Interview with director Bernardo Bertolucci
Matt Saha, along with other members of the press, recently sat down with Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci in New York City’s The Essex House Hotel to talk about “The Dreamers.” The legendary director of such films as “Last Tango in Paris,” “1900,” “Stealing Beauty” and “The Last Emperor,” for which he garnered Academy Awards for Best Film and Best Director, shared his thoughts on topics including film, sex, twins and politics.
Press: What attracted you to the story of “The Dreamers”?
Bertolucci: Back when I read the book, I had the feeling that it was like Cocteau’s “Les Enfants Terribles” in ’68. There was this complicated relationship between the three of them. I hadn’t seen “Les Enfants Terribles” in 30 years. I saw it when I was 20, but then I saw it again before shooting. There is a line that Cocteau said about “Les Enfants”; he said, “with this play, I want to make light the gravity, and weight the lightness,” and that was something I remembered making this film.
Press: Any connection between “The Dreamers” and “Last Tango”?
Bertolucci: Paris is the only connection to “Last Tango.” The sensuality is dark, heavy and tragic in “Last Tango,” because it is about very destructive characters, and the sex in “The Dreamers” I see as very light, joyous.
Press: Did you connect that lightness with something you saw in Paris in ’68?
Bertolucci: I connected very much with ’68. Sex was considered something very revolutionary, if you remember Marcuse, and sex was in sync with politics, with music, with cinema. Everything was conjugated together. It was a great privilege to live that moment, and I think the kids today are missing that. It is not their fault though -- the chance at being able to have big dreams, ambitious dreams, and being able to say I want to change the world -- that sounds ridiculous today.
Press: How did you cast the film?
Bertolucci: I needed a provincial, innocent, naïve American boy who just parachuted into Paris in ’68. I got to him after I had been in LA and NYC. I saw him and two or three other kids. I liked him, but in London I met Jake Gyllenhaal, and I liked him very much. But then it became clear that Jake would have been tortured about showing his body. He was one of those very meticulous actors who wanted to know everything. So every time we had a sexy scene, I would see myself trying to explain -- it was impossible. I can’t blame him though, because I can not be naked in front of the camera. So there was this kid in NY with big lips -- Michael Pitt.
Press: Is it common that American actors are worried about nudity?
Bertolucci: Yeah, I don’t know. I remember when I went to do “Last Tango in Paris” having just done “The Conformist”; naturally the actors I wanted were Jean-Louis Trintignant and Dominique Sanda. Jean Louis was almost crying to me that he can not be naked in front of the camera, and he wasn’t American, he was French. So I got Brando.
Press: You seemed to contrast a certain levity of the kids in the apartment with the tumultuous events outside.
Bertolucci: That’s what I wanted to do. Three kids get together and while they are exploring each other inside the apartment, outside the world is exploding. Then where there is an explosion in the streets with the barricades history is calling them and in fact saving them from their apartment. They are private and collected. Individual and public.
Press: Did any of the characters represent you in Paris at that time?
Bertolucci: No, not really.
Press: Do you see any possibility of a revival in the ’68 spirit today?
Bertolucci: It’s a minority, but every time there is a G-8, you can see these kinds of no global organization getting together. In Seattle, in fact in Genoa in 2001. The police again were very, very violent and they killed a guy. The last shot of this film is the police charging, and I kind of thought of Genoa. I must say that these groups are very interesting, also because they are different and they are in minority, but these groups are in some way connected with the ’68 kind of dreams -- utopia, even if now the values and the slogans are different. There is much more today about finding a balance of the wealth in the world, and then it was something else, but there are young people also dreaming today.
Press: The youth today does not connect to movies like they did in ’68.
Bertolucci: That was interesting. I knew it because I was there, so to remember in ’68 everything started with the cinema. The first time the police became so violent they attacked students and film buffs and Paris intellectuals. They attacked Truffaut and Godard and it all started with the cinema. Then it spread to London, Rome, Germany, Berkeley and Columbia University. All the ambitions and the goals were connected with cinema. Cinema was so important. It was like a projection of illusions that had cinematic value.
Press: Some commentators today have said that the sixties were somewhat selfish, that the participants took the sex and the drugs, but left the idealism and the politics behind. Is that something you would like to contradict?
Bertolucci: I don’t think that freedom is self-indulgent. I think in that very moment politics was a big part of that. I was thinking, what remains from ’68? I think the way people are interconnected. The relationships between people were very different after ’68. There were an incredible number of authoritarian figures before ’68 but after, they disappeared. I think ’68 really triggered something different between men and women. Women’s liberation had a great kickoff in ’68. People will say ’68 was a failure. It’s very unfair. That’s a total historical mistake. ’68 was a revolution, not in political terms, but it changed all the relationships -- incredibly important.
Press: Is there always a resistance to the nudity in your films?
Bertolucci: Not all of my movies have characters that have to be naked, but it’s so strange. I was reading the news in this country and somebody called it the work of a “DOM,” which means Dirty Old Man, and I never really thought I could be considered that. And some interviewers ask me was it really necessary to show the naked body in that particular scene, and I wonder if Picasso was asked that question when he was painting thousands of nudes. Or Rubens. Did they ask Rubens why he was painting naked women?
Press: Was the sexuality intentional to jog the memory of ’68?
Bertolucci: I am surprised that to show a naked body, which is the most natural and innocent thing, still provokes some kind of puritanical reaction. Thank God this country wasn’t the only country in the world not showing the film in its integrity. Because three weeks ago, I was still afraid they would show an R rated version here.
Press: So you are happy with the NC-17 rating?
Bertolucci: Oh yeah, but you know there is a kind of taboo about that. The last NC-17 film was 10 years ago. Taboo. Why? Because many people fear that places wouldn’t show the film, or magazines would not show the ads. Why should there be a problem in this country to show the film the same way as everywhere else? What in this country makes the body of Michael Pitt obscene?
Press: Isn’t part of that the incest?
Bertolucci: Again, where is the incest? How can you talk about incest with twins? They are twins in the womb for nine months. That is a very strong incest. After they came out they are playing, and Michael Pitt tells them that they will never grow up if they don’t stop playing like children. It is not incest?
Press: Very unusual though?
Bertolucci: Twins are unusual. Eva Green has a twin sister. She told me a bit about that experience.
Press: Were there any problems in getting rights to the music or film clips for this movie?
Bertolucci: I couldn’t use “Hey Joe” in the scene in the bathtub. We had to describe the scene, and the Hendrix estate said no way, and so that is Michael Pitt singing, because Pitt like every American actor now is also a musician.
Press: Do you still write poetry (Bertolucci started as a poet) or does that side speak through your films?
Bertolucci: No. Yes, speak through my films.
Press: How does this film fit in the overall catalogue of your films?
Bertolucci: My only goal is not to have any goals. The only goal is every time that film and that moment. I don’t know what I have done so far. I can’t look at my movies. I spent some time with Almodovar in France and we talked about how difficult it was to watch our movies because they look so bad, and Almodovar said, “You are absolutely right -- I don’t want to see my movies.”
Press: What’s next?
Bertolucci: There was a film ready to go, but I changed my mind, so I am open to new ideas.