Bernardo Bertolucci could probably have added a couple of million bucks to the gross of Stealing Beauty simply by giving it a more accurate title — say, The Deflowering of Liv Tyler. This shrewdly coy, hot little idyll, about a dizzily pretty American teenager out to lose her virginity during a summer in Italy, is a pleasant departure for the director of Last Tango in Paris, 1900, and The Last Emperor. In Tyler, Bertolucci has a limpid Lolita with commercial credibility, by which I mean a solid track record in turning on adolescent boys in rock videos.
Tyler plays Lucy, a winsome, toothsome 19-year-old whose mother is both a famous poet and dead. Lucy is spending the summer with old friends of Mom’s, including an artist (The Dead‘s Donal McCann) who’s doing Lucy’s portrait. Bertolucci, working with a script by novelist Susan Minot (Monkeys, Folly), fills the artist’s Tuscan country house with an array of charmers and eccentrics, plus Jeremy Irons, serene and poignant as a wise, witty man stricken by a fatal illness.
Can Tyler act? Impossible to say. Bertolucci’s neatest trick is to have constructed the movie around Tyler’s gawky unself-consciousness. And Minot’s nice touch — one that adds instant depth to Lucy’s character — is to have the girl try to emulate her mother by writing poetry, and then to burn her sweetly mawkish efforts before anyone sees them.
The director is good at conveying the weather, both atmospheric and emotional. The constant buzz of insects and the glare of the sun serve as delightfully obvious metaphors for the hormonal heat given off by Lucy and her suitors, who vary from cynical middle-aged men to dewy-eyed boys. (Cinematographer Darius Khondji, moving from the murky darkness of Seven to the blinding light here, displays an impressive range.)
First Tango in Tuscany — er, Stealing Beauty — is as slim as Tyler’s hips, but it’s a great date movie. B