Friday, August 8, 2014

The Conformist (1970)

Bernardo Bertolucci’s film The Conformist is like a vegetarian who loves wearing fur. It masquerades as a leftist political film, villainizing fascists as cold, materialistic and of course, sexually perverted. Yet the film embodies what it purports to critique.

From the very first shot of the film, it is apparent that this isn’t your uncle Godard’s, satirically absurd vision of fascist Italy. Jean-Louis Trintignant sits on a hotel bed, intensely contemplating some impending catastrophe, totally uninterested in the naked woman lying next to him, with the film seemingly basking in his esoteric coolness. As Trintignant sits in a car, the collar of his jacket is popped in the same way Belmondo mocked American gangster movies in Godard’s Breathless. Trintignant's character wants normalcy: a bourgeois wife, and the security a dictatorship offers. He just wants to fit in, but his latent homosexuality, and love of fedoras and three piece suits just doesn't jive with either political movement. The Conformist is visually breathtaking, utilizing color filters, deep focus, beautiful 1930’s clothes and decor. Its visual style makes it a great film, however this seems totally incongruous with its intended critique of fascism. It fetishizes fascism rather than mocking it.

The Conformist is considered by many to be one of the greatest films ever made, but so much of what is great about the film doesn’t fit within our interpretation of it. And what the film offers as explanation for its characters is mostly ignored by critics who praise the film. The main character is a fascist because he was molested and is a closet homosexual, and the liberal professor’s wife sleeps on both sides of the ideological divide because she is also a sexually confused, closet lesbian. According to the film, the ideological differences of the left vs the right are no more than a front for bedroom politics. As in many films, fascists or socialists, whoever is more unpopular at the time, must be politically motivated by their sexual ineptitude or perversion. The film intends to critique fascism on a psychosexual level, yet the characters sexual and ideological politics seem frivolous.

The Conformist wants the cake of conformity and to eat it too. It celebrates the excess that its contemporary independent film movement has attempted to satirize, while also trying to conform to that movement's benchmark technique of intercutting. The Conformist attempts unsuccessfully to incorporate the French New Wave's editing style; beginning at the end, occasionally and confusingly cutting back and forth within the story. (Godard's influence on independent films of this period is similar to that of a Mussolini-esque dictator.) Its attempt at intercutting makes the film far more confusing than it should be, ironically appealing to the pretentious film-watchers elite and not to the masses.

Bertolucci’s “operatic filmmaking” as Kael put it, overshadows his intended message. The film is like listening to the opera, not following the story, but enjoying the singing. The Conformist is a great film, despite it growing more elusive to less patient audiences by the year. It not only wonderfully captures the style of the 1930’s but also the thinking of 1960’s filmmakers. As much as we might want to champion it for its intelligence and freudian political undertones, its greatness lies in the beauty of its voice.

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