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How 'Avatar' inspired Bernardo Bertolucci to make a 3-D art-house film

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Bertolucci
Lionel Cironneau/AP Images

People joke about the day 3-D will be used to make an art-film with only two characters in one room. Bernardo Bertolucci is serious about it.

The Italian filmmaker, known for sumptuous and sensual films such as Last Tango in Paris, Stealing Beauty, and the Oscar-winning The Last Emperor, discussed plans to do exactly that at the start of the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday, where he received a lifetime achievement award. Though confined to a wheelchair and in declining health due to numerous back surgeries, the 71-year-old director intends to begin work soon on Io e Te (Me and You), based on an Italian young-adult novel about a 14-year-old boy who hides from the world in his family’s basement, along with his even more troubled 25-year-old sister.

Bertolucci — a giant of Euro art-cinema — said he was inspired to do it in 3-D by James Cameron’s mega-blockbuster popcorn flick about the giant, blue inhabitants of Pandora. “I’ve seen Avatar — and I love Avatar, and I was fascinated by 3-D,” Bertolucci said.

Which made him ask: “Why is 3-D considered good only for horror or science fiction?” He began to imagine his favorite movies, classics of European art-cinema, given the stereoscopic treatment.

“I thought, ‘If 8 ½ by Fellini was in 3-D, wouldn’t it be great?’” Bertolucci said. “Another film that could have been great in 3-D was [Ingmar] Bergman’s Persona. How fascinating, this movie with close-ups of the two actors.”

German filmmakers Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders have experimented with 3-D documentaries, but this is the first time the technique will have been tried on an intimate drama by a director of such renown.

Io e Te would be Bertolucci’s first movie since 2003’s The Dreamers — a film he thought might be his last. “In the last five six years, I was sure I wouldn’t have done any more movies,” he said. “My condition, which everybody can see, made me think it’s the end. “

Then, about a year ago, the process of moving around in the wheelchair began to remind Bertolucci of creating dolly shots with a camera rolling forward on tracks. Suddenly he got homesick for moviemaking. “If you look at my movies, there is always movement on the dolly,” he said, gesturing to the chair with a smile. “That’s why I have been punished like that.”

For more from the Cannes Film Festival, follow Anthony Breznican on Twitter: @Breznican