Director Bernardo Bertolucci talks about his first film in 10 years

It has been 10 years since Bernardo Bertolucci made THE DREAMERS. Since then the director suffered with ill health when a routine operation left him unable to walk. On finding himself confined to a wheelchair, Bertolucci initially believed his career was finished, but during the depths of his despair he was sent a book – Niccolò Ammaniti’s ME & YOU – which reawakened his desire to work in film. caught up with Bernardo Bertolucci after the first screening of the film at Cannes in 2012, to find out more about the project. 

Your last film, THE DREAMERS, was a coming of age story, was this something you wanted to return to?
Bernardo Bertolucci: Yes indeed. When I read Niccolò Ammaniti’s novel I immediately fell in love with it; perhaps because the novel is about a teenager. I love to see reality changing in front of the camera, so I chose actors who change and even grow up in front of the camera.

What was it like to return to film making after such a long time?
BB: As far as I am concerned, it was a return to life. The last 10 years were a very sluggish time for me, and it is now as though I have woken up again. I have woken up as of the time I accepted to be less physically fit, less physically able. Once you accept physical disability, it becomes much easier; otherwise it is very difficult. When I read Niccolò’s book, I immediately wanted to make a film of it. I loved the novel, except perhaps the end, when the half sister dies. In the film I didn’t want her to die. I convinced the author that my ending was preferable; they continue living while growing apart.

Was Tea’s character inspired by any of your other female characters such as Maria Schneider in LAST TANGO IN PARIS?
BB: Yes these are two characters that are quite dramatic. Maybe there is something that is common to all the young women I film. In the future I would like to film young women who are not as desperate. For a couple of years now, I have been thinking about this. They are very complex women, and there is no doubt a link, although it has been a long time since I shot LAST TANGO IN PARIS.

What was it like working on this film?
BB: It was a tremendous pleasure shooting this film. We also are very pleased with the screenplay. We had Francesca Marciano, along with other Italian writers who are well known throughout the world. We worked on this 110-page book. We worked for months and months and months. It looked simple, but was in fact tremendously complex. It wasn’t obvious to achieve, we do indeed follow the development of Lorenzo and Olivia in the film, and we chart their development. I am not an illustrator. I use books to make films and then I play my rightful part next to the scriptwriters. There is a tremendous amount of reality in the film and this is something I want to portray in the film. The actors add a lot of themselves and it is a wonderful combination. In a film you don’t just have the director, the scriptwriter and the actors, you also have the set designers, production designers and then we have the person in charge of the cinematography; Fabio Cianchetti, who is quite outstanding. The person in charge of costumes invented this incredible fur for when Olivia goes into the cellar. You can’t see any faces, you just see the fur moving around, and you have the impression that it is an animal. I thought to myself ‘this is like a new Marlene Dietrich entering the film’ and the person in charge of costumes had thought about this in Blonde Venus, when Marlene Deitrich appears on the screen. We shot the scene with tremendous joy.

How do you manage to espouse the character of a 14 year old boy, who is a bit alienated, this is not the first time this theme has occurred in your work?
BB: Do I really manage to really espouse the character of a 14-year-old boy? Maybe I stopped developing at some point in time! Maybe I can fully identify! I was helped no end by the book. The book is in the first person; we are always in Lorenzo’s mind. The book keeps referring to ‘I’, and then there is what we added in the screenplay and what these two young actors brought into the film.

How did you choose the space and staging the cellar?
BB: It was Jean Rabasse [Production Designer] who designed the cellar. Jean, in Rome, saw lots and lots of cellars, and he came to show me pictures with all the details, the walls, the lines, the humidity trickling down from the window, and there is something is quite magic when there is light. When the camera is there and we can play with the light and the actors, and then there was a time when we all danced together. We know there are signs remorseless innocence in the film, these are signs of fate and also these two characters end up in the cellar without really knowing what is happening. They go into the cellar as though they are plunging into their subconscious. We have all done that. All of the people who worked onto the film plunged into their subconscious. The film comprises a discreet music, a music that creeps into the film. There is music in the movements, in the words, in the story that is unfolding. When all is said and done, everything seems to hang together beautifully, and this is due to the music.

The Italian lyrics of David Bowie’s SPACE ODDITY seem to have been written for this film…
BB: [laughs] The song was written in 1969 by Mogol, who is one of the greatest Italian lyricists. I heard the song once a long long time ago, in Los Angeles I think, as I was driving through the city in a convertible. Of course with the original lyrics you can see things taking off into space and in Italian the words are different. I called on Mogol and told him I wanted to use this song – perhaps her had forgotten it because has written thousands and thousands of songs – and it was as though the words were written for the film, but they were written in 1969… Way back!

There is a rumour that you wanted to shoot the film in 3D, is that true?
BB: I detest 3D and I realised that it was too laborious, too long for me. I really like to shoot in a very relaxed way, and I like to go fast. I wanted 3D because I thought that it would help the drama in the cellar, the cave, but I think the film is, in some way, in 3D… Without the 3D.

Why did you stay away from Italy for so long?
BB: I could have done the LAST TANGO IN MILAN! [laughs] and maybe I could have done THE LAST EMPEROR in Naples! But seriously… For a long time I rejected what I saw in Italy. I didn’t like the general political situation; it was as though the country was struck by a constant illness if the majority of Italians vote for someone I would rather forget. I guess that’s democracy! At a given point in time, I really wanted to go back to the place where my memories and reality merge – certain landscapes, certain dishes, certain food. I was afraid of shooting in Italian; this is the first time I have shot in Italian in about 30 years. I see this in the theatre. Italian is a very literary language. I think that in the screenplay we have made the dialogue very simple. I like the dialogue in American film, which is so simple and so effective. I think we succeeded, even in Italian, in leaving aside the literary side that you always find in Italian films. If you look at films made my great Italian directors, the weakest point is usually the dialogue.

Words: Brogen Hayes

ME & YOU plays exclusively in the Light House Cinema in Dublin from May 10th