Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons
Stealing Beauty (1996) is another mediocre film in Irons’ catalogue, but is distinctively different. It could be called a prestige picture, as it’s written and directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, acclaimed filmmaker of Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor, among other films. However, it is also a Fox Searchlight Picture, and fits more in line with the rise of independent cinema in the 90s.
In fact, Stealing Beauty is distinctively from the 90s. While Irons has starred in plenty of films over the decades, his penchant for literary or historical adaptations has led him to work in period pieces, stories temporally removed from when they were filmed. The reification of his star persona as an European elite has also removed him from contemporary stories. Either way, his character are often removed from the everyday working class life, and particularly stories taking place in the here and now.
Not so with this film. While he plays a literary elite in the film, literally spending his last days in the beautiful Italian countryside, the films’ direction temporally locates the film distinctly in the 90s. At least, the opening scene does, filmed on video with distinctive 90s alt rock playing as out protagonist Lucy (Liv Tyler) rides the train to Italy. Lucy arrives at a beautiful estate in the Italian countryside, housing artists and guests from all over the world, with the excuse of modelling for the sculptor family friend. From there the main story is split into two sides: Lucy maturing into a sexually active adult, and Lucy unraveling the mystery of her true biological father. Neither story strand is well motivated or clear, leading to a lot of beautiful Italian countryside compensating for the film’s lack of plot.
For Lucy’s maturation as a sexually active adult, this desire isn’t clearly motivated, as imposed upon her by Alex (Jeremy Irons), a dying AIDS victim and writer living out his last days at the artist’s paradise. He arrives into her bedroom unaccounted, allured by the smell of her pot, and begins telling her how she should be sexually active in Italy, the country of love. “You’re in need of a ravishing”, he says, and this first long scene is quite alarming, as Alex, an elderly man, tells a young woman to become sexually active and seize the moment. While throughout the film Alex says more alarmingly obsessive lines like “She’s irresistible” or “I’m mad about her”, his scummy nature dissolves to reveal that he just wants here to enjoy life as much as possible as a result of reflecting on his own mortality.
Still, Lucy does seek out her own sexual experiences, and the film itself is obsessed with how free the Italians are in terms of sex and sexuality. Nude swimming abounds, and carefree hookups (and their drawbacks) are fully on display. The film is somewhat aware of who the male gaze sexualizes and objectifies our female protagonist, with one scene using canted angles to emphasize how Lucy’s art modelling is easily exploited and places here in a precarious, vulnerable position. Another scene of sexual violation, with Lucy escaping shaken, make it clear such lust for life, sex, and frivolity can be dangerous, particularly when exploitative men step in.
After Lucy’s assault, she tearfully explains to Alex why she really came to the estate:to find out the who here true father is. Scrawled in a book of her mother’s poetry is a handwritten poem, also by her mother, implying Lucy’s inception happened on the estate with another man. This makes for the mystery position of the film, another aspect to the story that isn’t quite as compelling as it should be. As a mystery, it isn’t really compelling, as we only have three possible men. Alex is dying of AIDS, making him a quite unlikely suspect. The other two men are possibilities, but by the time we learn of Lucy’s mystery, she has already investigated them, without us understanding the scenes at the time. This makes much of the film confusing on a plot level, with the charisma of the actors, the setting (and idealistic artistic estate in Italy), and the cinematography of the countryside papering over the lack of compelling plot. The questions that are supposed to compel us (Who wrote the letter to Lucy as a kid? Whom will she have her ‘first time’ with? Who is here real father?) are executed clearly, and aren’t investigated clearly either. As a result, much of the film just seems to wander.
While much of the film fits into Jeremy Irons normal oeuvre, its distinctive 90s indie style pops up here and there. Aside from the jarring opening sequence (using a different aspect ration and video quality), Lucy stares at the audience as she writes her own poetry, literally telling the audience what she’s feeling as the text of her poems appears on the screen. Such fourth wall breaks pepper the film, one of the many components that distinctively mark this film as a 90s film. After all, this is a film that stars distinctively privileged characters (Reality Bites, anyone?) on an estate (travel porn, with the trailer calling it a “sensual journey”), with 90s indie aesthetics (fourth wall breaks, etc.) slapped in here and there to make one dysfunctional package. There’s even a scene where Lucy rock out to her girl power alt rock music while listening to her Walkman.
As a Jeremy Irons film, he ultimately doesn’t get to do much except 1) tell us how attractive Lucy is, 2) be her emotional support, and 3) wither away and die. His characters spans from creepy to sympathetic by the end of the film, largely because his intrusive yearnings for her sexual maturity end as he becomes her surrogate father for her trip. Like in Damage, he plays creepy older men quite well. I don’t think Bertolucci actually intended Irons’ character to be creepy; instead, I think Alex is meant to be another extension of Italy’s sex-positive culture. You could also read into the full implications of Alex’s AIDS, but for now, it shows how Irons can (and will) make roles creepy, even when unintended by the filmmaker.
This film isn’t very good, and by this point in his filmography, the assumed allure of Irons no longer holds the magnetism it did when I started this series. In fact, such an ‘allure’ is rather the result of a carefully typecast image of European elitism, an image becoming more and more distasteful as Irons’ filmography goes on. Too often is Irons typecast, rather than being able to explore a range of characters and emotions. (Un)fortunately, Irons’ career went downwards after the 90s, and soon we’ll be able to enjoy the other kind of bad films in his oeuvre, the so-bad-its-good kind.