Vol. 2 No. 4 · 6 March 1980

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

2808 words

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.

So what we have here is really an old-fashioned ‘problem’ movie, in which a ‘controversial’ theme gets all its teeth drawn by the simple process of evading the real issues. (The real issue being, I would say, the repressive nature of patriarchy, but I’ve been asking myself what Jocasta felt about that unpleasant business at Thebes for a long time now.) Anyway, this, surely, accounts for all La Luna’s curiously cosy charm, and, together with Bertolucci’s easy and voluptuous skill as a film-maker, makes it a thoroughly enjoyable wallow that titillates but never remotely disconcerts, let alone disturbs. It is instructive to compare it with those films of Douglas Sirk – All that Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life, A Time to Love and a Time to Die etc – that are, apparently, soapy weepies but contain within, because of their rigid adherence to genre conventions, descriptions of the way human beings are cut up to fit the procrustean bed of social norms.

Well, Caterina and Joe cut themselves up, too, but Bertolucci, following the letter and not the spirit of Sirk, and lugubriously authorised by Freud, seems to think this is perfectly all right. It is a very odd film for the maker of The Conformist to have made, but, on the evidence of La Luna, Bertolucci appears content to reserve politics for his specifically political movies, as though politics had nothing to do with human relationships, and gives the film a ‘happy end’ that leaves Joe with all the rebellion of his desire crushed.

The film begins with a specifically Freudian prologue. A blonde, freckled young woman dribbles honey on the mouth of a sulking boy child, licks spilled honey off his skin. (Bertolucci is blessed by Clayburgh’s ability to exhibit polymorphous sexuality in relation to virtually everything.) It is a beautiful day. A shadowy, vaguely menacing figure strums a piano inside the house on the sunny terrace of which mother and baby play. The amniotic sea glitters. A young man is filletting a fish. The sensuous young mother teases the child with an unfilletted fish. A mirror is propped against the wall in a little homage to Jacques Lacan. The blonde young woman, to the irritation of the invisible piano-player, now puts a record of a sexy dance on the player and pulls the fish-gutter to his feet. The baby doesn’t like this at all and grizzles. When the pair conclude their vigorous ‘twist’ with a kiss, the baby howls and totters off to the arms of the shadowy person, his ankles tangling in the unwinding wool from a ball with which he has been playing.

This self-contained episode, which yet reverberates throughout all the ensuing action, is so replete with Freudian symbolism – knitting wool/navel string, sexy dance/primal scene, and oh, that phallic herring! – that one expects a transformation scene as dramatically explicit as the one in Buñuel and Dali’s L’Age d’Or, in which the archbishops suddenly turn into skeletons. (The movie is so jam-packed with screaming symbols that, later, when a chance acquaintance tells Caterina how he went fishing with Castro and he caught a big fish but Castro caught a little fish, it sounds like an unnecessary slight on the virility of the President of Cuba.)

What does come next is a brief scene – according to Bertolucci, a childhood memory of his own – in which Jill Clayburgh’s wonderfully vivid and alive face is elided with the sterile features of the romantic but uncomfortable moon. Now she is riding a bicycle along a country road, cooing to the baby tucked into the basket in front of her, and the mother of mysteries, white, inviolable, luminous, mysterious, rises behind her. The surrealists, Freudians themselves, celebrated the bicycle as the perfect image of self-sufficient sexuality, but self-sufficiency, sexual or otherwise, isn’t going to be Caterina’s quality at all. The bike is a red herring: the moon is the thing – Caterina embodies the mysterious female principle.

It is an extraordinary and very beautiful image, a direct visualisation of the actual process of mystification – the real woman transposed into metaphor before your very eyes. (And, so crass is Bertolucci’s use of symbolism, it is a wonder he never thinks to have Caterina sing the Queen of the Night, especially since she was also a demanding parent and appears in – nudge – The Magic Flute.)

But the vision of Caterina as the mothering moon is interesting because it indicates the only way in which Bertolucci is prepared to subvert the genre of the ‘woman’s picture’ within which he is working, and which Jill Clayburgh remains magnificently working towards, whatever happens, even when he takes the film’s significance away from Caterina and gives it to Joe. Bertolucci converts the ‘woman’s picture’ material into the background for a boy’s movie, a movie of special interest to boys of all ages.

The moon is a dead planet, with no light of its own. Caterina is seen externally, always from the outside. Even when she is singing on the stage, we watch her, not for her own sake, but because Joe is watching her. Truly like the moon, she is visible only because we see her in the light reflected by Joe’s perceptions of her. Since he is a spoiled brat, Caterina emerges strangely, as a bewitching, unpredictable giantess, and, for all her abundant liveliness, she is quite inscrutable because Joe, since he is a child, doesn’t have the faintest idea what makes adults tick and, with the crystalline egocentricity of childhood, would answer Freud’s question, ‘What does a woman want?’ with the triumphantly assured cry: ‘Me! Joe! Me!’ However, there is more to it than that. Bertolucci himself may well regard this absence of a sense of self in the character of Caterina as part of the existential characterisation of the New Dramaturgy, of which he claims La Luna to be an example.

