Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Writer: Bernardo Bertolucci (from Alberto Moravia’s novel)
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, Dominique Sanda
The Conformist opens in a Paris hotel room that Marcello Clerici (a razor-wire taut Jean-Louis Trintignant) shares with a currently unknown woman sleeping naked on the bed. Her nudity is no mere gratuitous show of flesh: it tricks the audience into assuming that Marcello has a sexual relationship with her and is therefore heterosexual. Marcello picks up a gun, flicks a sheet over the woman’s bare arse—a beautifully subtle intimation of his real feelings for her—and exits. If Jean-Luc Godard’s assertion that all a film needs is a girl and a gun holds true then The Conformist stylishly ticks all the boxes in its opening scene.
Marcello emerges into a surreal Parisian landscape of Art Deco angles and cobalt blues. He jumps into a car driven by his shady accomplice Manganiello (Gastone Moschin), kick-starting the road trip that forms the spine of this non-linear psychological jigsaw puzzle. As they drive, Manganiello whines about their as yet unknown assignment, but Marcello isn’t listening: his mind spins back to how he (and the audience with him) got to Paris in the first place.
It’s Italy in 1938 and Mussolini rules with an iron fist. Marcello reveals his engagement to Giulia to his blind best friend Italo Montanari, a fascist propagandist. More significantly, Italo introduces Marcello to a colonel from the secret police. Marcello is invited to the ministry, where—along with whipping the sheet over the woman’s buttocks in the hotel—his almost-mincing gait is as much of a clue as Bertolucci gives to explain Marcello’s right-wing politics. Marcello is tasked with spying on his former university tutor Professor Quadri, an anti-fascist dissident who has fled to France.
Next, Marcello visits his fiancée Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), an empty-headed representative of the petite bourgeoisie with a healthy carnal appetite. Marcello has barely sat down before Giulia, looking like a zebra on heat in a black and white striped dress, sets upon him. When the maid enters, Marcello, highly attuned to social faux pas, immediately restores propriety by fending off Giulia. Once again, boundary + violation = reaction. Giulia chides him that they’re engaged and perfectly entitled to smooch. This little interaction subtly reveals that Marcello’s sexual boundaries are significantly more constricted than Giulia’s. Then she drops a fly in Marcello’s ointment: he must go to confession before they can legally marry.
In order to understand this confession, Bertolucci inserts two scenes. The first shows Marcello’s father in a mental asylum; mental wellbeing suffers under the constant pressure and anxiety of having to stay within society’s sexual boundaries. The second unfolds at Marcello’s crumbling family pile. His dissolute mother and her Japanese manservant Ki are the only residents. Ki keeps her sedated—to Marcello’s disgust—with morphine and sex. Like Albert in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Marcello’s discomfort with the physical body surfaces when he sees his mother in dishabille: “Cover yourself, please. I don’t want to see you half-naked.”
Manganiello, the secret police minder who accompanies Marcello to Paris, arrives. Marcello tells Manganiello about his mother’s nauseating relationship with Ki. “It’s not normal,” the minder mutters as he stomps off. In a beautifully staged shot, the wind whips dead leaves around Marcello’s car while, off-screen, Manganiello gives Ki a primer in fascist sexual etiquette. “Tell the Colonel he can count on me,” Marcello quips, demonstrating his commitment to the fascist ideal of violently enforced sexual conformity: Marcello is on the same wavelength as John Lotter and Tom Nissen in Boys Don’t Cry, the mob in Last Exit to Brooklyn and Sister Bridget in The Magdalene Sisters.
Marcello’s confession doesn’t start well: he hasn’t been to church since First Communion. The Conformist flashes back to reveal why: when Marcello was 13 he was lured into an empty mansion by a half-Japanese chauffeur called Lino, who let Marcello play with his Mauser pistol. But Lino wanted to play with an entirely different pistol: the little pink one between Marcello’s legs. Startled, Marcello pulled the trigger. Lino fell, bleeding heavily. Marcello scarpered, leaving Lino for dead while acquiring a deep-seated loathing for Oriental manservants. A frightening connection between sex and danger was also seared into his impressionable young psyche. In the confessional Marcello reveals his resulting obsession with conformity and makes a heartfelt promise to build a normal life with Giulia, who he dotingly describes as “mediocre… all bed and kitchen.” The priest grants Marcello the absolution he craves.
