This is part 2 of a continuing investigation into a Cult of Venus that thrives today in modern movies.
I recommend, if you haven’t recently, or perhaps ever, take a look at “Stealing Beauty”(1996) and “La Belle et la Bête” (1946)–a double feature in which we compare a movie that is often ignored with one that is beloved by all.
We might as well resume with a film made by someone from the culture that gave Venus her name. Bernardo Bertolucci has been probing, adoring and obsessing over modern versions of her for over five decades. Take his movie, in which Liv Tyler plays a cosmopolitan virgin on the verge.
“Stealing Beauty” has been trivialized by some critics who fail to find real nourishment beneath its confectionary facade. To be sure, the picture looks like something a food writer might describe as pastel farmhouse over a bed of grapevine on terra cotta crust. Why the visual excess? Because “Stealing Beauty” is a fable. If you do not subscribe to this, you may be dismissed.
Anyone who paid keen attention would be able to guess, with the backdrop of idealized nature, archetypal sculpture and the way director and crew pump the painterly schema, “Stealing Beauty” automatically adopts an atmosphere of mythic escapades.
Young love never looked so yummy. It smacks sugar sweet indeed, but there is blood at the center of a good allegory and a hyper touch of it’s color is found in almost any composition in this film. Take Lucy’s last act skirt, or her father’s first act shirt–a photographic rapport that suggests their bond. The attention-getting hue calls to mind menstrual flow, birth blood and wedding night scarlet too, but especially the precious, stirring succulence that circulates the limbs of holy youth which fine art and the movies entice us to adore.
While we’re delving in to Bertolucci’s eye candy, let me point out that silk-draped portal off the barn that billows like some feverishly stoked kiln, which is echoed later by that campfire that permits just enough exposure in the obligatory scene.
Before the days of color cinematography there worked, in motion pictures, a fanatical servant of Orpheus. He too, like Bertolucci, was a poet before he became a filmmaker. He was born before cinema, but then perhaps we are speaking of the first poet of cinema too. They became one in the same in Msr. Jean Cocteau.
I cannot contain my suspicion that Bertolucci installed his curtain in the farmhouse to connect it with a fabulous opus on celluloid that the first poet took upon himself to frame. With his stolen one, Bertolucci often cheers Beauty on from the sidelines of that French master’s enchanted tale. He is also, coincidentally, restating for everyone or at least everyone paying attention, that this film is a fable like Cocteau’s inimitable “Beauty and the Beast,” better known as “La Belle et la Bête”.
If you’ve watched Cocteau’s masterpiece, you’ll never forget the sequence in which the character of Belle, played by the luminous Josette Day, arrives and enters Bête’s magic castle. Watch as she pushes in those massive doors and is snagged by the magnetism of her terrifying host. The halls are lit both-sides with regiments of disembodied arms, sprouted from walls instead of human ribs and each supports a glowing candelabra. One room is followed by another even more mysterious. The inner sanctum is decorated with a row of moonlit, floor-to-ceiling-draped windows.
The magnetism of La Bête grows so strong, by then, that something between the floor and Beauty’s feet conveys her to Him. The possessed castle inhales and sucks the diaphanous shades toward the swooning Belle. She comprehends only later that this is Bête in magic drapery drag, privately pawing her as she passes.
This brief passage is one of the most sumptuous in film history. It reveals not only the perverse pleasure that Bête takes in observing Belle without reserve, but takes in the ravishment of the senses that she experiences inside his enchanted in-breath before fear sets in.
