Year: 1996
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Writers: Bernardo Bertolucci, Susan Minot
Starring: Liv Tyler, Jeremy Irons, Donal McCann, Sinéad Cusack, Rachel Weisz

Stealing Beauty tells the story of a young American woman (a breakout role for Liv Tyler) who flies to Tuscany in search of both her real father and her first love. Though these twin objectives provide the thrust (well, gentle shove, really) for Stealing Beauty’s narrative arc, the film’s title and poster—a hunched and gawky Tyler, all limbs, hair, and doe eyes—suggests that the female form is the real subject of the film. Bertolucci’s belief in the naturalness of sex pervades many of his works and is explicitly depicted in the monumental 1900, though only in Stealing Beauty does he address the issue head-on. Not surprisingly, the film had a polarising effect on its audience: the film’s softly erotic milieu was a major turn-on—or off—both for those who liked and disliked it.

The film begins with Tyler’s Lucy Harmon jetting into Florence and catching the bus up to Siena. Here Bertolucci’s camera is at its most invasive: a hand-held camera, directed by an unknown fellow-traveller, films Lucy as she falls asleep with her legs open and a hand on her thigh. The camera zooms in on Lucy’s crotch, a fingertip almost touching her own sex. The close-up shifts to her face, where a trickle of saliva runs from her mouth. Bertolucci’s implication is obvious, but he redeems the moment when the cameraman—who has a bit part later in the story—tosses the cassette to Lucy.

Stealing Beauty

And then Stealing Beauty rolls into those gorgeous Tuscan hills: vineyards, olive groves, terracotta houses that have sheltered generations of simple living, close to the earth and the rhythm of the seasons. The cinematography is lush, almost tropical; the landscape glows like a pregnant woman. Bertolucci later captures people—particularly Tyler’s Lucy—in the same rich vein. Antipathy to Stealing Beauty suggests that we allow ourselves to gaze openly on the geographical landscape but not upon the human. Here again is the subtle yet toxic footprint of our sexual shame.

Lucy arrives at the villa of Ian (Donal McCann) and Diana (Sinéad Cusack), two old friends of her mother who run the place like a postage-stamp principality. There’s a constant flow of friends and relatives; they mix with occasional friction but everyone’s content to eat together on the terrazzo and sunbathe in the nude. Diana pines for the rain of her native Ireland. Ian loves the sun-baked hills and sculpts statues that evoke an ancient fertility cult. Faded Kama Sutra prints peer from overgrown corners. The whole place oozes a musty, latent sexuality; Bertolucci’s sex cult is far more convincing than Kubrick’s in Eyes Wide Shut. This warmly erotic ambience, where sex lurks unashamedly behind every bush, is the film’s most endearing trait.

Stealing Beauty

Lucy meets the current residents, including Diana’s daughter Miranda (Rachel Weisz), who lounges by the pool. Her husband Richard (D.W. Moffet) strips naked and dives in at the first sight of Lucy, signalling his entry in the sweepstake for deflowering her. There’s an agony aunt, an aged art dealer and, most importantly for Lucy, a playwright (Lolita’s Jeremy Irons), dying more from cynicism than some nameless disease. Most of the characters have an issue with sex or love, creating an erotically charged environment that the virginal Lucy disturbs. However, the cast is too large to be fully effective and some weak sub-plots only hamper the story’s generally languid pace.

Lucy’s back-story seeps out as she meets the various residents: her mother, a noted poet, died recently; in her mother’s diaries Lucy found some cryptic references to the true identity of her father. Lucy is also on the hunt for Niccoló, a local boy she had a crush on when she visited a few years earlier. Niccoló is absent, believed to be womanising in Turkey. A slight deflection of the eyes signals Lucy’s hurt at the news. This is a film of small moments.

The story meanders on, gently unfolding like a second bottle of Chianti after lunch or perhaps more like a family Christmas dinner: it takes far longer than it should, it’s too rich and there’s buckshot in the turkey; but there are some indulgent pleasures along the way. The plot lines are all fairly predictable; it’s best just to lie back in the film’s sexually open arms and enjoy the ride.

Stealing Beauty

Lucy is initially wary of Alex, the dying playwright; in the film’s most satisfying relationship he slowly gains her confidence and chaperones her towards her first sexual encounter. In return Alex finds a renewed zest for life.

Lucy slowly learns the truth about her mother’s bohemian lifestyle. The cameraman from the opening scene is revealed as a war correspondent and is briefly posited as Lucy’s real father. Miranda and Richard argue over the latter sniffing around Lucy; Miranda is liberated enough to lounge topless by the pool but she still clings to her husband’s sexual access rights.

The infighting gets too much for Lucy and she books a flight back to New York—only to change her mind at the sudden arrival of Niccoló (Roberto Zibetti), with his shy little brother Osvaldo (Ignazio Oliva) and Miranda’s brother Christopher (Joseph Fiennes) in tow. Tellingly, Niccoló needs to be reminded who Lucy is before breaking into a grin that would frighten a T. rex. Giddy from the prospect of an amorous encounter with Niccoló, Lucy gets drunk and vomits between his legs. The underlying driver is not the bottle of Montepulciano d’Arbruzzo Lucy guzzled but—like Erika Kohut in The Piano Teacher and Dani Trant in The Man in the Moon—the gut-wrenching shame of her pent-up, socially transgressive desires. Nonetheless, the bookmakers still have Niccoló odds-on to grease the pole with Lucy.

