Film Scouts Reviews

"Stealing Beauty"

by Karen Jaehne

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May 16, 1996

Bertolucci's best subject is lost innocence - in particular, of American innocents. "Stealing Beauty" is exquisite, a gossamer portrait of an American girl on the brink of European womanhood.

The film feels rooted in a way none of Bertolucci's films have for a very long time. His sense of place is always powerful, and the production design reinforces everything sensuous and strong that about Italy, including life-size clay statuary reminiscent of ancient Etruscan figures. The evanescence of the performances is balanced by the daring, muscular production design that serves the story well. One anecdote has Bertolucci dying the gravel in the driveway Etruscan red to control the frame of a shot. If it's true, it was worth it; but we don't want to listen to such smoke-and-mirrors stories, because the natural appeal of Tuscany is like a big rocking chair where Chekhov slumbers - waiting to be awakened by an American beauty.

Liv Tyler plays Lucy, a 19-year-old virgin - yes, a source of embarrassment to her, too - who visits friends of her recently deceased mother to uncover the identity of her real father. Her quest leads her through a group of adults in various stages of disappointment, decadence and death. But Lucy is strong enough to see them for what they are, to measure them against her own dreams, and to integrate what she learns across the threshold of adulthood.

Liv Tyler never makes a false move. She cuts a wide swath through the artists' colony assembled in a remote Tuscan villa. Her Lucy has the self-conscious vanity of a rock'n'roll teenager as well as the unself-conscious flirtation of a beautiful young woman among aging hipsters. She meets a dying Don Juan (Jeremy Irons), a sculptor intent on creating her likeness (Donal McCann), a dotty Frenchman (Jean Marais), an advice columnist (Rachel Weisz), and an earth mother (Sinead Cusack), who was the best friend of Lucy's mother, a character who deserves more development.

Bertolucci's story contrasts states of alienation, the fresh alienation of the young and the pentimento of those who have lived with it into the far turn. In the opening scene on a train, he views Lucy as parts of a body through the eyes of a stranger's camera. Gradually, Bertolucci assembles those parts through her growing self-discovery. As we hear Lucy's mother - a poet and beauty in her own right - discussed, Lucy begins to replace the picture of her mother with a deeper understanding of her as a woman. For most of her life, Lucy regarded her father as a mystery or a rumor she kept at bay but now begins to surface in her thoughts. What kind of man would have been with such a woman 20 years ago?

Because the story is relatively simple, Bertolucci frees his characters to be complex. His approach to Lucy, who reflects the clean beauty of the unwritten page, is to let us see her in parallax, from the point-of-view first of the assorted men on this art farm: Do any of them demonstrate true paternal feelings toward her? Or do they just want to steal her beauty? And then through the eyes of her dead mother, whose beauty Lucy will have to claim, even to steal, to become her own woman.

Lucy's successful quest would be banal in the hands of most directors. But Bertolucci both constructs the architecture of a detective story applied to the process of growing up and refrains from the temptation or melodrama of some plot-shattering discovery. He is neither above a happy ending, nor afraid of joy. He even steals the beauty of Tuscany for us. The landscape becomes mythic, the actors heroic, and the gods have little else to do but look on in wonder at the small pleasures of human life.

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