The Conformist elides the wedding and resumes on a train with Marcello and Giulia en route to their honeymoon in Paris. Giulia nervously reveals that she lost her virginity to an older man some years earlier. While many would consider this a significant violation of propriety, in Marcello’s case he doesn’t care; he married Giulia for her normality, not her hymen. They disembark at Ventimiglia, where Marcello meets the Colonel’s men. His orders have changed and Marcello receives the gun seen in the film’s opening scene: Quadri is to be killed. On the train to Paris, Giulia unburdens herself by recounting every detail of her premarital relationship. Marcello undresses Giulia as she prattles. In one of the film’s most tender moments, Marcello is momentarily lost in the bliss of married mediocrity and empties himself into Giulia’s normality. This is the high-water mark for Marcello; the point of his deepest acquiescence to the prevailing sexual covenants and the furthest departure from his true nature—which Bertolucci carefully conceals until the film’s final shot.
Cut to the Hotel Palais D’Orsay, where Giulia sleeps while Marcello makes a phone call. Bertolucci, acknowledging his influences, gives Professor Quadri the real-life address and phone number of Godard as Marcello wheedles an appointment. Marcello and Giulia head for the Rue Saint Jacques, where we meet The Conformist’s last significant character—not Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio) but his young wife Anna, played by a sultry Dominique Sanda with a thumbs-in-pockets nod to Marlene Dietrich. As Marcello enters, his gloved hand brushes Anna’s fingers, signalling his immediate interest in her. Once again Bertolucci dangles a red herring, using Marcello’s fascination with Anna to reinforce the notion that he is heterosexual, just as he did earlier through Giulia’s nudity. In fact, something entirely different and as yet concealed piques Marcello’s interest in Anna.
The next sequence details Marcello’s renewed acquaintance with Professor Quadri while Anna befriends Giulia. Marcello and Quadri exchange political barbs, but the latter is sharp enough to see through Marcello’s fascist posturing. Later, Marcello shunts Giulia off to the Eiffel Tower while he visits Anna’s ballet studio. Mistaking his own reasons for his interest in Anna, Marcello offers to flee with her to Brazil—exposing his paper-thin nationalism—but he’s failed to divine her complex motivations. Quadri and Anna know Marcello is a fascist spy; she goads him that he doesn’t have the courage to assassinate them. Suddenly losing confidence, Anna tugs down her leotard to expose her breasts, hugs Marcello and begs him not to harm them. Having earlier used Giulia’s nudity to lay a false trail, Bertolucci uses Anna’s self-exposure to reveal her vulnerability: she’s a lamb at the slaughterhouse gate. Marcello is thrown off-balance. From this point onwards a growing confusion envelops him as his carefully constructed façade of normality slowly unravels.
However, Anna’s plea for mercy isn’t the full extent of her desires. Back at the Hotel D’Orsay she helps Giulia disrobe to try on a new dress. Anna openly admires Giulia. The audience may not yet realise it, but here Anna reveals the hidden link between herself and Marcello. Giulia was content to be seen nude by her husband but the she finds Anna’s gaze intimidating, a minor yet nonetheless disquieting violation of her sexual boundaries: “Please don’t look at me. I’m embarrassed,” reads the subtitle. (The Italian word in the original dialogue is ‘vergogna’, which refers not to embarrassment but to shame.)
That night the two couples dine in a Chinese restaurant. Here Professor Quadri, the MacGuffin of The Conformist, takes centre stage. He comments on how serious Marcello was as a student: “Too serious.” Giulia concedes that her husband hardly ever smiles. It’s a tiny beat but a significant point when assessing the emotional cost of our sexual covenants: among the casualties of Marcello’s conformity is his joy. Marcello cannot be relaxed and joyful without fear of letting his mask slip and revealing his innermost, socially dangerous, sexual desires. Thus he spends his entire life taught as piano wire, a tension fabulously captured by Jean-Louis Trintignant’s electric performance. Quadri plays his ace by asking Marcello to deliver a letter to a dissident in Italy. Marcello, compromised by both his puzzling interest in Anna and his fake politics, is at a loss. He signals his ambivalence by returning the gun to Manganiello, who has been playing hide-and-seek with the increasingly conflicted Marcello throughout their time in Paris.
