"Everywhere people are less puritanical -- except in the U.S."

Legendary director Bernardo Bertolucci on America's sexual backwardness -- and why Jake Gyllenhaal wouldn't take off his clothes.

By Charles Taylor
February 7, 2004 4:11AM (UTC)
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Based on the novel "The Holy Innocents," by Gilbert Adair, and set in Paris during the student demonstrations of May 1968 and the wildcat strike those demonstrations inspired among 10 million Frenchmen, "The Dreamers" allows Bertolucci to indulge in what for him is the Holy Trinity -- movies, sex and revolution. The film tells the story of a ménage à trois between three young movie fanatics, an American (Michael Pitt), and the French twins (Louis Garrel and Eva Green) who take him under their wing in a rambling Paris apartment while demonstrations thunder by their windows and the country moves into a state of joyous anarchy. At 63, Bertolucci has made his most youthful and joyous film, not so much a nostalgic look back as an attempt to connect that time to the eternal youthful spirit of discovery and exploration.

After its premiere at the Venice Film Festival last fall, it appeared as if Bertolucci would have to cut the film to an R to honor the terms of his contract with the film's American distributor, Fox Searchlight Pictures. But Fox Searchlight surprised everyone by accepting the MPAA ratings board's NC-17 rating, allowing the film to be shown in this country uncut.


During a recent trip to New York -- "It's very destabilizing to come to a country that can be so puritanical sometimes," he observed -- the Italian director sat down with Salon to discuss the strange prospect of cutting his film for America, why the cut version was, in his words, "a bit obscene," the experience of working with a young, untested trio of actors, and the new sense of freedom he has found directing.

After "The Dreamers" showed at Venice, we had heard that it would have to be cut to an R rating.

You know, I had to cut it because of the deal.


Because of your contract with Fox.

Yeah, yeah. It would have been a disaster, not being able to honor the contract. And I did it, then I was watching the cut version and the uncut version, and if anything, the cut version was a little bit, maybe, obscene. So strange. Because you know I was thinking of Florence, of the frescoes and the fig leaves put on the genitals. Now with the restoration, they've been taken away. And always, when you cover the nudity you are going to titillate as well. A naked body has nothing obscene.

There was a great deal of talk about the irony of the man who had made "Last Tango in Paris" being subjected, 30 years later, to this Puritanism. How hard is it for a filmmaker whose approach is as sensual as yours to work in this atmosphere?


We're living in a more puritanical society. My God, it's 32 years after "Last Tango in Paris." And to discover that this film could have been altered more than "Last Tango" ... There is a revolution that was really global, everywhere. Everywhere people are less puritanical. And to think that the U.S. would be the only country in the world where this movie has to be shown cut. I couldn't believe that this is the same country of intellectuals or writers that I read in the New York Review of Books and so on. How is it possible? And I even thought, Oh my God, that may happen in some theocratic country. ["The Dreamers"] will never open in Iran, but if it opens in Iran, it will be cut like in the U.S. What is going on? Then I thought that maybe, behind the shield of war and terrorism, there are many other little wars going on.

How did you come to the novel?


There was a moment a few years ago when I was trying to do a sequel to "1900." And it was impossible because the country where "1900" was shot, the context that created "1900," that kind of political passion, is no longer there. Italy now is the country that elected [Italian Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi.

There was nothing to build on the hope at the end of "1900"?

Exactly. So it would have been a forgery, a fake. And my wife, Clare [Clare Peploe, the director of "Triumph of Love" and "High Season"], gave me "The Holy Innocents," the book of Gilbert [Adair], and I liked very much the feeling of ... the novel is a version of [Jean Cocteau's novel] "Les enfants terribles." There is a beautiful movie by [Jean-Pierre] Melville, but I hadn't seen it since a long time ago. But I reread the Cocteau. And he says, talking about "Les enfants terribles," "With 'Les enfants terribles,' I wanted to make gravity light, and lightness grave." Which is something I always remembered shooting this film, that kind of balance. And I thought of "Last Tango in Paris," which, everyone is asking me, "What is the relationship?" ... The sex in "Last Tango," maybe because I was younger, is tragic, a bit punishing, heavy and dark. Where, here, I think, the sex is joyous and light.


It seems to me even lighter than in the Adair novel. He wrote in "Sight & Sound" about your collaboration, and he even seemed to suggest he was happier with your version than with his novel.

He rewrote it. He is coming out with a book called "The Dreamers," and it is much closer to the film than his original novel.

There's a lightness, a playfulness, that I thought wasn't quite in the book, and I wanted you to talk about your collaboration.


I remember he was a critic, a movie critic, on [the British newspaper] the Independent, and I was reading him, and I quite liked him, we were quite close. The internationale of the film buffs, very close in fact. Then I read the book. His experience in Paris in '68 and afterward was so close ... it reminded me of things that I lived, especially the cinephilia, the passion for movies. Cinema is a matter of life or death. So we started a kind of delirium about cinema. In general I think that the writer is not the best person to write the screenplay from their books because they are physiologically connected. But because he had problems with this novel, he was very happy to be able to alter it, and change. So he wrote, I don't know how many versions he wrote -- many. He would write the first version and send it to me in Italy and we'd talk, and in a few days there was the second version, and I'd read it again. And then I decided to have him on the set when I was shooting, which I don't do all the time. I did it with Susan Minot, who was on the set of "Stealing Beauty." And also, it was the first time he was on the set of a movie, Gilbert. It reminded me when I was on the set of Pasolini's, his assistant on "Accatone." He was discovering so many things. And when he writes a new screenplay, he will very much be influenced by the witnessing of the shooting over three months. He was ready to do what I do in all my movies, discussing with the actors, changing the dialogue. He was incredibly available and ready. For example, Michael [Pitt] had many ideas, and they were often good ideas.

