(Author’s note: In my mind, Bertolucci can never redeem himself for the buttery crimes committed on and offscreen in Last Tango in Paris, but I also can’t ignore such obvious cinematic mastery. It is rare to see films that handle the everyday charms, claustrophobia, and excitement of domesticity and domestic relationships so richly. I will likely always remain receptive to Bertolucci films, but I will watch them through that critical lens we cinefilles reserve for art that seduces, however chauvinistic it or its creator might be.)
It’s been 10 years since Bertolucci released his last film (2003’s The Dreamers) and this time he’s back with Me and You, an intimate coming-of-age story about estranged siblings. Though many have been quick to note how ‘small’ the film is in comparison to other films its his repertoire (The Conformist, 1900, Last Tango in Paris), it’s nonetheless a worthwhile entry with a fresh character dynamic.
Based on a Niccolo Ammaniti novel, Me and You tells the story of Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo), a cripplingly inward teen failing to make connections with those around him. Though broken family dynamics are hinted at, the root of his dysfunction is never revealed and instead we see only its effects through his isolation. He buries himself in headphones, communicates through extreme fits of anger, and appears friendless.
The film takes place over the course of one week which begins just as Lorenzo has plotted to deceive his mother. She believes he’s headed on a field trip, but instead of skiing with his classmates he steals the money, buys groceries, and takes shelter in the basement of his own apartment, planning to bask in the comfort of solitude. But his plans are soon dashed when Olivia (Tea Falco), his older and equally-troubled half-sister, crashes into the basement to retrieve a box of her belongings and the two reunite after having been estranged for years. The reunion is less than friendly as it’s revealed that Olivia has no where to go, and imposes herself on Lorenzo’s secluded holiday. We quickly learn that Olivia’s own relationship with her family is also troubled. “They didn’t tell you?” asks Olivia, “I’m a junkie.”
Using the basement as a new home base, she attempts to kick her heroin habit, suddenly forcing Lorenzo into the role of his sister’s caretaker as she sends him on sporadic missions for her, and over the course of the film they grow close. While forced into this new reality, Lorenzo learns to develop a outward focus and an interest in someone other than himself for the first time. During one of his sister’s sleeping-pill induced slumbers, Lorenzo accidentally sees a website of Olivia’s work. She is the subject of her own photography, work that explores her sexuality and identity. It is her stories, her life, and the discovery of her art that captivates, jolts, and awakens him.
The film’s story is simple, but its emotional range and tone are impressive. It’s a poetic, turbulent, and fantastical story that barely leaves the walls of a small basement room, a setting that’s wonderfully immersive and mysterious. The basement is filthy and forgotten but also houses the belongings of a deceased duchess, and through these belongings—antiques, plush velvet couches, whimsical clothing and fabrics—the basement holiday is styled squarely within the classic Bertolucci aesthetic of decaying opulence. The performances are stellar by both leads, but in true Bertolucci form, there is an odd incestuous flavour that permeates some scenes. While in a film like The Dreamers, this insular behaviour worked as a metaphor to convey a lack of growth and worldliness of the main characters, in Me and You it feels out of place.
There is a particularly strong scene that serves as an acute metaphor of the whole film. As Olivia dances and sings to Bowie, Lorenzo sits back comfortably, watching her from the sidelines. Just as your inner feminist critic prepares to rage/yawn/wince at yet another classic scene of male visual pleasure, Olivia thrusts herself into his space and yanks a reluctant Lorenzo to his feet, forcing him to dance. In light of Bertolucci’s history, I, for one, appreciated the gesture.