Two hotheads in a room

Bernardo Bertolucci returns after eight years with the invigorating "Me and You".

Bernardo Bertolucci’s latest film, Me and You, may not rank among his greatest. But a serious back injury had put the director out of action for the best part of eight years; he has even said he feared he would never work again. Now, confined to a wheelchair but in all other respects back to his old self, he has returned with his first film since 2003’s The Dreamers. Me and You is a minor work in the director’s unofficial and sporadic two-hotheads-in-a-room series. This has so far included pictures such as Last Tango in Paris and the tender, underrated Besieged. (The Dreamers, adapted from the late Gilbert Adair’s novel about May 1968, The Holy Innocents, is disqualified from inclusion by virtue of being about three hotheads in a room.)

In the new film, 14-year-old Lorenzo (played by Jacopo Olmo Antinori, who resembles a young Denis Lavant and has a fascinating face like an acne-studded trowel) hides out in the basement of his family’s home while his mother thinks he is on a skiing trip. Joining him is his half-sister, 25-year-old Olivia (Tea Falco), a heroin addict who is going cold turkey, albeit in a rather pretty fashion.

The scenario calls to mind the superior Mexican drama I’m Gonna Explode, in which two young lovers on the run turned out not to be on the run at all, but hiding out rather closer to home. Like that film, Me and You is indebted to the French New Wave—it even ends on a 400 Blows-style freeze frame of its impish hero—and hopelessly in love with its restless, aimlessly rebellious protagonists. After some playful early scenes, in which Lorenzo taunts his mother with fantasies of incest (recalling Bertolucci’s 1979 La Luna, which envisaged just such a taboo relationship), the film becomes bogged down in the basement. Lorenzo and Olivia need to be tested and challenged by the world around them, and left to their own devices they descend into solipsism.

However, Bertolucci’s fascination with them sees the film through. He finds their youthful potential palpably inspiring, as he did with Liv Tyler in the excellent late work Stealing Beauty (this is one director who never really experienced a sharp falling-off in quality). And his use of music (including The Cure and David Bowie) to express Lorenzo’s vitality is especially accomplished, as is his habit of modulating the sound to control our relationship with Lorenzo, so that sometimes we are inside the songs he is listening to on his headphones, while at other times we are excluded from them. Bertolucci’s investment in his characters, the way you can feel him rooting for them, can be invigorating in itself, even when there’s not much happening on screen. In common with Jonathan Demme or the late Eric Rohmer, his compassion is an inseparable part of his cinematic voice. Thank goodness he’s back.

Me and You is on release.

Tea Falco and Jacopo Olmo Antinori in "Me and You". Image: Fiction Films.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution