There is a fine, far-reaching moment in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, handsomely set up by the director and beautifully spun out by the actor. Peter Sellers, as the creepy and protean Clare Quilty, has struck up a conversation with James Mason, as Humbert Humbert. The latter is in no mood for any kind of conversation, since he is just marking time before he returns to his hotel room to have sex, as he hopes, with his under-age stepdaughter. Quilty, having mysteriously divined most of this, pretends to be a plainclothes policeman and starts up a series of speculations about what ‘a really normal guy’ like Humbert must be feeling. Mason, who most of the time looks a touch too normal for the movie’s good – sinister, but normal – gets very uncomfortable and by the time Quilty, thoroughly enjoying himself, has used the word ‘normal’ for the fifth or sixth time, both characters seem distinctly weird and the very idea of normality appears freakish. How could anyone be ‘normal’? What could be stranger?
This is half of the question that dominates Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), which is on the road around the country throughout this month and next. This was Bertolucci’s second major film, following on from Before the Revolution (1964) and preceding The Spider’s Stratagem (also 1970) and Last Tango in Paris (1973). It’s based on a novel of the same name by Alberto Moravia, and both movie and novel pursue a curious double project. One part of it is to suggest, along with Kubrick and Sellers, that normality is a truly peculiar idea; or at least it’s peculiar to think of possessing it, as distinct from attributing it to others or working it out from statistics. The other part is to suggest that for a person seeking normality in the 1930s in Italy, Fascism would be an entirely reasonable option, perhaps the only place to go. I’m not sure how much the hearts of Moravia and Bertolucci are really in the second part of the project, but even their faint adherence to it colours and weakens the movie. Our hero, Marcello Clerici, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant with a tidy, jumpy precision that is itself a form of eccentricity, not only wants to be normal, he wants to be ‘pardoned by society’. Perhaps the wish is too irrational to be scrutinised, but why does he think Fascism is normal, or represents society, even when it is in office, or that it could pardon him?
We do see why he wants to be normal, strange as the idea is. His father is in a madhouse – a place with what looks like an open-air theatre in the grounds so that it seems to be set up for spectacle rather than cure or care – and appears to have had a job as a torturer in his earlier life. Marcello’s mother is a morphine addict who frolics with the Japanese chauffeur when she’s awake. And Marcello himself killed a man, or believes he killed a man, when he was 13: another chauffeur, Italian this time, who made sexual advances and was distracted enough to let the kid grab the revolver and shoot. Marcello is going to marry and then does marry the dimmest, most conventional girl he can find, although even she turns out to have had a long affair with her 60-year-old uncle.
The film, shot by Vittorio Storaro (Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now), looks fantastic, and like the movie’s question about normalcy, has two registers. Paris, where Marcello has come to assassinate his former professor, now an Anti-Fascist in exile, is made to look misty and beautiful but is unmistakably a real place. By contrast, almost everything in Italy looks like a hallucination: streets shot on a slant, a crumbling old mansion, its garden smothered in fallen leaves, a government office that resembles an empty Modernist football stadium, another office that could well serve as a war memorial in its spare time. Fascism in this world is all about size and space, a Leni Riefenstahl movie in another country, its people dwarfed by architecture.
There was much talk of the movie’s high style when it first appeared, and it still seems very stylish. Except that now it seems to be all about style: decor, dresses, the amazing eye make-up of Stefania Sandrelli as Marcello’s wife, the smouldering glances of Dominique Sanda as the bisexual wife of the exiled professor. There is a plot: Marcello is waiting to perform the assassination, then goes off to do it. He doesn’t do it, because his secret service superiors, correctly suspecting him of wavering, have sent a whole gang to take care of things, but he does attend the assassination. For the rest of the movie we are either following flashbacks to Marcello’s earlier years in the hallucinated Italy or wandering around Paris with him and his wife, killing time rather than people. This is not a complaint – the waiting and the final assassination are the best things in the movie – but it does mean that if you came looking for suspense or a thriller you’ll be disappointed.
The question of normality gets cleared up by a resort to an old Italian movie myth, also dear to Rossellini and Visconti: homosexual guilt. Marcello can’t get over his brush with the chauffeur, and the chauffeur’s pass at him, it turns out, was far more traumatic than the chauffeur’s apparent death. The trauma takes a twist at the end of the movie when Marcello, after the fall of Mussolini, meets up again with the man, played by Pierre Clémenti, his long dark locks now replaced by a sweep of thin blond hair that makes him look like Andy Warhol. Marcello, frantic with surprise and outrage at the chauffeur’s continuing existence, accuses him of having assassinated the professor in France in 1938. He also calls the man a Fascist, and makes the same charge, with more justification, against an old friend who is with him, and who was a Fascist theorist. Isn’t or wasn’t Marcello a Fascist? This is where the myth kicks in. He was just trying to be straight, that’s what ‘normal’ meant. The myth isn’t homosexual guilt itself, of course, but the suggestion that without homosexual guilt Fascism in Italy would never really have got off the ground, or at least wouldn’t have been interesting. The attraction of the myth is that it plays in two modes, gay and macho. The problem can be the guilt or the homosexuality, but either way no one ever gets over it, and the effects are disastrous.
Fortunately the film doesn’t need us to take any of this very seriously, and we realise what Bertolucci cares about, and what all the stylish waiting was setting us up for, when we reach the assassination scene. Marcello and his secret service minder follow the professor’s car as he leaves Paris. The roads are snowy, visibility is poor. As far as we know, and as far as he knows, Marcello is about to carry out a killing. The flashbacks in this sense are in a way stalling, and obliquely suggest something like the reverse of suspense: Marcello’s desire not to get where he is going at the present time. Finally, on the otherwise empty road, a car coming in the other direction almost crashes into the professor’s car and everyone stops – Marcello and his minder sitting in their Citroën some twenty or thirty yards behind the other cars. At no point in this scene do they get out of their car, or show any major emotion, not even when Dominique Sanda, pursued by her husband’s killers, claws at their window, before continuing her vain attempt to escape into the forest.
What has happened is that the professor got out of his car to see if he could help the driver of the car coming the other way, who was slumped over his steering wheel. At this cue a whole gang of armed, overcoated men ran out of the forest and knifed the professor, as if he were Julius Caesar. None of this is in slow motion, but it feels as if it might be, since the whole thing is so lovingly photographed, as though the film were carefully constructing a ghastly but irresistible memory, finally building a real trauma. We get the sense that watching a man and his wife die can’t be worse than killing them, but isn’t much better either, and in this respect we do need the scene that follows, back in Italy, where the radio is announcing Mussolini’s fall and there are people celebrating in the streets of Rome. We need it not so that we can pick up the pieces of the old myth, but so that we can see that the quest for normality, whatever its likely or unlikely grounds, can itself be murderous, since it cares for nothing but its own pursuit of a blessing or a pardon that is not to be had.