Remembering two of cinema's greats, Nicolas Roeg and Bernardo Bertolucci
This weekend, a pair of cinema’s most original voices were silenced. Nicolas Roeg and Bernardo Bertolucci, two visionary directors who conjured sumptuous celluloid mysteries that often took multiple viewings to fully reveal themselves, passed away leaving behind bodies of work that will live on forever. Both artists — and they were both artists with a capital A — made films that were ahead of their time and deeply of their time. That time, the 1970s, was a moviegoing era when audiences were willing (no, more than that, hungry) to be challenged. And thanks to these two masters, we were rewarded with films that could be beautiful, haunting, sensual riddles. Today, more than ever, that time feels a thousand years in the past.
Roeg, who died on Friday at age 90, began his career at the bottom rungs of the calcified British production ladder, eventually putting his keen visual sense in the service of others as an in-demand cinematographer on such eye-candy classics as David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964), and Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966). In 1968, he and co-director Donald Cammell collaborated on Performance — a druggy, groovy, time-splintered crime thriller set in London’s rock scene. The film starred a sympathy-for-the-devilish Mick Jagger as (big stretch) a debauched musician harboring a gangster (James Fox). Like so many Roeg films to come, Performance would prove to be ahead of its time. So much so that its studio, Warner Bros., held its release until 1970. They didn’t know what to make of it. But a generation of young film lovers steeped in the counterculture did.
Roeg followed with his solo directorial debut, 1971’s Walkabout. The film starred Jenny Agutter and Roeg’s young son, Luc, as siblings fleeing their murderous father in the middle of the Australian outback. Abandoned by their parental protector and separated from civilization as they know it, they’re left to fend for themselves until they befriend an Aboriginal teenager (David Gulpilil) who’s wandering the desert on his rite-of-passage journey. On its surface, the film seems to be a survival tale straight out of a Disney Saturday matinee, but Roeg loads his odyssey with deeper, almost mystical messages about the anthropological clash of cultures, human and natural savagery, and adolescent awakening.
Roeg was hitting his stride as a filmmaker. And his next feature would be the one for which he’d be most remembered — 1973’s Don’t Look Now. A creepy, high-brow horror film of suggestion, eroticism, and a chilling sense of place, the movie is a haunting portrait of a married couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) grappling with the accidental death of their daughter while in a sinister-seeming, fog-shrouded Venice. Based on a Daphne du Maurier novel, the film became notorious for its explicit love scene between its two stars (there were rumors for years that their on-screen sex scene wasn’t simulated) and the hallucinatory way in which Roeg decided to edit it, almost subliminally cross-cutting between writhing passion and the ho-hum details of the couple getting dressed afterwards. But beyond that infamous and provocatively artful sequence, Don’t Look Now remains a harrowing depiction of trauma and loss. Its jigsaw-puzzle structure hasn’t dated a bit and still casts an eerie poetic spell.
The success of the film finally gave Roeg some creative capital to spend as he wished. And he splashed it around like a man who knew he may not have this much freedom again on 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth — a sci-fi headtrip starring another rock icon, David Bowie (in the midst of his gaunt, paranoid-android cocaine androgyny phase) as an alien who lands on Earth searching for water for his doomed home planet. Corrupted by his new surroundings, Bowie’s mantis-like alter ego anchors some of the most stunning images of the decade. The film is demanding, enigmatic, some would say pretentious. But it’s also utterly hypnotic in its daring defiance. Critics, of course, hated it. And audiences, for the most part, steered clear. But over time, it’s become a cult hit whose cult rightly seems to grow with every passing year.
It would be too easy to say that Roeg’s films from the ‘80s (Bad Timing, Eureka, Track 29) didn’t connect in the same way as his ‘70s films because Hollywood became more crass and less hospitable to mavericks. But that’s a bit of a cop out. The truth is, those later films didn’t have the same urgency and cohesion. More and more, they seemed to be made for an audience of one.
If Roeg’s greatest strength (and arguably biggest weakness) as an artist was following his inner compass no matter where it led him, his Italian contemporary, Bernardo Bertolucci, seemed to capture the colorful spirit of his times — the roiling political, sexual, and social tensions that were simmering in the culture in the ‘60s and ‘70s — and splash them on the canvas of the silver screen with sensual, stylish brushstrokes.
Bertolucci, who died Monday at age 77, was no less of an iconoclast. He was a painterly provocateur during an era that was less hostile to original voices than now. Arriving on the scene during the last gasp of his country’s Neo-realist movement, Bertolucci forged his own uniquely dreamy, psychologically layered path with the help of his trusty jeweler’s-eye cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.
The beginning of his decade-long run of masterpieces kicked off with 1970’s The Conformist, as gorgeous a film as has ever been made. Based on a novel by Alberto Moravia and set during Italy’s Art Deco Fascist era (a combination of beauty and horror), Bertolucci’s film dealt with themes of loyalty, betrayal, and repressed sexuality. Jean-Louis Trintignant, looking like a fedora-clad gumshoe in the mold of Humphrey Bogart, stars as an aristocratic follower of Mussolini and would-be assassin torn between two women and the confusing impulses he’d rather avoid. The film’s look is ravishing and indelible, and its plot — which seems rather simple at first — slowly reveals onion-layers of meaning.
The riddles grew and the sexuality became even more psychologically loaded in Bertolucci’s scandalous Last Tango in Paris (1972). Banned in his native country, Last Tango was a cause celebre of seismic proportions. It’s hard to imagine a film today landing on both the covers of Time and Newsweek and being subject of an obscenity trial in Italy, but Bertolucci’s luck was living in interesting times. An X-rated snapshot of the intense erotic relationship between a middle-aged American widower (Marlon Brando) and a young Frenchwoman (19-year-old Maria Schneider), Last Tango, like Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, became notorious for its heated love scenes that sparked a mixture of outrage and titillation. (That titillation would take on a more toxic cast when Schneider later said that she felt exploited and ambushed by the director). At the time of its release, critic Pauline Kael called Last Tango “the most powerfully erotic movie ever made,” while others saw it as problematically chauvinistic. It’s a hard film to watch today knowing what we know of a young actress’ exploitation, but the film probably features Brando’s last great performance as his character tries to extinguish his grief through carnal oblivion. It’s not an easy film to watch — or to look away from.
In 1987, Bertolucci the provocateur finally saw the Hollywood establishment catch up to him in what he must have considered a bit of an ironic joke. His lavish epic about the last days of imperial China before the Communist revolution, The Last Emperor, was nominated for nine Oscars — and won all nine categories it was up for, including Best Picture and Best Director. The film, which was the first western film given permission to shoot in Beijing’s Forbidden City, was an overdue acknowledgement from an industry he had helped to reinvigorate and revolutionize from afar. Both he and Roeg played by their own rules from the beginnings of their careers until the very ends. They followed their visions, as all great artists must — provoking, prodding, and pushing audiences to go with them. Those who did would end up being far richer for the journey.