From the Archives: Bernardo Bertolucci returns to Paris and the 1960s

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Bernardo Bertolucci, the Oscar-winning director of The Last Emperor, Last Tango in Paris and The Conformist, died in Rome on Monday at the age of 77. FJI looks back on our 2004 interview with the Italian master for his film The Dreamers.

Thomas Wolfe may have been right—you can't go home again—but you can go to university again. And since the besieged one in Paris in the turbulent '60s had such a strong and nurturing effect on Bernardo Bertolucci during his early formidable years as an emerging film revolutionary, The Dreamers was really a cathartic homecoming for him.

"It is like all my movies," the 63-year-old former firebrand now says, "just a piece of my life. Maybe I have a very vivid memory of those days. It was like going into a mind—the mind of the memory—and trying to recreate that moment, which was magic for me.

"When I started in 1962, Italian cinema was like the decaying of neorealism. Neorealism had finished its great run in the late '40s and '50s and now was becoming Italian comedy. In France, you had this extraordinary movement like a big wave—it was called the New Wave—and I found I felt much closer to that. Maybe that's why I went to Paris to shoot The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris. Could it be done in Vienna? I don't know."

Considerately, Gilbert Adair screen-adapted his novel, The Holy Innocents, so that it seemed like an overlay over Bertolucci's own past. Instead of an impressionable Italian among the cinephiles at the barricades, we now have a provincial American (Michael Pitt), and at the heart of the film is a complex and uninhibited sexual tangle only Bertolucci could do justice to, involving the young Yank and a pair of Parisian twins, one male (Louis Garrel) and one female (Eva Green). While contemporaries are clashing with cops under their balcony, these three are inside making their own revolutionary inroads.

"When I read the script, I had a feeling it was like Cocteau's Les Enfants Terribles—only set in 1968," says Bertolucci. "The complicated relationship of the twins reminded me of that. There's a line of Cocteau's about Les Enfants Terribles. He said, 'With this play'—because it was a play first—'I want to make lightness the gravity.' Which I remembered during the filming—to be light and, at the same time, intense. When I think of the eroticism in The Dreamers, I see it as something very light and very joyous."

Most of the sexual romping is done in the twins' spacious apartment that is momentarily parentless. They have the run of the place. "If you remember the Buñuel movie The Exterminating Angel, it's like that. People get into an apartment and they can't get out."

There is enough steamy, sensual activity inside the apartment to keep audiences sweating—and critics sniping. "I realize, reading the first reviews that are coming out in this country, that some have taken this film for the work of a D.O.M.—a Dirty Old Man. I really never thought I could be considered that. Then they asked me on a television program, 'Do you really think it was necessary to show these naked bodies?' Would they have asked Picasso that? Or Rubens? Did they ask Rubens why he was painting these naked women? To show a naked body, for me, is the most natural and innocent thing in the world. It's surprising it still provokes a kind of puritanical reaction in this country.

"I didn't have a fight over the ratings. There was something nobody could fight—a deal. I had a deal to deliver an R-rated movie, so in the end I had to accept that. I had to suffer a bit and go to the cutting room and do some trims. Then, looking at the film altered, I found it was, if anything, more obscene than the original. I don't consider the naked body obscene. When you go and cover a naked body, then it becomes titillating and obscene."

Three weeks before The Dreamers went into release, the studio executives here came to much the same conclusion and opted to go with the European cut, giving Fox Searchlight (and, for that matter, Fox) its first NC-17 release. It's the first film so rated since the "South Park" guys had an Orgazmo in 1997.

"At first," the director recalls, "I thought Searchlight didn't want to go out with an NC-17 because of the limitations, but they explained NC-17 isn't like an X. Apart from very few places, no exhibitors have problems with NC-17. Until recently, I'd heard that the movie couldn't be shown in this country in its entirety"—his thick accent makes "entirety" sound like "integrity" —"and it seemed strange the only country in the world the movie had to be cut for is the United States, and probably Iran. Grown-ups have the right to see movies for grown-ups. That's the message being sent by this rating. It's a good precedent, and it'll encourage other companies to show grown-up movies."

The nudity issue was resolved with his young leads before the cameras rolled. "I told them that within two weeks you have to move into the apartment and be naked as if you were not naked, as if you had your clothes on. And after the first or second day, the crew wasn't even looking at them." The self-consciousness of everybody soon subsided.

Jake Gyllenhaal wasn't able to make that leap. Bertolucci interviewed him in London and offered him the role of the young American, "but immediately, I knew it would be a nightmare because he was terrified of the nudity. I don't blame him. I am exactly like him. I could never be naked in front of the camera, so I went back to Michael Pitt."

Such modesty is not just a fretful American phenomenon, he notes. "I remember when I wanted to do Last Tango in Paris. Having just done The Conformist, naturally the actors I wanted were Jean-Louis Trintignant and Dominique Sanda. In fact, Jean-Louis—and we were very good friends—was almost crying to me, 'I cannot be naked in front of the camera. I can't. It can't happen. That's all.' And he wasn't American. He was French."

Sanda was sidelined by pregnancy, and it was a very game Maria Schneider who had a go at Marlon Brando. It was one of Brando's bravest and best jobs, and in the process of doing it, he learned that nudity was more than skin-deep. After shooting the classic scene where he rants and cries over his wife's coffin, he told Bertolucci he would never go that deep again. "Part of my challenge was to take Marlon—or to let Marlon take me—into the depth of his tormented nature. I remember I told him, 'I'd like to take away the mask, the persona that you show in all your movies. I want you as you are when we are talking now.' And he gave me one of his smiles. He gave me things that probably afterward he wasn't sure it was right to give to me. He gave me the flesh without the skin, and he gave me the violence of that character, but I remember he treated me like a child."

Eroticism, as Bertolucci remembers it and films it, was the currency of the revolution back in '68. "Sex was considered something revolutionary. Also, sex was in sync with politics, with music, with cinema—everything was conjugated together, and you could mix up everything. Kids today are missing something. It's not their fault. They don't have big, ambitious dreams. 'I want to change the world'—it sounds so ridiculous today.

"In '68, everything started with the Cinematheque. It was the first time the police became so violent. They were attacking students and film buffs and a lot of Paris intellectuals. Truffaut and Godard were attacked. Everything started with the cinema, and then it spread—Rome, Germany, Berkeley, Columbia University. Ambitions and goals were connected with cinema. It was like a projection of illusions that had cinematic values.

"What remains from '68? The way people are interconnected, the relationship between people, was very different after '68. It was a different life before '68. You could see everywhere an incredible number of authoritarian figures. After '68, they disappeared. Relationships between men and women changed—'68 triggered women's liberation."

Casting-wise, everything old is new again. "I think the three of them are absolutely kids of today. I didn't want them to find how kids walked or acted in 1968. I wanted them to be themselves and be taken with me and the camera in a time machine back to 1968."

But at the end of the day, the problem with a time machine, Bertolucci says, is disembarking. "It was very uncomfortable to walk out of the set every night and go out into the real world."