Tuesday, April 23, 2013
"Censorship is a weakness. We should just move forward and be audacious"- Paul Verhoeven
Bernardo Bertolucci would not argue with Mr. Verhoven. His 1979 feature LUNA is most certainly an audacious film, though quietly audacious, unlike many of the sort Verhoeven made (FLESH + BLOOD, BASIC INSTINCT, SHOWGIRLS). Bertolucci has explored many sexual taboos throughout his career, most famously in the execrable LAST TANGO IN PARIS. The censors were all over his films. The chorus of disapproval possibly louder than the applause. But I have to give the director some points for fearlessness. He is very interested in the sorts of fetishes and frustrations most of us would rather not discuss or see onscreen. Of those, the implication of incest must rank highly.
Caterina (Jill Clayburgh) is a once famous American opera singer who had spent a significant amount of her younger life in Italy. The opening scene is a flashback to the 1960s with she and her young son, happily dancing to silly pop tunes. There are glimpses of a young man with her. And who is that serious woman playing the piano in the living room? The title credits then track Caterina as she rides her bike down a hill under a fat Italian moon, La Luna.
Flash foward to years later, Bertolucci's camera restlessly tracking Caterina in her swanky NYC apartment as she packs to return to the motherland to try to revive her career. Her son Joe (Matthew Barry) is now 15. Caterina's husband, the aloof seeming Douglas (Fred Gwynne) is set to go with her but dies of a heart attack moments before their departure. Cut to mother and son blankly staring at hordes of zombie-like mourners accosting their hearse.
Things hardly improve overseas, at least for Joe, who hangs with kids who get him hooked on heroin. But newly widowed Caterina eventually feels revitalized, free. She even verbalizes this to her colleague backstage. There is only a passing trace of guilt regarding her feelings, it seems. Maybe it was only because of her son. As LUNA slowly progresses, through the murk it becomes clearer how attached to her son she really is. Her guilt increases as she watches her son drift without a father figure. She's aware enough to realize how deficient she is a role model. But her affection is strong.
Joe's confusion leads him through awkward experimentation with a young girl and maybe as a victim of a pederast (rumors abound a confirming scene of this was edited from U.S. prints). He seems to desire his mother with increasing urgency. But is it sexual? Or does he just crave her attention? Her time? Someone to fund his drug habit?
So loving/desparate is Caterina that she indeed buys more heroin from Joe's dealer, a man who doesn't drink alcohol because it is against his religion, something she finds incredulous. Mom comes home to find that her son (who just spent a day of agonizing withdrawal) even went through the trouble of cooking a meal for her. It seems so sweet and innocent. She offers him the drug, but, oh shit, she forgot the needle! Joe goes ballistic, so jonesing for a fix that he plunges a fork into his arm to deliver the H.
Clayburgh somehow manages this difficult role with just the right resolve. If you're familiar with her work in other late 70s/early 80s films like AN UNMARRIED WOMAN and IT'S MY TURN you'll recognize her style here: mature, uncommonly intelligent, but just a hairline crack away from complete breakdown. Bertolucci puts her through the wringer, and it's a choice showcase for her talents. Even in the most mundane of life's everydays she displays a strength that sustains her, and that we can see right through.
As the whiffs of incest become more apparent in LUNA, the actress reveals an ability to exude sexiness and maternalism simultaneously, no easy feat. During a road trip, Joe shows no interest in his mother's childhood home, or even helping her change a flat tire. The little brat drives off and leaves her stranded in the countryside. They reunite in a tiny restaurant later: Caterina sits and flirts like a schoolgirl with the man who rescued her while Joe sits at another table, squirming with jealousy and obnoxiously drumming with cuttlery. This scene is key in that the sexual and emotional games mother and son play here are so vital to Betolucci's points, the reason for this film's existence, in my opinion. What eventually happens between them is left for you to discover. I found nothing of that to be over the line or necessarily tasteless. Controversial, no question.
I don't imagine many reading this will drop what they're doing to see LUNA. It's a long, tedious, uncomfortable film that seems to have been made to evoke those feelings. There are some hypnotic passages of beauty, of gorgeous Italian vistas, of powerful operatic solos. There is an adoption subplot that feels half baked, and a conclusion that feels likewise. LUNA is a tricky project that succeeds and fails in equal measure, but I have to admire the director's willingness to even tread these waters. Not everyone would agree, including director Andrei Tarkovsky, who called the film "cheap, monstrous rubbish". The pursuit of audacity has its risks.