last Emperor’ of China was Pu Yi, who came to the throne in 1908, an apparently sweet, bewildered child of three years old. Forced to abdicate at the age of six, but confined to the Forbidden City until the age of 18, having left China Pu Yi naively succumbed to the Japanese to become puppet-ruler of Manchuria in 1931. He was captured by the Russians in 1945 and returned to China in 1950, but surprisingly was not executed but imprisoned and spent 10 years being re-educated by his prison governor (played in the film by China’s Deputy Minister of Culture). He returned to Peking, and contentment, a ‘free’ man, at the start of the Cultural Revolution, working as a gardener. He died in 1967, aged 61.

Spanning seven decades of political and personal turmoil, the film follows Pu Yi’s life as innocent Child Emperor, suave exiled playboy, war criminal, prisoner and finally Model Citizen. It is an unusually conventional film for Bertolucci, without the emotional extremes of its predecessors, in many ways reflecting a change in his own outlook and character.

He refers to it as “the first time my films have been a journey from darkness to light and not vice versa”, and marks “the end of my cinematic adolescence.”

Edward Behr’s recent book about the emperor confirms not only the film’s remarkable historical detail (including the astonishing likeness to the Child Emperor), but also suggests Bertolucci has, surprisingly, chosen not to concentrate on the emperor’s rumoured bisexual, sadist and paedophiliac preferences, although the sexual experimentation of both emperor and his wife are alluded to in two breathtakingly erotic and exotic scenes in the film.

“For me, the film is a continuation of my work, not a change. My movies have often had this confrontation between the destiny of an individual and his country, between the personal, intimate story and its historical background. ‘1900’ and ‘The Conformist’ were the same. I like this confrontation: very intimate epics about one person.”

The project began for Bertolucci four years ago when, after a year’s preparation, his film of Dashiell Hammett’s ‘Red Harvest’, with Jack Nicholson, collapsed. “Abandoned and desperate”, he went to China, returning with permission to film the story of Pu Yi’s autobiography, ‘From Emperor to Citizen’. After two more years of negotiations, the Chinese authorities gave Bertolucci unlimited co-operation in return for the Chinese distribution rights (with some 100,000 screens, not an inconsiderable factor). The Chinese made only factual alterations to his script and the film’s official advisers included Pu Yi’s eldest surviving brother, his man-servant and the prison governor responsible for his re-education, all despite the film’s largely sympathetic portrayal of the last emperor’s ordeal, as a kind of mix between Peter Pan, ‘Zelig’ and a religious icon.

“The Chinese are very keen on this story,” Bertolucci explains, “because Pu Yi is a monument to the fact that a man can change. The Chinese Communists are still Confucian in many ways. If a man is born good, they believe it’s possible for him to return to being good. Their system of justice is based on re-education, not punishment. I saw prisons in China, they’re like tough schools, a lot of blackboards and singing, reciting. There is very little crime in China anyway.”

The Chinese may be less pleased with his subtle condemnation of the Chinese’s new love of tourism and the image of ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ playing in the Forbidden City. And so now it’s over.
“I feel very lonely. Abandoned,” he says lugubriously. “To give it away is sad. I don’t really have anything ready. I need one project, to project my passion onto one obscure object of desire, huhuh.”

The result of his four years of labour has been hailed as a masterpiece, even in America, with one critic calling it “almost excessively gorgeous” and another, David Denby, describing it as “an idealised, sexualised Western dream of Imperial China in which court rituals have become so hyperconsciously artificial they cross over into exquisite, erotic theatre…(with) an opulence so strange it seems like an illustration for a grotesque and treacherous fairy tale, a labyrinth and a trap for the little boy (emperor)…”

The lavish beauty of the stunning gold and vermillion costumes and the locations ultimately distract from the narrative and the sheer span of history rather dominates at the expense of the emotional force. (The film, at 2 hours 40, actually seems too short). In particular, the fate of the emperor’s first wife (portrayed by Joan Cheng, China’s, and therefore the world’s, most popular actress), who passes from exquisite adolescent princess to ravaged opium addict, is somewhat glossed over. An awesome achievement, if slightly shallow, the film aims for and achieves a span only films such as ‘Once Upon A Time In America’, ‘Reds’ and ‘Ran’ have mastered; there is even a nod to ‘Citizen Kane’ and the film mercifully avoids the patronising simplicity and sentimentality of British epics like ‘Ghandi’, ‘Cry Freedom’ and ‘Passage To India’.