The story gathers pace as it approaches the central set piece, a party at Niccoló’s family home. Lucy makes a pre-emptive strike on Niccoló’s ancestral pile only to sight him in the foliage, sliding his hand up the bare thigh of a half-glimpsed Tuscan girl. Lucy lowers her opinion of Niccoló—like the Trant sisters in The Man in the Moon, she too has been conditioned to believe in ‘one love and one lover’—but Osvaldo is conveniently on hand when Lucy somewhat unconvincingly crashes her bicycle.

In this fecund landscape Lucy’s sexuality gradually burgeons. She sits for Ian to draw her portrait and makes no demur when, in the film’s iconic moment, he slips off a shoulder strap, allowing her thin summer dress to fall free of one breast. Of course, Ian will later be revealed as Lucy’s father. Whether Bertolucci meant anything to be read into this touching family moment is unclear.

Just then Niccoló arrives for what he expects to be a straightforward leg-over with Lucy. He leads her into an olive grove and helps himself to the juicy fruit, only—like Fernando in À Ma Soeur!—to be unexpectedly spat out. While the overall milieu of the villa is pro-nudity, the strictures on what constitutes illicit sex seen throughout Sexcatraz remain. Like Billy Sanders in The Man in the Moon, Niccoló shows himself to be unworthy of Lucy because of his willingness to have sex with multiple partners, i.e. without love. According to our sexual covenants, Lucy is not allowed to exchange her virginity for the simple and instructive pleasure of a good fuck at the hands (and other parts) of an accomplished lover; no, if she has any moral fibre she can only swap sex for primarily emotional satisfaction while any physical enjoyment is at best secondary and at worst downright undesirable.

Lucy is not allowed to exchange her virginity for the simple and instructive pleasure of a good fuck at the hands (and other parts) of an accomplished lover; no, if she has any moral fibre she can only swap sex for primarily emotional satisfaction while any physical enjoyment is at best secondary and at worst downright undesirable

Bertolucci challenges his audience with his camera work, but he doesn’t dare portray his lead character as a slut. Making sex fundamentally an emotional exchange may seem beneficial to women but there’s a major downside: a society ashamed of the physical sex act naturally produces men unskilled in the bedroom arts, sexually timid and frequently suffering from erectile dysfunction (Graham in Sex, Lies, and Videotape) or premature ejaculation (Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, Tenoch and Julio in Y Tu Mamá Tambíen, Philip Marlow in The Singing Detective). Lucy’s rejection of Niccoló throws the betting on who will deflower her wide open, just as the plot meanders to its centrepiece.

The party at Niccoló’s house is a bacchanalian affair of wine, music and sex. Carnal titters come from the bushes. Elegant Milanese dresses fall by the way. A drunken woman hitches up her skirt and laughs maniacally as she pisses in a corridor. Like a lot of Bertolucci, it’s tangential, self-indulgent but generally endearing. Amid all this revel Lucy falls in with Christopher, who is charming but only sees her as a pleasant sexual nightcap. However, he passes out and the list of potential conquerors shortens. Lucy curls up alone on the couch while much of the cast winds up having sex.

After the party Stealing Beauty begins to feel like a hotel on Lake Como in autumn. One by one the sub-plots dissipate. The film loses its only nuanced relationship when Irons’ dying playwright departs in an ambulance. Lucy acknowledges Ian as her father, leaving only the identity of her deflowerer to be revealed: shy Osvaldo, who has loved her from the shadows all along.

Stealing Beauty

First we are reminded that, in contrast to Niccoló, Osvaldo is sexually a ‘good’ man: when a bee stings Lucy’s breast she invitingly opens her blouse but he is pathetically reluctant to apply balm to the swelling(s).

The love scene itself is a murky, fire-lit affair on a Tuscan hilltop to the tune of Mazzy Star’s hypnotic ‘Rhymes of an Hour’. Osvaldo—with one eye on the American film censors—keeps his jeans on while Lucy lets the night air cool her cheeks. By the time the credits roll we’re suddenly aware how sore our own backsides are. Stealing Beauty is, by any account, a slight film. If it weren’t for Bertolucci, Tyler and Irons (not necessarily in that order) it would surely have sunk without trace. It’s one of those films sometimes classified as a guilty pleasure. As New York Times critic Janet Maslin observed, “for all the film’s missteps, there is cause to echo the uncritical compliment bestowed by the playwright (Jeremy Irons) upon the film’s ingénue (Liv Tyler): ‘I so enjoyed watching you’.” Many reactions to Stealing Beauty—positive and negative alike—are less an opinion of the film than a reflection of the viewer’s shame. Those who are relatively free of it are able to enjoy Lucy’s languid journey of sexual discovery; those who aren’t find all that bare flesh a mite uncomfortable.

Bertolucci’s film portrays an insular community where traditional restrictions on nudity have waned, although the concept of sex only being acceptable within the envelope of love—with its emphasis on emotional returns and the attendant, potentially destructive exchange of sexual access rights (Ian and Diana, Miranda and Richard, Lucy and Osvaldo)—is still firmly evident. A film that goes further in portraying a society that has relinquished traditionally constricted sexual beliefs is the 1973 British cult classic The Wicker Man.

Next: The Wicker Man

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