Friday, April 8, 2011


Throughout the 1960s, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci was searching for his own cinematic voice, experimenting in film and theater, working through his influences as he tried to find his own unique approach to his chosen medium. His debut film, La commare secca, was a neorealist noir with a script by his mentor Pier Paolo Pasolini, a work with only touches of the young director's nascent style. His next film, Before the Revolution, was far more personal, as he worked from the example of Jean-Luc Godard and the French New Wave to make a film in which politics and sexuality and psychology were intricately interwoven. His third film, Partner, was even more indebted to Godard, though in the years since Before the Revolution and the early 60s French films it had been inspired by, Godard had moved on, and Bertolucci tried to move on along with his idol. Partner is obviously derived from the example of Godard's late 60s political films, especially La Chinoise and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, both of which loom large over Bertolucci's Godardian pastiche. Ostensibly based on the Dostoevsky story "The Double," Partner is actually an attempt to ape Godard's radical essay-film style.

It is, for the most part, an unsuccessful attempt. The film's obvious debt to Godard is distracting, as it's disconcerting to see a style as personal and idiosyncratic as Godard's adopted so shamelessly. Moreover, the film's appropriation seems shallow, limited to the superficial aspects of its source: what's missing is the complexity and density of Godard's thinking, and the corresponding lightness and dexterity he brings to even his most didactic and experimental films. Bertolucci's style is much heavier by nature, much more oppressive, and as a result Partner's theater of the absurd shenanigans come off as shrill and grating rather than whimsical. The film follows the theater professor Giacobbe (Pierre Clémenti) as his personality splits in two and he's haunted by a double who shares his name and appearance but who eggs him on to acts of provocation and violence.

And that's about it for the film's story, which is utterly peripheral here, as Bertolucci simply stages one ludicrous set piece after another, a few of them entertaining or interesting but most of them rambling, intermittent exercises in what one character self-consciously deems "ham acting." The film's best sequences have a loopy charm that reveals Bertolucci's clever sense of humor and his subversion of expectations. In one scene, when Giacobbe is first starting to go crazy, he wanders through the streets at night, casting large shadows on the walls of the buildings lining the streets. At one point, he plays with a massive shadow projection of himself, performing mock salutes and military marches and watching as his shadow mimics him, cast up on the wall like a cinema projection. But then the shadow stops following Giacobbe's lead and begins marching on its own, and when Giaccobe hesitantly approaches the giant, it stomps on him and kicks him. It's a hilarious and visually provocative image of Giaccobe beginning to split in two, and also a metaphor for the loss of control over a creative work, which begins to function independently of its creator once it enters the world. If the film is about anything, it's about trying to find a creative voice, trying to find a way to express one's feelings about an absurd and violent world, and that image is one of the film's best and deepest.

Other sequences are simply a lot of fun, like a scene where Giaccobe and his servant/landlord Petrushka (Sergio Tofano, delivering a fun, clownish performance) steal a car but can't actually drive it, so they make sure to steal it at the top of a hill so they can simply roll it down. Later, when Giaccobe gets into the back of the car with his paramour Clara (Stefania Sandrelli), Petrushka "drives" by making humming motor noises with his mouth and pretending to steer. The film's best moments have that kind of sketch comedy verve to them, the willingness to be silly and goofy, to act like a clown. There's also the startling image of Tina Aumont as a detergent saleswoman with pale blue eyes painted onto her eyelids so that when her eyes are closed, she appears to be staring straight ahead, her gaze unblinking and eerie. The scene, with its giant detergent boxes and bold, colorful brand logos, is obviously derived from the very similar scenes in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, just as Giaccobe's fortress-like piles of books in his apartment come from La Chinoise. Even the camerawork, with its graceful tracking shots and now-you-see-it-now-you-don't back and forth pans, is copied from Godard.

But Giaccobe's unhinged absurdities and non-sequiturs are a long way from Godard, and even at its best the film is slight and silly. One sequence parodies TV commercials with a jaunty ditty about cleanliness looping repeatedly as Giaccobe and the salesgirl frolic in the sudsy discharge of a washing machine, bathing in the suds, stripping and playing, alternately sexual and childlike, and ultimately deadly, all while that cheerful jingle plays over and over again in the background. In other scenes, Bertolucci subverts his own aesthetic by playfully messing around with the hidden split screen gimmicks that allow two iterations of Clémenti to coexist on the screen at the same time. The device is usually cleverly hidden, with the split obscured by dark areas or obstacles that disguise the split, but Bertolucci makes sure to reveal the trick, like a magician who can't help but excitedly exclaim how he did it even before the show is over. In one scene, the two Giaccobes have a conversation while one gets dressed and the other putters around nearby; they seem to be standing right next to one another, in the same space. But at a certain point one Giaccobe tells the other to hide, and the double on the right side of the frame begins walking left until, suddenly, he disappears into the hidden cut at the center of the screen, vanishing into thin air. Then, just to underline the point, the right side of the screen flashes with a light source that doesn't affect the lighting on the left side of the frame at all. It's Bertolucci's way of acknowledging the filmmaker's own complicity in this game of doubles and insanity.

The film's metafictional component becomes even more apparent in the finale, when one of the Giaccobes, ostensibly talking to his double, actually faces the audience and addresses them directly, calling on the viewers to get in touch with their own inner doubles, to be roused to action. It would be a stirring speech if the film as a whole had been more of a coherent call to action, rather than a confused blend of pseudo-philosophy and sloppy theatrical improvisations. Bertolucci's commitment to slathering the screen with messy, absurdist diversions sometimes yields interesting results, but more often the film fails to really delve deeply into the ideas it raises.


Sam Juliano said...

