Bernardo Bertolucci describes "Besieged" as a "piece of chamber music for the cinema," the Italian director's way of acknowledging a sweep less operatic than that of previous works like "The Conformist," "Last Tango in Paris" and "The Last Emperor." Old habits die hard, though. "Besieged" unfolds on the surface as a duet between two dislocated souls, but Bertolucci can't resist working many of the psychological, sociopolitical and personal themes of his larger projects into this supposedly simpler composition produced for Italian television. The strategy at once expands on the film's source, a short story by James Lasdun, and diminishes it.
At the film's outset an African woman named Shandurai, played by Thandie Newton, flees her unnamed country after its military arrests her husband. She lands in Rome, where she enrolls in medical school, supporting herself by tidying up after an eccentric English musician who becomes intensely infatuated with her. Mr. Kinsky (David Thewlis), as Shandurai always calls him, can't just come out and tell her he's mad about her. Via the dumbwaiter that connects their living quarters -- a townhouse he inherited from his aunt -- he shuttles cryptic gifts: a question mark on a blank sheet of music paper, an orchid, an heirloom ring.
When Shandurai returns the ring, saying she doesn't understand him or his classical music -- she prefers the African and international pop of performers like Salif Keita and Papa Wemba -- Kinsky begs her to marry him, swearing to "do anything" if she'll "just love me." Mostly to shut him up, Newton screams, "You get my husband out of jail." Stunned that she's married, he momentarily backs off before embarking on an audacious scheme to prove his devotion.
Especially coming from a director who once declared source material a "springboard" for his own artistic agenda, from the standpoint of plot the film is a faithful adaptation of Lasdun's "The Siege." With but few modifications, Bertolucci, who wrote the screenplay, follows Lasdun's outline and often employs the writer's physical descriptions as stage direction. Bertolucci the bourgeois Marxist even takes Lasdun's cue and downplays the colonial overtones inherent in a scenario about a woman of color whose financial survival is dependent on a white European who has expressed sexual interest in her.
The air of restraint carries through in the performance of Thewlis, who played the opposite type of character in "Naked." The actor, pining here with even less success than he had as Verlaine chasing Rimbaud in "Total Eclipse," quietly captures Kinsky's neediness and dogged persistence. Newton, whose previous roles include the title character of "Beloved" and Thomas Jefferson's mistress Sally Hemings in "Jefferson in Paris," relies perhaps too much on her expressive face. But she does manage to convey the fluctuations in her character's emotions as Kinsky's acts of kindness prompt her to see him in a new light.
Despite a strong core story and the generally inventive use of the townhouse interior to illustrate the dynamics of Shandurai and Kinsky's relations, "Besieged" satisfies less than it might, mostly because Bertolucci filters the proceedings through a psychoanalytic prism. The Freudian spin in "The Conformist" and "The Last Emperor" helped illuminate character and even history (mid-20th century Europe and 20th-century China, respectively), but in "Besieged" it threatens to reduce two singular personalities to case studies. In one of Bertolucci's several superfluous additions to Lasdun's story, an Italian immigration official demands verification of Shandurai's residency from the "head of family or your landlord." Lest anyone miss the allusion, Shandurai later has a dream in which Kinsky's face replaces that of her country's repressive head of state -- i.e., the stern patriarch.
Bertolucci has described the oeuvre of an auteur such as himself as being one big film, with each production essentially a chapter. In addition to their ostensible themes, his works contain a running commentary about the cinema and the state of his art. In the director's cosmos, Kinsky is the flip side of Marlon Brando's character in "Last Tango," who sodomized Maria Schneider while ranting about the absurdity of romantic love and the family. Brando won most of his battles with Schneider, but lost the philosophical war, not to mention the girl: She dumped him and shot him in the groin -- symbolic castration, for those who've forgotten their Freud.
A generation later, Bertolucci knows that Brando's tough-guy approach affords even less of a chance of securing a lady's heart or body, which perhaps explains his attraction to a tale about a man willing to concede just about anything for love. The emotions and influences at play here are complex -- desire, need, loyalty, destiny, Romantic love and, to be sure, neurosis -- but all the psychologizing obscures and oversimplifies them.
"Besieged" tips its already shaky hand when Thewlis hocks his piano -- his means of creating art -- to finance his campaign to make Newton care for him. As the instrument dangles on the end of a phallic crane, the man buying the piano tells Shandurai, "Get out of the way, you've got no business here." Bertolucci undoubtedly recognizes the statement's irony, but it's still telling that the comment is to a woman, one studying to be a doctor no less. Ultimately, though, the issue here is more lack of imagination than misogyny: the playing of the Freudian card -- for about the 10th time in the film -- to heighten a scene's drama. Well before "Besieged" was over I'd begun to wish Bertolucci had latched onto Jung instead of Freud -- at least he'd have had the infinite permutations of the collective unconscious to plumb instead of recycling Oedipal archetypes.
Like Brando, Kinsky ends up symbolically castrated, though in his case a quiet bliss overtakes him. Hmm. Maybe getting laid is worth giving up one's art. Kinsky's artistic demise, along with an earlier scene in which he abandons playing the piano for some kids and begins juggling fruit for them, lends the film's Bertoluccian back-story a weary air of self-pity.
Given Bertolucci's impish leanings, the self-referential sequences may merely be gags. If so, they're among a half-dozen others that backfire, among them the witless cut to a speeding subway train following a gratuitous medical-school discussion about contracted colons. Ho, ho. The gloppy Freudian overlay, the bad puns and lazy segues -- like the cut from the orchid to a similarly colored umbrella -- cumulatively undermine Lasdun's elegant tango. Bertolucci may have found the story too slight, but his transformation of it only reaffirms the axiom that less is more.