When I was in college, I saw lots of foreign films. In that time interval (1972 - 1979), Godard was notably absent from the scene having absconded into Maoist agit-prop. The German New Wave was prominent and Fassbinder, in particular, seemed to be producing films at a rate of a half-dozen a year. But Fassbinder is an acquired taste and, although I saw many of his movies, I didn't really like them. One of the directors that most interested me in those days was Bernardo Bertolucci. I had seen Last Tango in Paris, a film that I didn't understand and thought distasteful. But The Conformist had startled me with its beauty and elaborately operatic mise-en-scene and my roommate, studying in Berlin for a fortnight, had seen 1900 in that place and been astounded by the film's scope and ambition. Severely cut, the film played in local art-houses for a couple of months and, even in a truncated version, was amazing pictorially. Then, Bertolucci released La Luna (1979), an American-Italian co-production starring the actress du jour, Jill Clayburgh. (For a few years, Clayburgh was the most ambitious and celebrated of all American actresses, the most willing to take major chances -- at that time, she was feted for her work in Paul Mazursky's feminist film, An Unmarried Woman (1978), a picture for which she had won just about every imaginable award.) La Luna was slated for broad release and was going to provide Bertolucci with definitive Hollywood credibility -- restoring, perhaps, some of the trust that he had squandered by using Warner Brothers' millions to produce one of the most flagrantly Marxist films ever made, the redder than red 1900. La Luna got bad reviews and a wide release -- Clayburgh was bankable. I recall seeing the picture in a big, drafty suburban theater in St. Louis Park. I remember that the film was remarkably beautiful -- Vittorio Storaro's cinematography embalmed every image in the honey of the golden hour, an extravaganza of twilight shot through with luminous beams of amber radiance: the light was like syrup poured over everything. The story seemed to me to be episodic and unconvincing and the movie's climax was opaque to me. I recall the movie as somewhat dire and tragic. In fact, the film has a happy ending of sorts. It was the kind of movie from which you emerge as from a dream, wondering: "What was that all about?" I 've always had a strong nostalgia for this film, unavailable on DVD for some reason until a few months ago.
La Luna divides into five acts. The shortest is a prologue set along the enchanted coast of southern Italy -- this sequence is shot in huge archetypal images: a baby, eggs, fish being gutted against an azure horizon of ocean, a great mountain with a cleft summit that dips it's toes in the sea, mama's face and the moon. This sequence has a mythological character: the raw egg that the mother feeds the naked baby, the bloody fish, the peak and the sea all combine as a series of emblems that feels like something from a Max Beckmann painting, the predicates to a Greek tragedy. In the second act, we learn about the family involved in the story: Caterina (Clayburgh) is a narcissistic, dreamy opera singer married to the staid and pragmatic Douglas played with great authority by Fred Gwynne. The couple have a 15 year old son, Joe. Joe is casually manipulative -- the film contains one of cinema's most authentic representations of a borderline personality type, a self-absorbed child who twists everything to be the center of his parents' attention. Douglas has a heart attack, dies and is buried, and Caterina, with Joe in tow decamps to Rome. The third act shows Joe and his feral friends. Joe's loneliness and isolation (he's interested in New York Yankees baseball among Italian soccer fanatics) has caused him to become a heroin addict. Joe has a teenage girlfriend, who helps him shoot-up, a beautiful Moroccan or Tunisian fixer named Mustapha, and he's in bad shape, periodically deflating in crying jags and uncontrollable chills and nausea when he can't get his heroin. Increasingly out of control, Joe tries to manipulate his mother into thinking that she is to blame for his addiction, a perspective that the film sometimes seems to endorse and sometimes rejects. Caterina is terrified by Joe's addiction and doesn't know what to do. Of course, as his mother she is prepared to take any action to help her son and ends up masturbating him to distract the boy from his withdrawal symptoms. As you might expect, this turns out to be a therapy not approved by Narcotics Anonymous and leads to Joe developing an incestuous relationship with his mother that merely complicates everyone's Sturm und Drang. The fourth part of the film is an extended, hallucinatory road-trip. Joe and his mother drive around Tuscany where they flirt, kiss, visit various landmarks, and, almost, consummate their incestuous relationship -- it's Joe who puts on the brakes, beating up his mother while she writhes with lustful passion for her son. Joe visits his real father, an Italian school teacher. He blames the man for his addiction and angrily shows the stigmata of his injections, needle tracks on his scarred arms. Of course, the schoolteacher, very much the figure of an Italian Papa, slaps Joe hard across the face. The last act in the film is a weird travesty of something like Disney's The Parent Trap -- Joe schemes to bring his mother and father together at a rehearsal of Verdi's A Masked Ball. The rehearsal takes place in colossal ruins, possibly the baths at Caracalla, and involves veiled people singing at one another, an orchestra, and all the other main participants in the plot -- a would-be boyfriend of Caterina, the opera star's mannish, and possibly, Lesbian friend, Caterina, Joe and his father. The mere proximity of all these characters in the operatic final sequence suggests some kind of reconciliation although the details are left unclear. (It's like the Marxist paradise at the end of 1900 -- what are the people going to do after the parades and flag-waving is all done?) The moon rises flamboyantly over the vast ruins, the chorus bellows forth its music, and the film ends.
Matthew Berry plays Joe and he's reasonably convincing. (Bertolucci doesn't really understand American culture and some aspects of his portrait of the expatriate family ring false). Joe is central to the movie, a figure who is, at once, monstrously manipulative and, also, vulnerable. The scenes in which he plays leading man to his mother are painful to watch, but, I think, authentically realized. Jill Clayburgh is astonishing. Like many very beautiful women, she has the trait of looking subtly (or, even, radically) different in every scene: in some images, she looks amazingly young and vibrant, girlish even; in other scenes, she's like an aged Sybil, haggard-looking and gaunt. In the sex scenes, she's willing to go all out and expose herself in ways that aren't particularly attractive -- the images of her writhing with passion and thrusting her pubis up into her son's face are alarming, not flattering to her, and must have required enormous courage to implement. Clayburgh looks too frail to be a prima donna opera singer and I don't think she ever convincingly inhabits that role but as an anguished and increasingly desperate mother she is completely persuasive -- in fact, her desperation makes the incest plot seem plausible. (She is willing to offer herself in every possible dimension to save her son, a person who may not be worth saving.) The third act set largely in Caterina's lavish Roman apartment plays out like a Fassbinder film -- with its over-the-top décor (a huge painting of Verdi, colonnaded rooms, a grand piano) and casual drug use the sequence looks like Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. It's wildly operatic melodrama. Storaro's photography is unbelievably lavish, a series of virtuosic arias for camera, probably too beautiful for the film's subject matter although the opera scenes in particular have a hallucinatory splendor. Storaro can do just about anything with his camera and one scene in particular, a sequence in which Caterina visits her old teacher, the maestro, who is now completely demented, a wild-eyed old man with a mane of white hair, stands out for its subtle beauty. The old man moves his wheelchair to position himself so that his still handsome and ruined profile catches the sun: as he luxuriates in the light, Caterina says: "Yes, still seeking the spot light." It's a metaphor for Storaro's magical use of light. The film is worth studying and, certainly, powerful as melodrama on the order of Sirk and Fassbinder. Whether the picture achieves anything substantive beyond melodrama is unclear to me. I will have to watch the movie again to see.