Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Screenplay: Clare Peploe and Bernardo Bertolucci, from a story by James Lasdun
Cast: Thandie Newton, David Thewlis, Claudio Santamaria
NY Distribution Status: now playing (Fine Line)

Grade: B-

Truly memorable live-action short films are so rare these days that it's painful to see a potentially first-rate one streeeeetched laboriously to feature length. Bertolucci's simple, blunt chamber drama was reportedly expanded for theatrical release from an hour-long television version, but even sixty minutes seems to me like at least thirty too many; the narrative feels inexpertly padded, crammed with extraneous details, like Daniel Keyes' shamelessly bloated novelization of his own classic short story "Flowers for Algernon." A pity, too, because Besieged is absolutely glorious in fits and starts, a heady maelstrom of charged glances and hesitant overtures and dissociated busywork. Even the tired old device of juxtaposing one character's love of classical music with another's inclination to get down/funky almost works; the film's best scene, trite yet undeniably powerful, finds Thewlis' lovestruck, legato-prone pianist wooing his emotionally recessive housekeeper with an unexpected burst of frenzied staccato passion. Rhythm, whether musical or visual, is Bertolucci's primary tool this go-round, skillfully wielded (there's a wonderful piano/Hoover duet, for example); the movie is virtually dialogue-free, which is something of a blessing given that Newton and Thewlis -- fine actors both -- tend to embarrass themselves every time they open their mouths. (Thewlis' declaration of love is so nakedly, clumsily desperate that the scene is both remarkably courageous and totally inept; it reminded me, rather disconcertingly, of Harmony Korine's drunken cameo appearance in Gummo.) The conclusion suffers from a glib, O. Henryesque ironic twist, but even that might well have been effective had the anticipation of same not been monotonously building for an hour and a half. Stealing Beauty, too, was a case of dazzling style married to disappointing substance; if Bertolucci ever gets his mitts on a superlative script again, watch out.