The conformist

with a note on Last tango in Paris

Conformist 1

The conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970), based on the 1951 novel by Alberto Moravia, is a most captivating film, visually sumptuous—with the gorgeous Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, and Dominique Sanda bringing out the interplay of political and sexual themes.

For my generation it recalls late-night screenings in art cinemas (along with Parajanov, Seven samurai, Marx brothers marathons, La stradaFive easy pieces and Performance (both also 1970), The bitter tears of Petra von Kant (1972), Céline et Julie (1974), and so on—what an eclectic education; see also here). Revisiting the film now, alarmingly, makes a timely reminder: until recently the dangers of fascism may have seemed quite remote.

Conformist 2

As with Bertolucci’s other films like Last tango in Paris, music and dance play a crucial role. The soundtrack (by Georges Delerue) has the ambivalence of Cinema paradiso and Twin peaks. As with all the best film music, just the opening theme transports us instantly into the story’s troubled world. Here’s the complete film:

The female radio band near the opening (from 4.11) reminds me of Franco Cerri’s recollections in my post on Chet in Italy.

By way of comparison with the final dance, here’s the equivalent scene in Last Tango in Paris:

—just as iconic as Jack Nicholson’s scene in Five easy pieces where he erupts in the diner, and reminiscent of Alexei Sayle’s critique of ballroom.

As this review observes, Last tango is not about sex but about pain.

Made in France four years after the disillusionment of 1968’s failures, it’s about characters who can’t see past their own emotional and psychological problems, who are solipsistic in the extreme, locking themselves away from everything they can’t face in the outside world.

Pauline Kael’s famous rave review, comparing the film’s importance to that of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, is critiqued in this retrospective, a particularly cogent view of the on-set abuse of Maria Schneider—a revelation that has severely marred the film’s image, which is regrettable since it’s a work in which deep emotions and anguish are conveyed. Among innumerable other reviews, Last tango is also the subject of this excellent 2011 discussion. See also under Godard.

* * *

Bertolucci died in November 2018 (see also here), soon after Nic Roeg (for an assessment of both together, see here). Many more films to revisit, not least The sheltering sky (based, indeed, on the great novel by Paul Bowles, though he was less than keen on the result), The dreamers, and the epic 1900. And Godard died in 2022.

13 thoughts on “The conformist

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