Saturday 31 January 2015

1,001 Films: "The Conformist/Il Conformista" (1970)

I suspect even those eyes numbed and jaded by the past four decades' overwhelming morass of moving imagery may still find Bertolucci's The Conformist astonishingly odd viewing. Ostensibly a drama of self-deception, adapted from Alberto Moravia's post-War novel and set against the forbidding backdrop of fascist Europe, it appears to divide neatly into two halves (set in Rome and Paris, respectively), but subdivides within these comforting parameters into jarring flashbacks, memories and fantasies, and often switches its strategies from scene to scene, as required. The result is like no other political thriller, no other literary adaptation, and not very much else around, then as now.

Anti-hero Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a blank young man so obsessed with conforming socially that he marries nice, unthreatening, middle-class Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) - "all bed and kitchen", as he rather ungallantly puts it - and takes a job as a fascist agent. His first assignment dispatches him to Paris to spy on a former professor of his who's suspected of distributing anti-fascist propaganda, yet where you might expect the film to follow this strand into a down-the-line spy movie, Bertolucci - one of the cinema's most prominent sensualists - turns his attentions to the women of the piece, establishing a love triangle of sorts as both Marcello and Giulia fall under the spell of the professor's polyamorous wife Anna (Dominique Sanda).

Pointedly lacking in conviction, Marcello can but watch. Here is an especially weak-willed (and, we must presume, weak-willied) fascist, the sort who, when standing trial in the immediate wake of WWII, would plead not guilty on the grounds they were "just following orders". This Marcello fellow is portrayed as a childlike individual, forever refusing his responsibilities, and his sexual ambivalence is more than likely meant to be representative of a nation that felt a pressing need for a strong man to lead them into battle; the film's closest - though still somewhat estranged - relative would be Volker Schlöndorff's adaptation of The Tin Drum, another vivid portrayal of how nations effectively suffer arrested development under fascist rule.

The Conformist, with its epochal contributions from the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, is every bit the masterpiece of lighting and architectural design you've heard about. At one point, Sandrelli can be observed wearing a dress that appears to match perfectly the light coming through the slats in the blind behind her - and it's the darnedest thing, haute couture that could only ever be worn in the one spot on the planet. What's most remarkable about the film, however, is how its content meshes with this ever-bold form: every effect here is intentional, none merely superficial.

Marcello embraces the conventional with all of what passes for his heart, but the Bertolucci of 1970 - possibly mindful of the decade of spy movies that had just passed, setting many of the genre's tropes in concrete - finds it impossible to set up a scene without some dazzling and audacious transgression front and centre. We get odd starts to scenes (the Parma Violets seller, leaning into a car window like some feral creature), odd ends to scenes (the shift in camera perspective that "replaces" Marcello's chauffeur, sitting in a park, with a tree) and, in between, supremely elegant camerawork - no-one takes the time to set up travelling shots like these anymore, not when they can strap on a Steadicam in a couple of minutes - which yields to scruffy, scrappy handheld without anything in the way of a warning.

Odd case in point: the "explanatory" flashback to an incident of trauma in Marcello's childhood. It's not, apparently, enough that the hero should be humiliated, short trousers round ankles, by a gang of marauding kids on rollerskates (parents looking on eerily, as though peering in on penguins in a zoo enclosure); he's then carried off to be raped by a gay chauffeur with a kimono, a handgun, and a major Madame Butterfly fixation. (The noise you can hear is Dr. Freud turning in his grave.) We work our way towards the clumsiest assassination ever staged - a death by a thousand cuts, which the Sopranos team surely consulted before starting work on the standout "Pine Barrens" episode - then lurch into a post-War epilogue in which Marcello, pinning his crimes on others, is reduced to (very childish) fingerpointing.

The estrangement and entrapment Trintignant evokes is partly that of his character, a prisoner of some fairly banal and sterile desires, but also possibly that of the actor who finds himself at the mercy of extraordinary direction. You could argue the tragic dimensions of Marcello's story get lost, or at least softened into the weirdest of black comedies, by the warping excess of the staging. But where the later Bertolucci would keep capitulating to that excess - excess in performance (Last Tango in Paris), spectacle (The Last Emperor) and sex (The Dreamers) - The Conformist still feels like the work of a filmmaker at the absolute height of his creative and critical powers, capable of pulling out all the stops with one hand while otherwise maintaining a perfectly disconcerting equilibrium with the other.

The Conformist is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Arrow Films.