First hints of dread come from a dressing room laid out for Belle. Objects in there whisper aloud, offering their service to her. With such animation in the world of things she is unfamiliar, or perhaps she comprehends, finally, that this castle has eyes to which she does not wish to be further exposed. So she runs but, naturally, all roads lead to La Bête. Suddenly, there he towers, with dashing, full-face beard, ivory fangs and diamond spangles. “Ue Allez Vous,” he bellows, blocking her way, and the trembling, exquisite, adorable and defenseless Belle instantly faints…
…meanwhile, back in our movie seats, ten bucks makes the goddess appear overhead, flick, flick, flick. Once more, radiant Venus descends to the world of men, flicka, flicka, flick…
The opening credits of “Stealing Beauty” play over a home made video. Here again we have a voyeur stalking a beautiful maiden from behind a magic glass. In his prying lens, Lucy is unsuspecting captive. Ironically, it is Bertolucci voice issuing from the secret admirer as he drops the tape of Lucy in the sky down to Lucy on the tracks. The video was recorded on the plane from America and then by train to Siena. It’s all we’ve had to look at so far. We’ve watched a lot of claustrophobic angles of Lucy sleeping, thinking, looking out the window, moving freely about the cabin, listening to music, sleeping some more. We get a cool glimpse of some drool dripping down her chin.
Why cool? Because this is Venus, adorable, immortal, woman-child, sex diva, war goddess. Though it should not be true of the audience, all of this is lost, of course, on luminous Lucy who embodies a ravishing ideal of lady luck with, delectably, zero awareness of our prying eyes.
Now would you just look at how that hand of hers sleeps so close to her blue jean-ed crotch. Is it meant to recall that infatuating pose painted by another celebrated high-priest of Her sect? He who is nearly five hundred or so years Bertolucci’s senior, and is known as Titian, a northerner like him, but from Venice instead of Parma. That Titian was a titan of Venus.
In case you never have, allow your gaze sufficient contact with the “Venus d’Urbino” to observe how gratified she is to lay naked in your presence. It is enough to make one doubt her virginity no? Edward Manet recaste that archetype a few centuries later, transforming Venus into Olympia, a haughty, prosperous, young whore (1864). Next up, Signore Bertolucci rigs his photo reel to ritually restore Venus’ virginity so he can steal it once more.
What is it about this little rite in which movie going mortals regularly love to partake? It is far from the first time that Venus has been around this block. That hottie and her posse are preserved in stone hewn from cultures that reach back to earth’s earliest inhabited zones.
Meanwhile, back to the future, Lucy’s awake again and looking out the window, descending to the land of men. She never acknowledges being watched by them though. You, I and the filmmakers are as graced as La Bete to peek into this pure maiden’s personal space.
Getting back to Bertolucci’s “Beauty”, is Venus really listening to those headphones? No, she’s asleep again. So we begin probing even closer, with the insistence of this mystery lens–much closer than we should. The filmmaker has gradually imposed on his audience a hip, ethical predicament, but it’s not our camera, so we can’t be blamed. Right? We are only watching.
Is that right, or wrong? We’ve just been going along. Now, we begin to ask ourselves if we should continue on when, suddenly, Venus is awakened by the mystery documentarian, advising her to un-dock now, having arrived at her destination.
Lucy grabs her grips and flits onto the platform stopping quick to fix a lace. “What are you doing?” she asks, staring down the lens for very the first time? “I was on the plane.” He whispers, just like Beauty’s dressing mirror in “La Belle et La Bête”. “This is for you.” The tape drops out the window. “Shit!” Lucy exclaims as fright breaks over her fetching forehead. Bingo, Bernardo, you just scored! That furled brow shows how it feels to be Venus in a Venus crazed world.
Because the maidenhead of a virgin is referred to as “her secret,” it makes sense that there is a secret at the core of this story. Is it the same mist that shrouds the sculptor when he wonders why Lucy’s stepfather wants him to sculpt her? “Why did he send her to me?” he confides to his fellow Irish ex-pat wife. “He’s never liked my work?”
I prefer to think the sculptor and Lucy’s step-father both understand why the step-father sent her from New York. I prefer to think that the sculptor’s wife, with whom he is speaking at this moment, does not know the reason and the sculptor is probing just to be certain.