“Well, you see, the film is not ‘a lesson of history’, even if it is historically very, very accurate. It’s a story of myth, of the dragon who becomes a man, of an emperor who becomes a citizen. Pu Yi is in this way the opposite of the Western hero, who would become the emperor… He’s also the most exceptional person because he’s an emperor, but you know Freud referred to ‘his majesty the child’, which is true: every child in the world has been the centre of the Universe, everybody has been a prisoner in his home and so it’s a unique story but also a universal one.”

“The Emperor was very different from the way the West looks at its Kings and Queens; he was the link between Heaven and Earth, the Son of Heaven and Lord of 10,000 Years, a religious icon who had to be the model for all citizens. Pu Yi was never able to be that model because he was never a real emperor. At the end of the film, he becomes a model at last, as a model citizen; as if every good citizen was an emperor, you see ? When I visited the Forbidden City, I asked who had sculpted the beautiful pavilion. They told me it was the Ming Dynasty 1334 or Ching Dynasty. The artist was the emperor that had inspired the work.”

Before filming, Bertolucci’s eighth visit to China was an eight month continual stay and he is still deeply affected by his experiences there, eager to talk about Chinese ways. He likes the Chinese, not least because they are as noisy, happy and somehow more bureaucratic than Italians, something which made filming a nightmare. With a crew taken from six nationalities, including 100 Italian technicians, 20 British and 150 Chinese and using 9000 Chinese extras, they needed 35 interpreters.
“I would often ask for a camera and get a bicycle,” he laughs.

Clearly he takes his responsibilities towards his hosts and his hero seriously. Whilst the Italian chef got through 200 kilos of Italian coffee and 2000 kilos of pasta, Bertolucci ate and drank as the Chinese did.

“My real fear during this movie wasn’t anything practical. Ok, it was my most difficult film to make. There was this beautiful confusion between Italian and Chinese, American and Japanese, British and Chinese… The problem for me was would I be able to catch the true Chinese flavour. That is why I stayed 8 months: I wanted to absorb, I wanted to be able to smell garlic as they did… You see, the way a Chinese person enters the room, sits down and smokes a cigarette is different from a Westerner. The relationship between the world, space and objects, the relationship between a Chinese and time is different and cinema is always about time passing. Every time the camera is filming a face, it is filming time, time working on a face, for five seconds, three seconds, its Cocteau’s death in action definition of cinema, you see.”

Although he has about him a deeply philosophical air, wisdom, contentment, he struggles to provide an answer when I ask him at what point he realised what he was doing was right.

“Contentment ? Contentezza ? Ah, no…no, I never had confidence… I felt… panic, fear. We shot the film chronologically (I can remember when I assumed all films were made this way) so the first scene we did was the Coronation scene and these thousands of extras waiting. That was great fear… Then I remember, it was great when we finished filming in the Forbidden City (where the walls are up to 250 ft thick), because every morning we all went in and every night we would leave. It became like a prison for us, like it was for the emperor. Leaving it for the last time was a great feeling.”

So, the real question remains: does Pu Yi change ? The film’s conclusion is rather vague, unconvincing, particularly as the programme notes show John Lone, who plays Pu Yi, referring to him as “a genius of survival”, with the ‘role’ of citizen just another part for him, as he was emperor, playboy, prisoner.