But surely this absence of gravity, in the sense of weight, this depthless yet mysterious quality of Caterina, is no more than the romantic notion of Woman as Other which is characteristic of Bertolucci’s treatment of women in all his movies. The wantonly destructive Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris functions only as Brando’s externalised id; Dominique Sanda, in both 1900 and The Conformist, is a self-conscious sphinx. Both these share with Caterina/Clayburgh a magnificent moral irresponsibility, as though this is in the very nature of women. Gérard Dépardieu’s red wife in 1900 is cut from a different cloth, but Bertolucci kills her off very quickly – in childbirth, significantly enough.

Only when women are over forty is he able to allow them to have any decent solidity. Alida Valli in The Spider’s Stratagem may be a mystery to other people but never to herself: made of steel, she is the unmoved mover of the entire plot. It is no surprise to discover that the shadowy pianist in the primal scene, to whom baby Joe runs for sanctuary when his parents ignore him, Joe’s granny, turns out to be Alida Valli all the time. And if she eventually acquires custody of the lad, after his Oedipal quest is over, then heaven help him, because she means war. Caterina, therefore, is doomed to a feckless and mercurial personality because her director can portray a woman of her age on the screen in very few other ways.

But the point of the movie is not that Joe is in trouble with himself because he sees his mother as the romantic other: seeing a woman as the romantic other is presumably what Bertolucci means by being ‘in love’, anyway. Nevertheless, both of the principals lose a good deal of their dignity by virtue of the film’s refusal to admit any significant life for Caterina except in relation to her son, who, at the conclusion of the extended overture that prefigures all the main themes, metamorphoses into a petulant, pudgy, fractious, self-centred 14-year-old – not an attractive child, the kind whom, as they say, only, a mother could love. Which, in such a remorselessly Oedipal movie, is only right and proper.

Yet, Oedipally speaking, the movie is rather confused. Joe’s quest for a father has its own metaphysical strangeness. The whole theory of Oedipal conflict is based on the cultural fact of patriarchy rather than on the biological accident of paternity, and the person Joe has, for 14 years, seen as a rival, the man of whom he boasts to his mother that he can do anything dad can, is dead. The schoolmaster he eventually discovers, surrounded by other people’s children (a bathetic touch), is, in real, emotional terms, a perfect stranger, even if one act of impregnation, years ago, has assisted in Joe’s arrival on earth. The schoolteacher, like the bicycle, is a red herring but, unlike the bicycle, Bertolucci doesn’t intend him to be.

The dramatic nub of La Luna is really the moment when the sexual desire of the woman and the boy becomes overt. This is not the scene in which she masturbates him – Clayburgh performs this function with tight-lipped, clinical precision: there is no pleasure in it for her. Rather, it is a later scene, when she suddenly kisses him ‘as one kisses a lover’, as Bertolucci says in the Sight and Sound interview. He confesses himself confused by this scene. ‘I don’t quite understand it myself. I guess it’s the New Dramaturgy.’ Why is it the New Dramaturgy? Because it’s inconsistent, and ‘one must avoid consistency if one is to portray the sudden contradictions which we find in life.’ But this lover-like kiss isn’t inconsistent at all. It is the moment when both of them appreciate that a taboo may be broken; the moment of transgression is at hand. God is dead and anything can happen. Patriarchy is about to take it on the nose.

Although, in the bedroom scene a little later, intercourse is apparently interrupted only by Joe’s more urgent desire for a fix, the feverish maternal embrace is soon explained and censored. Caterina is softening the boy up for the revelation that 14 years of love, care, paid dental bills and shared baseball games do not make a father: only sperm does that. This is the authentic irrationality of patriarchy, the triumph of nature over nurture, the consecration of seminal fluid as the supreme unction of human bonding. Curiously enough, the news that father is alive makes mother untouchable, again, as though Big Daddy were watching. But I wonder what would have happened if Caterina had said: ‘I’m not your real mother.’

Of course, they’ve only got into this embarrassing intimacy because Caterina is not a ‘real’ mother, and Joe’s addiction to heroin is an unweaned dependence on a metal nipple transmitting a chemical substitute for the nourishing milk she has denied him through her selfish insistence on continuing her career. At this point, it becomes obvious that Bertolucci, unlike Fassbinder, who has also worked out an aesthetic based on a radical re-interpretation of Hollywood melodrama, has been unable to transcend the kitsch excesses of the genre and give it real life. Perhaps it is because Bertolucci seems to be entirely without irony. At one point, Caterina goes to see Joe’s Arab dealer, Mustapha. Mustapha, dripping with patronising concern for his hapless client, is clearly the Third World’s revenge on that overprivileged youth. Yet Bertolucci presents him almost as a little guru, in a white robe, comforting Caterina and giving her good advice. This isn’t the inconsistency of real life: it is sentimentality of a peculiarly self-deluding and unpleasant kind.

In a movie constantly teetering on the verge of self-parody, there is one delirious moment when it looks as though the New Dramaturgy might nudge Bertolucci profitably into just that higher kind of Sirkian melodrama. Joe goes on a ramble through Rome, is picked up by a young man who takes him to a bar and dances with him. (Although Mustapha tells Caterina that Joe finances his habit by stealing from her, she is not as rich as all that, and Joe is more likely to be earning Mustapha’s pay-off honest prostitution, though it seems likely that whoever holds the purse-strings of the Yankee dollars behind La Luna would have upheld, with absolute sternness, the taboo against sleeping with your own sex.) It seems as though Joe’s pick-up may indeed prove to be mysterious fish-gutter of the primal scene and all will end in hysteria of an epic and exemplary kind. No such luck.

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