Stealing Beauty (Bernardo Bertolucci)

Rating: **1/2 (out of ****)

Stealing Beauty is altogether too classy a title for this movie -- it could more accurately be called Liv Tyler Gets Laid. Not a love story so much as a hymen story, and not remotely the Profound Journey of Discovery that it clearly aspires to be, Bertolucci's latest is surprisingly vacuous; I never thought I'd see Bernardo shoot a gauzy, soft-focus sex scene, complete with the requisite closeups of intertwined limbs...much less set such a scene to a Mazzy Star number. (If I wanted a Tony Scott picture, I'd damn well go see one.) The narrative is slight, the characters disappointingly one-dimensional, the scenery distractingly gorgeous, the frequent use of American pop/rock songs (Liz Phair, Hole, Sam Phillips, &c.) a poor substitute for genuine emotion. And yet I found it impossible to hate the film as much I wanted to, and was surprised to find myself warming to it again and again, between spurts of source music. Bertolucci is a master at creating a mood, and here he demonstrates (or, rather, reminds us) that he's just as capable with a small, intimate setting as he is with the sprawling tableaux that typified recent films like The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky. The opening scenes of Stealing Beauty, following the annoying credits (don't ask what happens to that cassette, by the way; the payoff scene was cut during post-production), in which Lucy wanders silently through the apparently empty villa in which she's to spend her vacation, is thrillingly evocative, wordlessly suggesting mystery, wonder, and an eerie sensuality. Bertolucci (who replaced longtime cinematographer Vittorio Storaro with the young upstart Darius Khondji for this picture, enabling the latter to show off his considerable versatility -- this movie looks as much like Se7en as Liv Tyler looks like Todd Rundgren) works miracles here, and intermittently throughout the film. So skilled is his direction, so fluid his rhythms, that he frequently managed to fool me into believing that something magical was just about to happen. Sadly, nothing ever does, but I appreciated the effort all the same.