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Friday, Feb. 4, 2000


Can't buy me amore

After a trio of exotic epics -- "The Last Emperor," "The Sheltering Sky," and "Little Buddah" -- veteran director Bernardo Bertolucci took a welcome step back toward intimacy and amore in 1995's "Stealing Beauty." With his latest, "Besieged," Bertolucci narrows his focus even more, zeroing in on a mismatched couple who find themselves sharing close quarters.

Sounds familiar? Bertolucci has been there before, with 1972's notorious "Last Tango in Paris" (now in revival -- and uncut! -- at Shibuya's Cine Amuse). Yet where "Tango" practically eschewed romance to provocatively highlight other issues (primarily that of a relationship where sex trumped all other concerns), "Besieged" wants to be a light and tender bit of romance, blissfully oblivious to the troubling nature of the seduction it portrays.

The film begins in Kenya where Shandurai (Thandie Newton, "Gridlock'd") witnesses her schoolteacher husband's abduction at the hands of thuggish government troops. Cut to Rome, some time later, where Shandurai has fled to study at a medical school. To support herself, she works as a maid for reclusive classical pianist Kinsky (David Thewlis, "Naked"), who lets her live in a basement room.

Both are outsiders: Kinsky is an awkward recluse, interacting with no one but the children he gives lessons to, while Shandurai, a foreigner, is largely at a distance from Roman society; her feelings for her detained husband back in Kenya keep her at an even further remove.

It's largely these feelings that make Shandurai so angry when Kinsky starts to put the moves on her, sending her notes, flowers, and engagement rings via the ancient dumbwaiter that connects their rooms. Imposing on her even further, he pushes his piano up against the dumbwaiter shaft, so he can invade her privacy (and disturb her studies) with his music. Kinsky sees this as a pure romantic gesture; Shandurai sees it for what it is: an imposition. She'd rather be sleeping or listening to Salif Keita on her boombox.

Sporting a thousand-yard stare and spastically geekish behavior, Thewlis' Kinsky seems more like a stalker than a romantic foil, though Bertolucci's direction is no doubt equally to blame. When Kinsky, his eyes about to pop out of his head, suddenly grabs Shandurai and declares "Marry me!" the viewer feels like yelling out to the poor girl: "Run!" Really, this seems less a heartfelt plea for love than simple workplace sexual harassment. When Kinsky pleads, "What can I do to make you love me?" Shandurai replies, "You get my husband out of jail!" To his credit, Kinsky attempts to do just that.

Having David Thewlis play a romantic lead seems to make about as much sense as casting Rob Lowe as a priest. Moreover, there is something truly troubling about a white, monied employer -- dare I say, "boss"? -- imposing his affections on his poor, live-in African maid. This almost seems deliberately confrontational, except for the fact that the film has nothing to say on the matter. All ends happily with the boss having bought his maid's affections (as much as he's earned them); these crucial questions of class, race and circumstance are barely addressed.

This is just one of many bad choices that plague this film, all of which betray a filmmaker hopelessly unable to critically self-examine his work. To illustrate, when classical pianist Kinsky seeks to learn of Africa and find a way to Shandurai's heart, he starts listening to John Coltrane -- as if all that black music is the same. To seduce Shandurai, Kinsky starts playing his piano in a more "African" style -- or so the filmmakers think; it actually sounds more like Michael Nyman-esque pop-minimalism.

Even more jarring is the magic realist touch of an old African singer/storyteller who appears throughout the film: For reasons known only to Bertolucci, he's cranked up so loud in the mix that he seems to be screaming into the camera, an effect similar to those double-volume cup-noodle commercials on TV.

The last straw, however, is the pivotal plot twist in which Kinsky wins Shandurai's heart. This ultimate romantic gesture has Kinsky selling his cherished piano to raise the money to buy the freedom of Shandurai's husband. Having Kinsky give up what he loves most -- his music -- for Shandurai's sake is supposed to be touching. The sensible viewer, however, is left wondering why he didn't just take out a mortgage on the spacious downtown property he owns instead. But, like all too many directors with their heads in the clouds, Bertolucci ignores sensible, plausible plotting for the sake of cheap poetic gestures. Such contrivances ring false, and rob the film of emotional impact.

The one thing that almost went right for "Besieged" is the new, looser stylistic direction that Bertolucci has embarked on, influenced by (so the director says) younger filmmakers like Wong Kar-wai, Tsai Min-Lang and Harmony Korrine ("Gummo"). Certainly, the influence of Wong is apparent in the film's impressionistic flurry of off-the-cuff moments that almost imperceptibly gel into a story.

Unfortunately, the director's appropriation of Wong's trademark use of on-the-fly camera work is less convincing. "Besieged" is full of weird herky-jerk cuts that feel like a few frames were lost; these come across as self-consciously "different" while not really adding anything to the film's mood. Indeed, the director's insistence on using this cut on every important emotional reaction seems more like a nervous tic, and is totally annoying.

Is "Besieged" a total failure? I'm afraid the answer is "yes." The fact that "Besieged" seeks to be a touching, poetic sort of love story is almost laughable in light of its many missteps. Where "Last Tango" arrived through much Sturm und Drang at some stark emotional truths, "Besieged" is bollocks from beginning to end -- not a single moment resonates with the real pangs of torn affections. Bertolucci seeks to address the confusion of the heart, but ends up with just confusion.

"Besieged" (Japanese title: "Shandurai no Ai") opens tomorrow at at Cine Switch Ginza.

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