An introverted teenager tells his parents he is going on a ski trip, but instead spends his time alone in a basement.
It’s ten years since we last had a film from Bernardo Bertolucci (2003’s The Dreamers), and nearly 30 since he made one in Italian. Following a fall in which he injured his back, an injury that a course of surgery failed to correct, he’s been confined to a wheelchair, and it was widely believed – not least by the director himself – that he would never film again. “A few years ago, I couldn’t move any more. I couldn’t walk. That, maybe, was the moment when I thought I couldn’t do any more movies. I thought, OK, it is finished. I’ll do something else… [but] everything changed the moment I accepted this situation.”
This, you might think, could explain why he chose to make a film with a small cast largely confined to one interior location – except that the same could be said of The Dreamers and of its predecessor Besieged (1998) – or indeed of Last Tango in Paris (1972). The fact is that, even before his accident, Bertolucci was slimming down his cinema, restricting its reach and, some would argue, narrowing its conceptual scope.
Other directors, of course, have retreated into chamber works as age and infirmity have overtaken them – Dreyer’s Gertrud, Huston’s The Dead – but in the process contrived to fine down and concentrate their central concerns. But in the past two decades Bertolucci’s work has seemed increasingly prone to sideslip into the slight and even, at its worst, the trivial. The Lean-esque grandeur of The Last Emperor (1987) feels very far away, the shrewd vision and trenchant political edge of The Conformist and The Spider’s Stratagem (both 1970) yet more so. The nadir of his work to date is surely Stealing Beauty (1996), a jaw-droppingly vapid film in which Bertolucci’s camera largely preoccupied itself with ogling Liv Tyler’s crotch and bottom.
Me and You is by some way better than that – admittedly not difficult – but it still comes across as a stylish exercise in willed claustrophobia (or claustrophilia, as the director puts it) without a great deal to say. The story – in which a teenage boy and his older half-sister spend a week together in a cramped basement – is adapted from a novel by Niccolò Ammaniti, who also co-scripted along with Bertolucci and two others. One of Ammaniti’s earlier novels provided the basis for Gabriele Salvatores’s I’m Not Scared (2003), about claustrophobia of a different sort: a small boy finds another boy being held captive in a hole in the ground and comes to realise that his father is involved in the child’s kidnapping. Salvatores’s film is let down in its final few minutes by a lurch into sentimental religious symbolism, but luckily the religiosity that blighted Little Buddha (1993) plays no part in Me and You – although Bertolucci has admitted to making the ending of his film happier than it is in the novel.
Bertolucci often likes to spice up his films with a hint of incest (if usually stopping short of the actual thing) and so he does here. After The Dreamers, in which Theo (Louis Garrel) and his sister Isabelle (Eva Green) like to take baths together, we might expect something of a replay between 14-year-old Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) and his 25-year-old half-sister Olivia (Tea Falco). But though we see a growing closeness and affection between the siblings (literally so – they move their beds closer together), there’s little suggestion that they fancy each other.
The frisson of an illicit relationship comes earlier, when Lorenzo embarrasses his youthful-looking blonde mother Arianna (Sonia Bergamasco) in a restaurant by wondering if people might take them for a couple, before going on to ask if she’d have sex with him if they were the sole survivors of a holocaust and needed to repopulate the planet. “If it was a boy, what would you call him?” he teases her. This faintly echoes Bertolucci’s La luna (1979), where Jill Clayburgh’s character masturbates her son (Matthew Barry). According to Clayburgh, Bertolucci shied away from featuring full-on mother-son incest, unlike Louis Malle (Murmur of the Heart, 1971) or David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey, 1994).
If intimations of sex go largely unfulfilled in Me and You, the same goes for any anticipations of violence. The first shot of the film is of a shock of black curly hair on a head stubbornly lowered; when it’s raised to face the interlocutor, the resemblance to the young Malcolm McDowell is startling – all the more so since the shot so blatantly replicates the opening of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). It transpires that Lorenzo is in a psychiatrist’s office (the shrink, interestingly, is in a wheelchair – a Bertolucci surrogate?) and his air of suppressed anger and mulish refusal to respond suggest that an outbreak of ‘ultraviolence’, if not ‘the old in-out’, may be in the offing.
But Lorenzo, it turns out, is no Alex clone. True, he plots to deceive his mother by pretending to go on a school skiing trip while holing up in his apartment block’s basement for a week – but that apart, he’s remarkably well behaved and even studious for a maladjusted teenager. He takes a pile of books with him into his basement hideaway rather than a PlayStation, and keeps his lair scrupulously tidy, putting out all his refuse in black plastic bags. He dutifully visits his aged, bedridden grandmother, with whom he’s gentle and affectionate; and he’s evidently well up on natural history, knowing far more about chameleons than the offhand youth staffing the pet store where Lorenzo buys himself a glass-sided ants’ nest for company.
The film’s only outbreak of violence – apart from Lorenzo screaming at his mother in the car – is a clumsy scuffle between the siblings when, going cold turkey from heroin, Olivia demands sleeping pills. At one point Lorenzo claims that he and his father killed the old countess whose clothes and furniture conveniently furnish the basement with some comfort, but this is clearly fantasy and Olivia brushes it aside.
Only once does a real sense of danger ruffle the film’s tranquil surface, when the pair creep up to Lorenzo’s flat at night to raid the fridge (the ants’ nest having been broken in the scuffle, ants now infest all their provisions). They find Arianna fast asleep on a sofa with the TV still on, and Olivia hovers malevolently over her stepmother, her face a livid blue from the light of the screen. Lorenzo manages to persuade her away without harming Arianna.
Bertolucci draws performances of impressive directness and naturalism from his two principals – especially from 14-year-old Antinori (in his screen debut), every inch the awkward, unhappy teenager with his acne-pitted face and fluffy incipient moustache. He makes masterly use of his restricted space too, framing and reframing the basement with his roaming camera so that it never becomes monotonous.
But as with The Dreamers, set in 1968 Paris but largely ignoring the political turmoil on the streets outside in favour of the narcissistic trio in their apartment, Me and You rarely ventures into any wider arena. At the end of the film the siblings offer each other advice. Lorenzo tells Olivia, “Never take drugs again,” while she tells her brother, “Stop hiding.”
We’ve seen Olivia take a delivery from her pusher the night before, so we know she’s unlikely to comply. As for Lorenzo, Bertolucci (channelling The 400 Blows) ends on an enigmatic freeze-frame of his face, leaving the question open. You can’t help wondering whether Bertolucci, once one of Europe’s most politically acute and challenging filmmakers, may not also have settled for hiding in the basement.