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.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle