Today we reminisce about
Stealing Beauty (1996)
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Starring: Liv Tyler, Jeremy Irons, Sinéad Cusack, Donal McCann, Stefania Sandrelli, Jean Marais, Rachel Weisz, Joseph Fiennes, Ignazio Oliva, Roberto Zibetti
* Published specifically for It’s a Young World: Teen Movie Blogathon hosted by Robin at Pop Culture Reverie *
The first time that I learned about Stealing Beauty was around the time of its American release in the summer of 1996. I had elected to enroll in summer school as a way to take some of my senior year courses a bit early. In doing so, I would have the privilege to attend classes during the regular school year for only half the day and then leave to go to work. One day in my American History course, we had to use the newspaper for some research and I happened upon the Entertainment Section (ok, perhaps I was just a tad bored!) in which I saw an advertisement for the film that intrigued me. Having recently turned 17, I was in full bloom of young adulthood and yearned for more grown-up romance in my life. Sure, I had gone on a few dates here and there but never had a serious boyfriend mostly because no one had met my fancy. Someone with worldliness and a defined individuality was what I was seeking; very much like Lucy, the title character in Stealing Beauty.
While seeing the film would not immediately change my life, the inspiration I took from it stayed with me until I left for university the following August in 1997. Computers and the internet were still very new in those days so connecting to the World Wide Web was a major adventure for me. Some friends and I decided to try out chat rooms and I ended up choosing an Italian one even though I did not know much about the language or the culture. I had a lot of fun and eventually started visiting the site several times a week whenever the computer labs were open. For the better part of two years, I built a relationship with the regulars and even started a long-distance romance with an Italian guy. We planned to meet and I had booked my plane tickets when I suddenly got cold feet. I could not go through with it. The fantasy of creating my own perfect Stealing Beauty inspired love story had ended before it had even begun. Goodbye Italy, farewell to this vestal affection.
Life did manage to go on and it took other twists and turns. Ironically, I did end up living in Europe but married a Frenchman instead of an Italian. There have been times in the past nearly 20 years when I have revisited Stealing Beauty for the sake of nostalgia and even to admittedly mourn my loss and wonder what could have been. Even though I know the storyline by heart, I did re-watch it for the sake of this blogathon just to enjoy the film again. After all this time, I can finally enjoy the film for the wonderful piece of art it is and embrace those fond memories of my youth.
Lucy Harmon (Liv Tyler) is travelling to Italy so to have her portrait done by sculpter Ian Grayson (Donal McCann), one of her mother’s oldest friends who live in provincial Tuscany with his wife Diana (Sinéad Cusack) and their daughter Daisy. She had previously visited four years earlier at which time she fell in love and shared her first kiss with a boy named Niccolò Donati (Roberto Zibetti). After her short stay, the two exchanged letters for a while until their communication was interrupted. Nonetheless, Lucy never forgot him and has since planned on losing her virginity to him the next time they meet.
When she arrives at the Grayson’s villa, she meets several other people staying there including: Noemi (Stefania Sandrelli), Monsieur Guillaume (Jean Marais) and Alex Parrish (Jeremy Irons), all who are writers and artists in some capacity and who knew Lucy’s late mother, Sara, who had been a celebrated poet. Also visiting for Diana’s birthday are her two adult children from a previous marriage, Miranda (Rachel Weisz) and Christopher (Joseph Fiennes), as well as Miranda’s married lover Richard Reed (D.W. Moffett). Lucy has interactions with all of these characters though grows the closest to Alex who shares a room right next to hers.
Things do not exactly as Lucy had planned when she and Niccolò finally come face-to-face. He does not recognise her right away and she learns that he has moved on with other women. Although this hurts her, she continues to desire him and in doing so, spurns the gentle attentions of Niccolò’s younger brother, Osvaldo (Ignazio Oliva), all the while enduring some hard truths when given a chance to act upon her plans. Having her first sexual experience is not the only thing on Lucy’s mind, however. She is also on the search for her biological father, learning of her mysterious paternity in a poem written by her mother the night before her death. The lines contain vague clues to the identity of this man and it is up to Lucy to put the pieces together, questioning any and every person she thinks could fit the bill.
