Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The Conformist

The Conformist - Bernardo Bertolucci (1970)

I'm currently falling further and further behind on my reading targets for the year so thought I would at least make an attempt to hit my target of reviewing a decent amount (six or seven) films for the Foreign Film Festival at Richard's Caravana de Recuerdos and simultaneously, for Caroline's World Cinema Series at her blog Beauty is a Sleeping Cat. Two birds with one stone, I like it.

Once again ignoring the piles of unwatched DVD's scattered around the house I made use of my Netflix account and so watched Bertolucci's The Conformist on my laptop, probably not optimum conditions to watch one of cinemas acknowledged visual classics. I was also tired so had to rewind on a couple of occasions when my attention headed for my own dream landscape, and away from Bertolucci's.

But despite these drawbacks I was able to appreciate much in this film, not least the visuals. Right from the start there is a sense of flight or pursuit. The opening shot is lit by flashes from red neon signs, one of which reads La Vie est a Nous, the name of a propaganda film for the French communist party shot in 1936 and released in French cinemas in 1969. Jean Renoir was one of it's directors. Between the flashes Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) disappears into the night but after each band of darkness the light has increased. It is morning. A phone call and he is on his way to meet someone outside the hotel. The last thing he does is pick up his hat which lies on the naked back of a woman who has been hidden from view by the footboard of the bed. There is a touch of Magritte in the image.

The film is full of striking images, often consisting of many parallel lines, from buildings with a certain fascist heft to them to venetian blinds and patterns on dresses and trees in forests. Indeed it seems at times that Bertolucci is trying to create echoes of the bundle of rods that were part of the 'fasces' the origin of the word fascism. These geometrical scenes are at times accentuated by off kilter shooting angles. It is all suggestive of a labyrinth within which a person could get lost. Or of the bars of a prison cell. It is also reflected in the films structure, wherein we jump forward and backwards in time.

As well as the geometrical angle there is also a sense of opposites, dark and light - suggestive of the conscious and unconscious motivations of the characters. The film makes a series of Freudian connections, with Clerici's subordination of his homosexual tendencies in order to embrace society's idea of normality being put forward as the motivation for Clerici's embrace of marriage and fascism.
"What will you get from marriage?
The impression of normality"

Before getting married in church, Clerici must confess and this is one of the keys scenes in the movie, linking feelings of  guilt with our anti- hero's behavior.
"Tell me, which sins have you committed?
I've committed them all. Even the worst sin."
But his admission of this "worst sin" seems to interest the priest less than details of his carnal activity. As the priest presses for more information Clerici refuses to elaborate, saying - "Its almost as if the church considers sodomy more serious than killing a man."

"Normality" seems of little interest to Bertolucci. Clerici is not just a repressed homosexual: his father is in an asylum; his mother is a drug addict; and he carries a burden of guilt for shooting someone once. There can be a sense of Bertolucci gloating in the thought that he is being transgressive in such a way that it will upset the 'petit bourgeoise'.

Sappho rampant
But as well as transgressive images and ideas he plays with genre and traditional images. Slapstick seems an influence on the style, indeed at one stage a picture of Laurel and Hardy is foregrounded on a window, with Clerici sitting behind it. His wife is also like a character from Chaplin, a full blown flapper in clothes, hairstyle and attitude. She herself seems to be playing a game, with an enthusiasm for Clerici so strong as to appear false. A sapphic dance sequence suggests that she may be caught in the same trap as her husband.

Fairy tale images also gild the edges of the film. Sleeping Beauty seems to be a touchstone for some sequences such as one where Clerici's daughter picks a vermillion apple from amoung the green. The sense of the sleep of reason is pervasive, as is the focus on appearances and willingness to destroy in order to protect appearances. Mirror, mirror... Gangster film is also strongly referenced, particularly those of a noir bent. Another ministering angel is Brecht, whose style hovers over much of the film.

Watching a scene of a head of Mussolini being dragged through the streets by a motorbike I was struck by how it seemed now to reference the past twenty years, an image from Russia, Eastern Europe or Iraq. The future does not have to be invented: just remembered.

I am glad to have finally watched this film and now look forward to watching it again. Its images seem to take on a power to talk to the subconscious and to remain spinning around the endless corridors of the mind long after the metaphorical popcorn has been swept up, the usher gone home and the mice retaken the cinema floor.

Laurel and Hardy keep still as the dance goes on: another fine mess!


  1. I haven't watched any Bertolucci for some time but this sure puts me in the mood. I liked very much what you wrote about the repetition of parallel lines and how they seem to symbolize fascism and of course the contrast of dark and light.
    I should go back to older movies. All the movies I watched recently for the Cinema Series were fairly new and too disappointing to be reviewed with the exception of Katalin Varga but I have no clue which country it belongs to. It's a problem with co-productions.

    1. Thanks for your comment Caroline. The Conformist is certainly easy to write about. I could probably write another post from a totally different angle and not exhaust it. Not my favorite film but very admirable.
      The issue of what defines a film as Irish or Romanian or whatever really is insoluble. Working in the area of Irish film I always feel that you draw the net as wide as possible, with any film financed, shot or using Irish talent having a valid claim to being considered in discussions of Irish film. You could of course, include all potential countries..

  2. I didn't/don't remember many of the visual things you mention here, which makes your post super-interesting to me from that standpoint alone. Guess I need to watch this film again! I also like your point about the similarities between Mussolini and more recent times elsewhere. Ironically, though it's been several years since I saw this movie if I remember correctly, I've almost bought the book it's based on twice in the last few months because it's been calling my name. Your post isn't going to help my willpower, I'm afraid!