Angela Carter responds to Bertolucci’s movie, ‘La Luna’

In a Sight and Sound interview with Richard Roud Bertolucci says he first had the idea for his film La Luna during a session with his psychoanalyst. ‘I suddenly realised that I had been talking about my father for seven or eight years – and now I wanted to talk about my mother.’ It seems to have taken them an unconscionable time to get around to discussing the person Freud calls a child’s ‘first seducer’, the authentic, original source of love and hunger, but Bertolucci certainly now attacks the subject with brio. He says that, in La Luna, ‘I wanted to say the obvious – that every man is in love with his mother.’ Which, put like that, is something like dedicating a movie to the proposition that rain is wet. Nevertheless, La Luna is concerned to reveal this psychoanalytic truth via the artistic method of the lushest kind of Forties and Fifties Hollywood melodrama.

And much of the satisfaction of the movie comes from the spectacle of watching stock themes and characters of the Dream Factory – illicit sex, drug addiction, glamorous career women, troubled adolescents, poor but honest schoolteachers – graphically presented in terms of The Interpretation of Dreams, even if Bertolucci, throughout, seems rapturously uncritical of both kinds of dream – indeed, of dreams in general. The Dream Factory effect is enhanced by an ‘international’ production with all the stops out – American leads, American dialogue, sumptuous photography, sumptuous design, set mostly in a Rome bathed in sumptuous corn-syrup sunlight like adolescent afterglow.

Few of the characters are not variants of Hollywood stereotypes. The heroine, played by Jill Clayburgh, even has the traditional girlfriend/confidante. But Jill Clayburgh, seizing by the throat the opportunity of working with a great European director, gives a bravura performance: she is like the life force in person, and this subtly alters the movie’s entire distribution of emphasis, because it isn’t supposed to be about her as a mother at all, but about a son’s relation to his mother.

Clayburgh plays Caterina, née Catherine, an American opera singer returning more or less triumphantly to sing in Rome. (She had previously studied in Italy.) After her husband-manager suddenly dies in New York, she sweeps along with her to the Eternal City her spoiled, neglected, bored, troubled, adolescent son, Joe (Mathew Barry). To Caterina’s guilty horror, she discovers Joe has become addicted to heroin. They are sexually drawn towards one another, but, after Joe has lain between her thighs for a few tense seconds in a seedy hotel room, she tremulously reveals the existence of another father. Her late husband was only Joe’s legal father. Joe has a real father, a biological father. The Great Taboo, just as it is about to be broken, raises itself again.

Joe immediately quests off in search of his biological father, and all ends happily with Joe coming off smack in the sunshine of his new-found father’s smile. So, in spite of the come-on promotional slogan, ‘Catherine and her son share a desire that will shock you!’ the film is not so much about incest as about incest successfully averted. And, since sleeping with your mother is but half the Oedipal package deal, it is also about parricide successfully circumvented. The father whom Joe saw die a few moments after he’d suggested to his mother that they ditch him – ‘there’s nothing dad can do that I can’t’ – was a false, a decoy father. Joe never killed him, not even in thought.

All the taboos are, in the end, respected. Father is, as it were, resurrected and restored to his rightful position at the pinnacle of a boy’s world. Joe has his Oedipal cake and eats it: no wonder he is able to abandon the forbidden food of heroin. In the final sequence, where the long-parted lovers meet at the instigation of their child, as in a late Shakespeare comedy, a young girl arrives to snuggle up to Joe, to indicate he is now mature enough to acquire sexual playmates of his own age. Even the trivial convention against cross-generation sex is scrupulously respected.

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