IT'S BEEN A year since the big stir over Last Tango in Paris. This year the commotion is over The Exorcist, and it's a more honest fuss over a less honest movie. People see The Exorcist because they want to be scared. They want to feel the emotion of the movie, and they say so. But people who saw Last Tango in Paris hid behind critical pretension. Not many people would admit they wanted to see the movie to feel the sex, the passion and the hate it contained. The audience, like the critics, thought its role was to decide whether Last Tango is the film of the century. Exorcist audiences talk afterwards about how scared they were. They know the film is about fright, even though its manipulative story appears in disguise as a study of demons.
Last Tango presents sex without a disguise, and this scares off an audience. Even Pauline Kael, the most ardent defender of the film, was too busy figuring out things like whether Bernardo Bertolucci had made the first truly erotic film to explain her emotional reaction. The way audiences and other critics talked about the film suggests that people still have trouble thinking about their emotional reactions to cinema sex. Perhaps the emotions Last Tango in Paris elicited were too subtle to allow clear thoughts. More likely it's just that a moviegoer has a harder time saying "I was aroused" than "I was afraid," and a still harder time explaining why, even though both statements describe basic emotions. In any case, last year's big film still demands thought. Bertolucci's films are all of a piece--each one helps explain the others--so the more his early films are shown the sooner people will start thinking about Last Tango in Paris as a movie, not just a media event.
PARTNER, a 1968 film being shown for the first time commercially in the United States now, is a derivative, incoherent, flamboyant yet unemotional film that would deserve little mention were it not made by the same man who made Last Tango in Parish and a possibly greater film, The Conformist (1970). Its pseudo-political content, called "Marxist" by Bertolucci, is puerile at best. And there is no way to classify Partner with some sweeping phrase: even the most taxonomic of critics would have to allot a special hole for this quirky film. Partner is interesting only because it accents Bertolucci's weaknesses.
Based very loosely on Dostoevsky's short novel, The Double, Partner tries to examine the life of a young drama teacher named Jacob (Pierre Clementi) and his alter ego (also named Jacob, also played by Clementi) whom he meets in an outdoor public urinal after he tries to kill himself. After a while, the first Jacob begins to feel that the second Jacob is taking over his life. Jacob I plots the murder of Jacob II, building an odd sort of guillotine in a small room papered over with Vietnam Liberation posters. He changes his mind about the murder and then both Jacobs make brief, impotent speeches against American imperialism. Finally, both climb out on window ledges and walk around their apartment building. Near the end of the film, the two are wondering whether or not the people below will yell for them to jump.
BERTOLUCCI REMOVED the psychological insight from Dostoevsky's story, using an actor whose face reveals nothing and attempting a political statement contrary to his romantic nature. This has been a major problem in Bertolucci's other adaptations. Before the Revolution (1963) covered over Stendahl's psychological crystallization with broadbrush, romantic camerawork. The Spider's Stratagem (1969) lengthened a tightly constructed story by Borges to the breaking point. These films, in varying degree, destroyed what was good in their sources without adding anything else. Partner, in particular, which obliterates its source with such effectiveness--and to such little artistic effect--contrasts strongly with The Conformist, for which Bertolucci reordered Alberto Moravia's novel in order to rebuild it on the strongest of visual terms. In The Conformist, Bertolucci presents the same anti-bourgeois, anti-fascist feelings that make up the moral tone of Moravia's novel; in Partner, there is no moral stance aside from the platitudes uttered at the end.
Bertolucci claims to be a committed Marxist filmmaker, but his commitment seems only so much cant when it finds expression only in flags and protest posters. The guillotine in Partner is not a symbol of misogyny, not revolution. Heavily involved in the Theater of Cruelty, one of the Jacobs says, "People believe themselves immortal. We must give them a sense of death." Bertolucci's own beliefs may be showing through in lines like these, as they never do when he echoes Moravia's political sentiments in The Conformist. Last Tango in Paris is pure Bertolucci, written without a source, and it too gives us a sense of death. But in that film there was a fervent impression of life set apart from a dying culture outside. Partner gives no importance to life at all. Stefania Sandrelli and Tina Amount, the two women in the film, are never treated as people by Bertolucci. The women seem glossed over as insignificant in this film, rather than abused as in Last Tango in Paris. Verbal images of life and death in Partner are almost as ridiculous as in Last Tango. Any suggestions that Marlon Brando alone was responsible for writing his speech about going "through the ass of death, right up into the womb of fear" are dispelled by Partner, where Clementi speaks of life as an "echo resounding between the sperm and the shit of the world."
VISUALLY, TOO, PARTNER points up Bertolucci's greatest short-coming. Aside from occasional verbal slips, he is most pretentious when his fluid camerawork begins to dominate the content of the film. Superfluous dolly shots, over-emphasis on color, and attempts at unusual angles begin at times to take over his films. Spider's Stratagem is probably the worst offender in this area, since Borges' story needed no extra emphasis at all. But there Bertolucci was merely trying too hard to make his points. In Partner he molds the film to suit his visual whim. A revolving chandelier is the most striking feature in a murder scene. Other important scenes center around pointed references to great films of the past. At other times Bertolucci emphasizes gimmicks of sound and shadow. Many, perhaps most, of the tricks are clever, even bold, but they rarely contribute to the film in any useful way.
During a very few moments of the film, however, Bertolucci's visual style sparkles sufficiently to overshadow the shallowness of the film as a whole. A few shots of books stacked in mounds in Jacob I's room are satisfying in terms of the parallel they make with the Roman ruins outside. The landlord Petrushka (Sergio Tofano) who wants to be treated like a servant, is a fascinating minor character. These are the sort of minor elements with which Bertolucci built his better films, but in Partner they come to no avail.