"Partner is obviously derived from the example of Godard's late 60s political films, especially La Chinoise and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, both of which loom large over Bertolucci's Godardian pastiche. Ostensibly based on the Dostoevsky story "The Double," Partner is actually an attempt to ape Godard's radical essay-film style."

This is an acutely deciphered and brilliant takedown of a film that sad to say has earned as much. I must say I agree with your assertion that the film lacks the density and intellectuality of Godard's work, and it's far more the example of a young filmmaker still in the throws of adoration. There is only one Godard, and in Bertolucci's early days, when he was still trying to find his own personal voice, it was a time of essaying the work of his heroes. Ironically, Godard wasn't as universally embraced in those days by the intelligensia, as hias radical approaches turned off those who found his work almost deliberately obscure. Mean-spirited scribe John Simon said that Godard's cinema was a kind of "masturbation" on screen. But Sarris rallied behind him and Kael went half way. Kauffmann was another who was comparatively indifferent. But Godard was the darling of young filmmakers from the start, and perhaps no one more than Bertolucci tried to emulate his style and essence. Anyway, not to turn my comment into one on Godard, I will say that I found this particular film as frustrating and as incoherent as you did, though again (as you note) it's not fully devoid of some fascinating aspects.

Jon said...

I've never been a fan of Bertolucci. I think you highlighted some of the reasons. I don't think he brought anything revolutionary to the screen and always seems very derivative to me. There's always someone else doing it better than him it seems. In my top 500 films, I don't have one Bertolucci.

Ed Howard said...

Sam, it's not hard to believe that Godard was not embraced by a lot of early critics - he's still routinely overlooked and undervalued by people who should know better. Even after the amazing career he's had, he doesn't get nearly the respect he deserves. But you know that's a personal peeve of mine. One thing that hasn't changed is that he's a very influential and inspirational figure for other filmmakers, and he loomed very large indeed for Bertolucci in the 60s. Bertolucci's attempts to channel Godard resulted in the near-masterpiece Before the Revolution, a film that did some really interesting things with that influence, but four years later Partner just feels like a pale rehash of ideas that Godard was exploring in much more interesting and developed ways. Soon after this, Bertolucci would shake off Godard's influence and increasingly do his own thing.

Jonny, Bertolucci has made some films I'm pretty ambivalent about, but also some genuinely great ones, like The Conformist and the aforementioned Before the Revolution.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I beg to differ!

Partner is less about Godard tahn it is jerry Lewis. It's Bertolucci's The Nutty Professor. There's even a scene on a stairway with a big swooping crane shot and big swooping music by Ennio Morricone.

The paint-on eyes applied to Tina Aumont's eyelids are derived not from Godard but Jean Cocateau's Le Testament d'Orphee (where their sported by Claudine Auger)

Bertolucci was shooting Partner in Italy wehn May 68 broke out. He and Clementi were tiching to get there, but couldn't. The Dreamers is Bertolucci imagining himself into a past he never experienced. (Phillipe Garrel didn't like it -- and neither do I.)

Pierre Clementi should have been listed as co-director. He was always more than an actor (see The Leopard, Les Idoles, La Cicatrice Interiere, Porcile, Exposed, Le Pont du Nord and his own films)

DavidEhrenstein said...

At one point when Clementi's having an on-screen fit you can hear Bertolucci off-screen yelling "Ca suffit Pierre!"

Sam Juliano said...

"I beg to differ!

Partner is less about Godard than it is Jerry Lewis. It's Bertolucci's The Nutty Professor. There's even a scene on a stairway with a big swooping crane shot and big swooping music by Ennio Morricone."

Geez. Well I'll be hornswaggled!

Jon said...

Ed, I'll give you The Conformist. I can see where you're coming from. Before the Revolution is uneven though. It has highs and lows and not enough highs for me.

Ed Howard said...

That's an interesting way of reading it, David, but no matter how much Lewis there might be here, there's no doubt there's a whole lot of Godard. There are some good scenes and moments but on the whole it just doesn't work for me.

The Dreamers on the other hand I like a lot.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The Dreamers is close but no cigar.The main problem is Gilbert Adair.

Gilbert adpated the script from his novel "The Holy Innocnets." In the novel it was a real bisexual meanage a trois -- with brother sister and boyrfriend going at it with brio. After writing it, howver, Gilbert had a "Saul at Dmascus moment" (ie. mid-life crisis) and decided he was straight (those who know Gilbert are encouraged to inser touyr own joke here.) As a result Bertolucci's film deprives us of a love scene between Louis garrel and Michael Pitt (something that never would have happened had Christophe Honore written and directed)

Partner is, and always has been "an acquired taste." It's a film maudit for thems that like it REALLY maudit.

Joel Bocko said...

Agreed - I was triply disappointed seeing this film several years ago: I had just read Dostoevsky's story and was disappointed by the film's indifferent adoption/adaptation; I was in the thick of a passionated Godard phase and, as always, was not impressed by another director's attempt to ride his coattails; and perhaps most importantly, I had fallen in love with Stefania Sandrelli and was crushed to discover how scantily she appeared in the film (and I don't mean "scantily" in the good way).

Anyway, I think Bertolucci's one of the greats, but his style at its richest contains a great deal of elegance - so thoroughly aping rapid-fire Godard was never going to be the best fit.

"Geez. Well I'll be hornswaggled!"


Ed Howard said...

Joel, that's probably a good way to put it, that Bertolucci is more naturally inclined towards "elegance," and the arch-political Godardisms he's spewing forth here really don't play to his strengths. He returned to a much more classical style 2 years later with The Conformist and The Spider's Stratagem, and both are much more accomplished and satisfying, especially the former.