Stealing Beauty

on June 14, 1996 by Lael Loewenstein
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   Given that Bernardo Bertolucci is the man who exploded sexual mores over two decades ago with "Last Tango in Paris," any Bertolucci film dealing with sexuality carries an inordinate number of expectations. "Stealing Beauty" is no "Last Tango," but it has some redeeming features: lush cinematography, strong dialogue, fine supporting performances by actors Jean Marais ("Orpheus") and Jeremy Irons, and a lead actress, Liv Tyler, of sensuous beauty. The thespian talents of Tyler ("Empire Records") might not yet be fully honed, but she is convincing as Lucy, a 19-year-old who travels to Italy for an extended stay with family friends. Lucy has two motives: to renew her acquaintance with a handsome young man she had kissed some years before, and to solve a riddle left in her late mother's diary.
   When Lucy's conversations with the older, jaded houseguests reveal she is still a virgin, however, her deflowering becomes an equally significant goal. She comes to experience different attitudes on life, love and sexuality through her conversations with the household's various guests, which include a playwright (Irons), who is dying of leukemia, an artist (Donal McCann), who is painting her portrait, and an elder statesman (Marais), who can appreciate Lucy's beauty but is too old to be seduced by it.
   Although various young men pass through the household, it comes as a surprise only to Lucy which of them will be her first lover; Bertolucci makes the denouement plain to viewers in the young man's first close-up. And when the moment finally arrives, it is at best underwhelming. All the buildup and discussion seem to dissipate like a can of flat soda. (Some Cannes audience members actually jeered). True, the film is more about the way Lucy affects the household than about how losing her virginity will change her, but a more considered approach to the final sequence would have given it more resonance.
   Worse yet, the music supervisor unwisely chose a rock soundtrack more appropriate to music videos than to Bertolucci; it feels peculiarly discordant in light of the film's overall sensuality. Still, Susan Minot (who penned the book "Lust and Other Stories")is an evocative writer with a strong female voice, and Bertolucci can certainly make a countryside come to life.    Starring Liv Tyler, Jeremy Irons, Sinead Cusack and Jean Marais. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Written by Bernardo Bertolucci and Susan Minot. Produced by Jeremy Thomas. A Fox Searchlight release. Drama. Rated R for strong sexuality, nudity, some drug use and language. Running time: 116 min.
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