“Well, in his autobiography Pu Yi says at the end ‘I am a new man. I have changed. I am a different person’… I didn’t want to say this. I don’t say he’s changed. I just show him in a different situation, one man in a Mao suit mixed up with millions of others. He did survive every regime, from the end of the Qing Dynasty to Chiank Kai-Shek – just abandoning himself to the wind of history. I don’t think one can just define the character. I find it difficult to define the character as much as I would a real person… These are question marks. It’s important to respect that. Not force an interpretation.”

One struggles to imagine Richard Attenborough or the majority of British and American directors daring, or caring, to do this. Rather than change, in many ways, like Brando in ‘Last Tango…’ he comes full circle and finds himself.

“Right, right. ‘Last Tango’ was an attempt to give away your social identity. Pu Yi discovers his.”

And ‘The Conformist’ finds he can’t ignore his background, his class or his politics at the expense of his personal, sexual desires. When Bertolucci refers to the image of “a robin always sings the same song, even though he may change trees, change gardens”, his own ‘song’ is this issue of self-identity/knowledge. Why ?
“Bo…” he smiles, resorting inevitably to that brilliant Italian phrase – the verbal equivalent of a helpless shrug of the shoulders.

How much have you changed, since you were 21, for instance ?
“Nobody has changed more than my soul… I feel… It’s still hard, difficult to cope with everyday, when you wake up in the morning, to cope with reality, but I feel better… The fact of knowing that you will never be definitely cured, when you know that you are already halfway through…”

He gives a heavy sigh.
“When I was young, I was of course feeling immortal and, you know, I was quite a special case because I started when I was very, very young, when I was 21, when most people start to DREAM of making a movie, I DID it. So now, I’m 46, as a man, not old, but as a director I’m very, very old, 25 years…after fighting for ‘nouveau cinema’, making movies for 25 years, I could retire…”

You’re still shy.
“Yes, that has not changed so much. I remember when I was 17, all my friends were dancing rock n’ roll and I didn’t know how to dance, and I was saying, ‘If I danced everybody would laugh at me’, so I was sitting against the wall with a glass of whiskey in my hand, watching… Only later I thought that was the only way to make you be seen by other people. Shyness is a form of exhibitionism, like its true if you are a sadist you must be a masochist… Until the age of 21, I wouldn’t walk into a theatre until the lights were out…”

‘Last Tango…’ must have been a period of great change for you.
“It was. It was very cathartic. I wanted to be very exposed. At the beginning of the 70s, I was feeling social identities very heavily. In the movie, they attempt to enclose themselves in a place, which is empty and has no references, to live outside their social identities, their names, their jobs, their past etc. It’s very romantic, to let the body speak and be the identity, purely instinctive, animal. In the idea of ‘Last Tango’ was also the idea of the moment, of the extremist. It’s my moment of terrorism. I never used weapons, I don’t like weapons, but ‘Last Tango’ was terroristic, sex as terrorism, certainly, yes… It was in me in the beginning of the 70s certainly, until it became a collective thing (he hates this), then I switched.”

It was about your emotional violence.
“Right. That moment was a kind of myth I had, but it’s still important for me. The thing you squeeze out of a movie is emotion…the balance between emotionally strong moments and violence…and the opposite… I try to repress and control.”

And how do you feel now, as part of Cinema History ? Kael said that you and Brando had moved the barriers of what Cinema is. Entire theses have been written about the significance of Brando’s gum chewing.
“Pauline Kael is a very nice lady… She wrote about ‘Before The Revolution’ in 1964, and announced ‘Here is a new director’. Then with ‘Last Tango…’ she was so happy, she was proud because it fitted her prediction. Me ? Was I proud ? Oh no. That’s not the right word. Not for my movies, I feel…full.”

Which films matter most ?
“The ones that matter to me are the first and the last. ‘Last Tango…’ was important because it, and I, was so incredibly exposed. You were a child, but ‘Last Tango…’ was an incredible event, all over the world, even on holiday in Singapore it was devastating. It was a cathartic personal experience, to have been able to get into the guts of so many people.”

