*This review was originally posted at The Film Experience.
There was a time when the release of every new film from Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci would cause some level of controversy. Consider that in a career that spans more than five decades, he has directed films like The Conformist. Last Tango in Paris and The Dreamers. His latest film, Me and You, was made almost a decade after The Dreamers. It premiered at Cannes more than two years ago but is being released only now, almost as if the publicity for his films has gotten as quiet as the man himself, now sitting (and directing) permanently in wheel chairs.
The opening of Me and You promises more of the director’s provocative thematic interests. Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) is a troubled looking teenager finishing a conversation with his psychiatrist. He is reclusive and detached, and his misbehaviours are confirmed when we overhear a conversation between his separated parents on the phone. An early scene in which Lorenzo and his mother dine at a restaurant shows the most prominent touch of Bertolucci’s perversions as the young boy incessantly asks his mother what she would do to repopulate the world if they were the only two people left on the planet.
This sequence portends a film that aims at a degree of provocation without really understanding its protagonist. In fact, the entire opening of the film is akin to an old man ticking off boxes on a stereotypical checklist of his idea about troubled teens. There are clichéd shots of Lorenzo listening to loud music on his oversized earphones, looking lonely and separated from the school crowd, showing fascination with strange places like a basement pet store, and manifesting his sexual frustration.
Yet, when Lorenzo makes the impulsive decision to fake a school ski trip and hide in the dingy basement of his mother’s apartment building, Me and You takes a strange turn for the intimate instead of the absurd. There is unexpected depth in the way Bertolucci shows empathy with the young boy whose introversion suddenly doesn’t seem so weird anymore, but a product of his disenchantment with the adult world. Lorenzo self-imposes this imprisonment to ‘find himself’ in solitude, but the plan is derailed when Olivia (Tea Falco), the daughter of his father from a previous marriage enters the picture, taking shelter in Lorenzo’s haven. Olivia is addicted to heroin with not a penny to spend, but becomes a curiously welcome companion for her younger half brother.
Bertolucci evokes certain aesthetic and thematic elements from his previous works, especially The Dreamers and Besieged, but his latest film is rather devoid of cinematic perversity. This is an intimate look at adolescent awkwardness, perfectly realized with an outstanding performance from Antinori. His work is beguilingly simple and transcends the obvious physical manifestations of teenage gracelessness. It’s a balancing act between teenage boy brashness and the tender and timid moments of realization that his understanding of world is still painfully incomplete. His chemistry and budding connection with Falco lends the film a surprising sense of warmth given the bleakness of the setting. Bertolucci downplays the most challenging elements of his story – Olivia’s addiction, for example – instead opting to keenly observe the sketchy and undefined relationship between the half-siblings develop. There is no final punch to the story; we have only been witness to a brief moment in the lives of two people who leave their shared sanctuary on a different path from the one they entered through. But, for all its emotional purity and intimacy, Me and You’s ending – a winking nod to the final shot of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows – sets a standard of expectation it falls well short of.