There is also, most definitely, a beast at the core of this Beauty tale. It amounts to almost everyone else in the script. The whole world seems to be chasing this fox. The character of Richard presses most aggressively but, ever since the man with the video camera, each new character from the sculptor to the dying playwright is poaching after her. Every female in the script is getting off on Lucy in some way or other as well. Beastly nature–what can you do?
If I had a daughter, I’d encourage her to see this film as she approached adulthood, with the hope that it could provide a pertinent preview of the pleasures and pressures of becoming sexually active.
After the close call with a young seducer, it is a relief that the boy Lucy eventually connects with is not a slave to the sexual mores of his peers. Lucy’s salvation materializes in the form of the rake’s gentler cousin, a boy of the same age. Osvaldo is the only character in the story that hasn’t attempted to steal her beauty. His head of bucolic locks spells out “nature boy”, cinematically, and foreshadows the spherical canopy of a great tree suspended over Beauty’s sexual setting free.
This iconoclastic heist flick argues that all larcenies perpetrated on Venus are not equal. The sculptor has permission and his wife’s offense, for instance, is petty and meant to amuse when she outs the 19 year-old’s maidenhood. She and her family and friends all indulge in good-natured gossip out of sheer boredom.
Other predators in the upper age limit commit benign infractions as well, filling out this randy romance with spicy minor roles like a sleepwalking art dealer, played, most charmingly, by none other than our most beloved Beast player of all, the French matinee idol Jean Marais and Jean Cocteau’s erotic muse until death. Does anyone out there still dismiss the notion that this film is Bertolluci’s “La Belle et La Bête”?
Embracing a bountiful bouquet of wildflowers that she’s gathered from a classic Monet meadow nearby, Lucy finally asks the sculptor point-blank for the last piece of her puzzle. Where were you in August of 1975?” He takes a while to answer, “That must have been when I did your mother’s portrait.” With this line, the sculptor admits to Lucy her paternal claim. “That’s what I thought,” she replies to accept it. The sculptor levels his next line so that it’s meaning cannot be misunderstood. “It was one of the few times we (he and his wife) have ever been apart.” “Oh, I wouldn’t ask her,” she says, to assure she’s understood. “These are for you.” Lucy hands her father the bouquet, then dabs a tear. Whether it comes from a sense of profound connection or the lack thereof is only next made clear.
The master shows the finished work for which she modeled. It is pure essence. A massive tree trunk yields to sensuous curves in smooth, even grain, articulating immaculate skin on cheeks, forehead and chin. All this is presided over by inquisitive eyes of a curious, absorbent youth in soft, yellow pine. The sculptor confesses, in an earlier scene, his works are about himself. In this case it rings true at least a couple of ways.
Rather than dwell on his accomplishment, the sculpture praises Lucy for how lovely she turned out and she, in turn, looks proud as any branch could ever be for being immortalized by her secret trunk in the trunk of a real tree. To prevent hurt feelings with the sculptor’s wife, it is framed as cool to keep their truth concealed. On this she does agree, then father and daughter embrace, finally. Ironically then, the camera tracks away, in a wide radial around that great chunk of tree, finally showing some respect for Venus’s privacy.
This surprise plot detail attempts to define the unique bond of the artist and model. It points to a shared ambiguity, the secret to which each of them holds a key. I haven’t time to go into this subject here carefully but I will, in the next installment of this series on Venus, so stay tuned, please, if you will. Now, with Lucy’s daddy I.D.’d, we can get on with her inaugural foray.
Sweet surrender in the Siena hills under the verdant ball of an enormous tree. Earth pauses on the head of a pin for Venus and the Chosen One to get it on. Come spy with me on the pretty pilgrims perched above a vine-rowed rise, with the Tuscan sunset reflected in their eyes. Dappled cloudheads cradle rising stars. Campfire illuminates breeze-blown branch sighs, while down slip virgin panties from virgin buns and thighs. Nature Boy avails and proceeds to make love instead of screw. The coolest thing, besides the obvious, is next morning when Osvaldo confesses, “It was my first time too.