Marcello cannot be relaxed and joyful without fear of letting his mask slip and revealing his innermost, socially dangerous, sexual desires. Thus he spends his entire life taught as piano wire, a tension fabulously captured by Jean-Louis Trintignant’s electric performance.
Next comes the beautifully choreographed dance hall scene. Anna dances with Giulia. Here Anna, nipples proudly poking through her parchment-thin dress, lays bare her bisexuality. Marcello, in the meantime, refuses to take Quadri’s letter, proving to the professor that his fascism is indeed a facsimile; a real fascist would have handed the letter to the secret police. The professor opens the letter, revealing a blank sheet inside: the blank page of Marcello Clerici’s genuine political beliefs. To avoid the discomfiting sense of inadequacy arising from the ease with which Quadri duped him, Marcello turns to the dance floor but meets an even more disquieting sight: Anna coming onto Giulia in an erotically charged dance whose meaning is unmistakeable: I want to bed you. Boundary + violation = reaction. Marcello vents his anger by telling Quadri to control his wife. Quadri refuses, effectively signing his own death warrant. Marcello strides away and tells the loitering Manganiello that the Professor will leave for Savoy in the morning—alone. Manganiello goes to arrange the hit while the dancers circle poor Marcello. There he is, the conformist, alone and miserable in a sea of human happiness forever denied to him by his own sexual shame.
Then it’s back to that long drive through the misty, snow-shrouded French landscape. There’s a complication: Anna is travelling with the Professor. Marcello urges Manganiello to drive faster; he has belatedly found some spine and wants to save her. They catch up to Anna and Quadri just as the hit takes place on a back road through the woods. The attackers stab the Professor on the open road. Anna rushes over to Marcello’s car. In his impotence—political, sexual, emotional—his earlier resolve collapses. All he can do is stare at Anna as she presses against the windowpane. Realising her fate, Anna screams. She flees into the snowbound woods with Quadri’s killers in pursuit. Shots echo and fade. Snow drifts down through the trees as silence envelops Anna’s inert body.
The Conformist jumps to 1943, with King Victor Emmanuel accepting the resignation of Benito Mussolini, paving the way for the collapse of Italian fascism. Marcello and Giulia now have a child—he has achieved his definition of normality—but Mussolini’s demise leaves Marcello with the wrong allies. It’s not just Marcello that’s worried by this turn of events. In perhaps the film’s most monstrous moment, Giulia, shorn of her pre-war frivolity, voices her support for Marcello’s part in the assassination of Professor Quadri and Anna.
In the film’s closing scene, Marcello goes out with his old friend Italo. They eavesdrop on a conversation between two men, one clearly luring in the other. With a shock, Marcello realises it’s the old chauffeur Lino from his First Communion days. A crowd celebrating Mussolini’s fall appears. Unbalanced by the sight of Lino and fearing that he cannot contain his repressed feelings, Marcello denounces Lino as a fascist, the murderer of Professor Quadri. Lino flees. Marcello then denounces the blind Italo who is also swept off into the turbulent night. Marcello finds himself alone with Lino’s companion, who warms himself by a fire. In the film’s closing shot, Marcello sits with his back to the man, the light from the fire flickering across his hunched shoulders. Slowly, helplessly, Marcello turns around, blinking in terror as he stares into the darkness of his own core. Only with this final shot does Bertolucci fully reveal the repressed homosexuality driving Marcello’s violent obsession with so-called normality.
Definition: Sexual repression
Repress: “suppress (a thought or feeling) in oneself so that it becomes or remains unconscious.” (Oxford English Dictionary) To suppress a sexual thought or feeling in oneself so that it becomes or remains unconscious in order to conform to the sexual rules of a given environment (e.g. family, social, political, religious).