You’ve used cinema, as well as psychoanalysis ?
“Yes. It’s very important for me at the end of ‘Last Emperor’ when Pu Yi re-enters the Forbidden City, the smile he gives the boy. There is such life, such peace in that smile for me, that moment of confidence, contentment. It does make me happier when I’m shooting, yes – I don’t know if I can say happy. I’m gratified, satisfied in every sense: morally, spiritually, physically, sensually.”

Is that the most cinema can achieve ?
“Pleasure. To give pleasure is the most total possible shape, abandon, yes, almost. Pleasure in the way Roland Barthes said in a beautiful book, ‘Les Plaisirs Du Textes’ where he said, the idea would be to make a movie which tells the audience, ‘Love me. I love you: love me, to be able to make a love story between the movie and the audience where the position of the camera becomes a position in the Karma Sutra…. ‘Camera Sutra’. Hahaha.”

When I ask him to tell me of his other moments of happiness, of something nearer 100% than his 52%, he chuckles again.
“Why do you want to know these things, my friend ? Ok, I will tell you one. In Shanghai, where we didn’t shoot, a beautiful example of ‘contaminazione architectronica’, like Oxford Street, with pieces of New York, Mock Tudor, Paris Boulevard, all these Chinese curls and rococo. Then this ‘set’ is invaded by 30m people; it was very early, 6.30, I had wanted to see people do Tai Chi on the river, and I realised I was the only Westerner…there I felt a kind of ecstasy, also a feeling like a minor mythological Greek presence and invisible all at the same time… You have these ecstasies many times, yes, but you do not always realise it. I told O’Toole, who is very like Johnstone (Pu Yi’s tutor who he plays – perfectly – in the film); he’s also a bit misanthrope. O’Toole was the only Confucian on the set, which is as Johnstone was in his day… Other pleasures ? Seeing places which are poetic. A stone in Greece; a rice field; a building in New York; Venezia. You know, I’m a very anxious person, so every time I’m able to be in peace without giving up my anxiety completely, it’s very good.”

Why did you stop your analysis ?
“Because…he died,” he says, with no little difficulty.
“Also, there is a moment where, more or less, the thing ends. In general it is after 6 or 7 years, mine was quite long. This is very personal for me…”

And then I ask him if he will tell me about ‘the ghosts’ he said he could never cure and he looks down and away, crushed by heavy shyness, almost embarrassment, and just saying, with a sheepish grin that covers a look of definite pain.
“Oh no, no, haha. What area ? Oh, any area. They are everywhere.”

We close and he tells me about his last two hour conversation with Brando some time ago, the movies he regards as the best movies of their time: ‘Prenom Carmen’, ‘Blue Velvet’, Wim Wenders’ ‘Sky Over Berlin’. He remarks that ‘9½ Weeks’ seemed to him to be ‘Last Tango In Paris’ “in plastic”, how he has had offers from all kinds of emperors, kings and princes to film their life stories and how he misses Warhol.

“If I was in New York without seeing Andy I didn’t feel I was in New York. I knew him quite well, I liked him very much. Warhol said that idea that you mentioned to me – about directing and starring in your own life.”

How have you directed your life ?
“How have I directed my life ? You know, I live in a very, erm, erratic way… I let myself go a lot, as I do in movies, through improvisation, I do in life… I don’t have precise targets. I feel like the director, yes, not the star, everybody is the director, but not many people know it. It’s better if they don’t know it. Otherwise they would go over budget and over schedule ! Hahaha.”

Do you ever forget you’re a film-maker ?
“Oh yes, yes, yes, now I do. This is a change for me… Until a few years ago, I was feeling that without shooting, I was dying, vegetating… Now I feel there are other things, I wouldn’t tell you what other things, haha, apart from filming. Also I feel that now I have less time, I have more time. When I was younger, I was feeling I have to do a movie. In fact, 15 years ago, 20 years ago, I had more time in front of me. Now I have less time in front of me, I feel more comfortable; I feel that there is time… We must finish now.”

And he walks away briskly, leaving me thinking about the ghosts inside him and thinking he is still a poet.