Adair has talked about the atmosphere on the set mirroring the created world the characters are living in. Here you're working with relative newcomers who have to do some very difficult things. How did you establish the trust to allow them to take risks?

I think that they understood from the beginning that the reason why I chose them was because I was curious and fascinated by a certain mystery they had for me when I met them. And the characters that they were playing would have been fed with Louis and Eva's mystery. This curiosity I had is what keeps me going about them, about what is the secret in them? Understanding that at the beginning, helped them a lot to be immediately on my side, and to feel involved, personally, in the creation of their own characters, which was not only what was written on the page. Of course, they read the script, I wanted them to read it, and we were discussing all the scenes that would be difficult.

Before Michael there was another kid that I saw in London playing onstage, Jake Gyllenhaal. And after a while I discovered that he couldn't make [the movie] because he was too terrified. And I understood it because I am the same. I would never be naked in front of a camera. Impossible. So I remembered that I saw, in New York, during a casting session, this boy with [pause] big mouth [laughs]. And you remember in the film, I made a joke which wasn't in the script, when the girl says, "Oh, let's put some lipstick on him." It was because, I was a bit, not embarrassed, but his mouth was a bit effeminate. So what I tried to do in the beginning was to create a friendship between them. You cannot create a friendship, but you can push. And they were so nice together, they liked each other, they had fun with each other. They were curious about the one who is American -- the others were French -- so they were culturally curious of each other, and their differences. And that helped a lot. And I told them, "I want you to be, a few days after we began our shoot," and we shot in chronological order, "I want you to be walking around naked in the flat without really any problem, exactly like if you were dressed up." And they did it, little by little without even realizing it, and even the crew, they stopped looking at them, it was totally natural. So in that way I needed them very involved in the creation of their own characters. It was a way of having them more loose.


What comes through in the accounts of Paris in May '68 is a sense of joy. I felt that instead of talking about whatever specific issues were being fought over, you were saying that what goes on in that apartment was a version of the slogan at the time, "All power to the imagination!"

[smiling] And, uh, "It is forbidden to forbid."

What do you remember of that time? What were you trying to get into the film?

It's something I said before, but for me it's what I taught also the kids [in the cast] about other kids in '68, which was, we were going to sleep and we knew we would wake up in the future, not tomorrow. Future means hope. It's not much used now. Like the word "transgression," which was one of the most common words in '68. You never hear it today. Kids don't use it. It's like the word was forgotten, to be transgressive. I remember this gift that the kids had then, to conjugate together politics, sex, cinema, with rock 'n' roll, with jazz, with philosophy, of course with the first joints, the first dope. And all together -- if you think now, you think, How was that possible? -- but all together it was working very well then. It was a fantastic gift, a talent, to mix up everything.


I think, from my movies, you can feel a sort of omnivore desire for all those things, always. I don't think that it would have been possible to do this film then. Or it would have been totally unbalanced. You would have had a lot of political meetings at university, and blah blah speeches. And it's something that some people miss in the film. I was a bit criticized that there isn't enough politics in the film. But I thought that the politics is what aged more than all the rest. And today to hear those words of politics from then would be very punishing, because they aged. Human relations do not age.

The real politics, to me, was that sprit of discovery.

Yes, the state of exploration and discovery.

In this film and in "Besieged," there's a sense of a new freedom in the ways you use the camera. I don't know if that's a new confidence.


Maybe it's a new confidence. I think there is less preoccupation, worry, of showing myself in the camerawork. And I think that I'm loosening up in that sense. I think that it's better, much better now. I was spending a few days with friends in the Canary Islands on New Year's Eve and Pedro Almodóvar was there and we were talking about how difficult it to watch your old movies. I mean, I can't watch my old movies.

You can't?

It's very difficult. I have to do it sometimes. Almodóvar said, "Yeah, yeah," and we were trying to understand why, but he got to the same conclusion, we find them very bad, Pedro and me. So I don't know what I've done. I know that with [cinematographer] Fabio Cianchetti I can do 20 setups a day. In the past, I was able to shoot two, maybe three setups a day. So, I went back to something which was my way of shooting on, say, "The Conformist." Even "Last Tango," maybe. Which was, every shot was giving birth to the next one, and then to the next one. It was a kind of moving element, where the shots were so interconnected. If you do one or two shots a day, there is all this dead time in between when everything becomes heavier and loses this dancing quality.

And things connect better this way.

There is a texture which changes, and that has been very important. And also, why not? I think I've been influenced by directors, young directors who are using the camera in a way which has been suggested by all the new technologies. And I think that everything is influencing everyone else.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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