In Boys Don’t Cry, John Lotter and Tom Nissen’s sexual intolerance is latent. It is not apparent in everyday situations; only the extraordinary circumstances involving Brandon triggers their shame, leading to them committing rape and murder. In The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Albert Spica’s sense of sexual propriety is constantly violated by the behaviour of those around him, triggering the abuse and violence that results in Michael’s murder and Albert’s own demise. That which transgresses their boundaries lies outside them. In The Conformist, it is Marcello’s own homoerotic desires that violate his personal sexual boundaries. Because he is the source of his own sense of transgression, both victimiser and victim, Marcello’s feelings of shame are perpetual. This creates a need for perpetual action—the internal tension brilliantly portrayed by Jean-Louis Trintignant—to stave off the low grade but nonetheless unpleasant shame-based feelings of stress, anxiety and disgust that he is constantly prey to. Marcello’s external behaviour thus derives from his sexual repression: while his fascist agenda may seem unrelated to his sexual orientation, the unconscious repression of his homosexuality is the wellspring of his twisted politics. This repression occurs to avoid the fate of Harry Black in Last Exit to Brooklyn, whose sexual behaviour breached his community’s accepted boundaries and led to his beating and abandonment.
The films examined in this chapter show how individual boundaries aggregate at the communal level to create sexual covenants that define socially accepted behaviour. Every instance of sexual behaviour is thus a political act that either abides by or transgresses against the community’s taboos. This implicit division unconsciously categorises everyone according to their sexual-political role in society.
Definition: Sexual-political role
Role: “a person’s share, part or duty in life and society; the character, place or status assigned to or assumed by a person.” (Oxford English Dictionary) A sexual-political role is the place assumed by a person relative to the sexual covenants of a given community or society.
In a sexually repressed society there are three sexual-political roles or positions:
- Upholders: people who sit comfortably within the boundaries of their society’s sexual covenants, i.e. they have no sexual impulses that violate those boundaries. When confronted with minor violations of sexual covenants they react by upholding the status quo relatively passively, such as through argument. In the face of major violations they respond through rejection and withdrawal. Examples include Lynda’s father in Wish You Were Here (who harangues his daughter in public and finally rejects her) and Giulia in The Conformist (who feels comfortable kissing her fiancée in front of her maid but feels uncomfortable at being naked in front of Anna).
- Transgressors: people who have sexual impulses that violate their society’s sexual covenants. Those who successfully contain such impulses avoid the wrath of their host society but may marginalise themselves in the process. Eric, the bookmaker with the gammy leg in Wish You Were Here, is an example of a transgressor who lives in the margins to avoid undue attention from a disapproving society. Those who are unable to restrain their transgressive impulses can become—often against their own will—the victims of reprimands, legally sanctioned or otherwise, up to and including extreme violence and death. Examples include Brandon in Boys Don’t Cry (gender identity crisis; raped and murdered), Donna in Last Exit to Brooklyn (pregnant out of wedlock; forced to marry) and the inmates in The Magdalene Sisters who are legally forced into servitude for various reasons.
- Aggressors: people who actively defend the prevailing sexual covenants to the point of harming others. In extreme situations aggressors are prone to sexual rage that can destroy not only others but themselves. Examples include John Lotter and Tom Nissen in Boys Don’t Cry, Sister Bridget in The Magdalene Sisters and Marcello in The Conformist who sublimated his repressed homoerotic desires into political ideals, leading to the deaths of Professor Quadri and Anna.
The existence of covenants dictating acceptable and unacceptable sexual choices—with violent retribution towards those who make the ‘wrong’ choice—creates lifelong problems for those in the role of transgressors. From the fates of Brandon in Boys Don’t Cry, Michael in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Lynda Mansell, Harry Black and Tralala in Last Exit to Brooklyn, the girls in the Magdalene asylum and the killing of Professor Quadri and Anna in The Conformist, it may seem that the cost of obeying society’s sexual covenants, no matter how high, is a cost worth paying. Yet the number of people who end up in the news, either dead or in court, because of sexual violations that spiralled into tragedy shows that failing to manage transgressive impulses is relatively common.
The road to sexual catastrophe often starts with something minor, almost trifling—Brandon’s sock-stuffed crotch in Boys Don’t Cry, Lynda Mansell peering down her own smock in Wish You Were Here, Harry Black helping the wounded Georgie in Last Exit to Brooklyn—that only gradually spins out of control and ends with significant fallout for both the transgressors and those in their immediate orbit. The warning signs are many but they often pass unheeded. The next chapter slides down the slippery slope of sexually assured destruction.
 A term popularised by Alfred Hitchcock to refer to a plot device—typically a person, place or thing—around which a film pivots though, as in the case of The Conformist, it may ultimately be of secondary importance.