Stealing Beauty can be looked at as a love letter from Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci to his homeland and also to magnificence of youth. Bertolucci presents a very romantic vision of Italy, using the natural backdrops of Tuscany to his benefit and to the pleasure of spectators. The cinematography is complementary to the already gorgeous countryside and is further aided by a subtle lens filter that enriches the colours. One can appreciate the surroundings – vineyards, open fields, unspoiled nature – even having just a standard version of the film, making it clear that a lot of thought and effort went into making this a quality production. This film is a far cry from Bertolucci’s more controversial works like Last Tango in Paris (1972) and La Luna (1979) although it does contain elements of nudity and sexual explicitness as well as marijuana use. He would once again explore more sinister themes with his next to last directorial feature, The Dreamers (2003). Anyone wary of Bertolucci’s style can rest assure that Stealing Beauty is as tame as he would ever be for a romantic drama.
Actress Liv Tyler had only a few screen credits to her name when she was cast as Lucy. It would appear as if she was Bertolucci’s only choice for the role as it was he who called upon Tyler stating his longing to work with her. The part of Lucy seems almost like a custom fit to Tyler’s real life on the surface as she also questioned and discovered her true paternity and was about the same age as Lucy, turning 18 on the set of the film. In reality, Tyler was much more experienced than Lucy although she does an amazing job of disguising this on-screen. Tyler’s Lucy is a young woman who is curious about the world and who wants to explore her fantasies in a non-rebellious way. She is very well-grounded and writes shorts verses on random pieces of paper that convey her inner most thoughts. As Ian remarks about her, Lucy is quite serious and mature for a girl her age yet she still exudes girlishness.
Sexuality is a major theme in Stealing Beauty, centring on this virginal young woman but also extending to how people react to her chasteness as well as the sexual activity in their own lives. The person most taken by Lucy’s presence is Alex who is in the later stages of a serious illness though who is somewhat revived with new life after her arrival. He watches her attentively, recognising some of his own characteristics in her and perhaps even dreams of what could have come of their friendship had he not been terminally sick. Lucy becomes his first and only love in life for which he is grateful because somehow it completes him and allows him to die more peacefully. She treats him by leaving her poems around his room, under pillows and randomly stuck inside of his books. Their interactions show the mutual admiration they have for one another, nurturing one another in times of need while not hesitating to show their limits when they are in disagreement. If circumstances had been different, I think it would have been lovely to see the two of them together even despite their age gap. Jeremy Irons helps uncover Alex’s more sympathetic and human side, giving a heartwarming performance that gets better over the course of the film.
Several of the characters seem to be stuck on the fact that Lucy is a virgin, making her extremely uncomfortable (and rightly so) and at times the object of unwanted advances. Richard, in particular, is vile and repulsive in his overall being and in his awkward attempts to make moves on Lucy, some of which take place right under Miranda’s nose. It is surprising that no one would have said anything about his disgusting conduct but then again, he was allowed to stay on at the Grayson’s in the first place in spite of having a dubious reputation. One scene in which he coaxes Lucy into performing a purported Lee Strasberg acting technique is quite ridiculous because it is obvious that Richard is there to try and seduce Lucy. Why she goes along with this stupid little game is beyond me. Did she secretly enjoy the empowerment of flaunting her virginity in front of this insatiable man or did she just simply feel like playing along for the heck of it, not realising the risk if something went wrong? Whatever the case, Lucy’s behaviour in this scene does not match the contempt she holds for him before and after this incident. Speaking as someone who waited longer than the large majority of my peers before going to bed with my first sexual partner, I can say that being an older female virgin brings about good and bad stigmas. On one hand your choice can be considered special and earn respect while on the other hand, you can be looked upon as an oddity or even someone who is repressing their true sexual instincts. Then there are the men who think that were destined to be your benevolent ravisher who see you more as a possession than a person. In retrospect, it is not that shocking that Lucy would have times of acting inconsistently because after all, she was only on the cusp of womanhood.
Even now that I have advanced in years, my existence now revolving around being a wife and mother, I can still be appreciative of the effect that Stealing Beauty had on my life. Witnessing Lucy’s story helped me be more conscious of the decisions that I would make in finally reaching certain milestones and made me welcome my uniqueness as a young woman with a bright future ahead. I had few positive female figures in my life from whom I could gain inspiration and support so living vicariously through Lucy proved to be just what I needed. There have been times when I have imagined what Lucy’s life would have turned out to be like and if she would have been at ease with the choices she made. I think that this film could still speak to modern audiences although I do not think they would appreciate the largely technology-less atmosphere of the film. These were the days when people carrying personal mobile phones were not very common and when various corners of the world were not connected in the blink of an eye. You see the characters spending a lot of time just sitting around, talking with each other and observing what others are doing, or taking a walk in nature. It was perfect timing for Bertolucci to film this picture and I personally will be forever grateful for his vision, which still feels like it was a gift just for me.