Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) – DVD & Blu-ray DVD review
Getting its UK debut on Blu-ray and DVD on Mon 27th February, The Conformist is one of those films that always comes with the word “masterpiece” attached – but in this case, they’re right. One of the most amazing-looking of films, out now on Blu-ray and DVD. If you don’t have a Blu-ray player, now’s the time to upgrade, not least because it has a Bertolucci documentary not available on the standard-def disc.
(Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)
The title of The Conformist refers to the character only. In its style and substance, Bertolucci’s film develops its own sensual, highly original path
It’s impossible to watch The Conformist without seeing the shadow it cast over 1970s Hollywood. From Chinatown’s art deco corruption to The Godfather’s rich Bolognese, the look and feel of Bertolucci’s film was copied throughout the decade. By its end, Coppola had nabbed The Conformist’s extraordinary cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, to work on Apocalypse Now, and Paul Schrader had likewise hired art director Ferdinando Scarfiotti as a consultant on American Gigolo.
And yet, just as the film advises us that the shadows of reality are not the same as the reality, so Bertolucci’s film is a true original, its endless style not an affectation but in the service of its story. Bertolucci tells of Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant), the conformist of the title: a man driven by his demons to seek solace in Fascism, hoping that by being a willing foot-soldier in Mussolini’s cause he will find the normality he cannot abide in society or relationships. Throughout, the painstakingly stylised camerawork and art direction are conspiring to prevent Marcello’s fucked-up fantasy.
The film is a labyrinth of lines and lights, as Venetian blinds throw haywire patterns onto Marcello’s face, or Storaro trails the anti-hero with paranoid Dutch tilts that only right themselves when Marcello discovers that a would-be pursuer is one of his own men. Mostly, Bertolucci denies Marcello the prison he wants by having Storaro forever dancing around him, the camera rezooming and tracking simultaneously to turn the screen into complex, undulating, ungraspable spaces.
Regardless of the specifics of Marcello’s psychology – basically, it boils down to repressed homosexuality – this is an incisive look at what it means to give up the self to totalitarianism. Marcello is prissy and exact, quick to condemn (even his petty bourgeois wife) and yet without a clear moral identity of his own. If the symbolism wasn’t obvious enough, Bertolucci makes his best friend and mentor a blind man.
When his mission to spy on a left-leaning professor is altered to become a hit, he baulks at the assignment, but goes along with it anyway. It’s easier to conform than complain. The only complication: Marcello’s confused sexuality sees him wanting to throw it all away on his target’s wife… except she’s apparently hooked on a Sapphic dalliance with Marcello’s own wife. Kinky, huh?
There’s something not quite right about any of this, right down to a surreal ending that lets Bertolucci’s elegantly shuffled deck cascade to the floor in confusion. The style is so baroque it’s tempting to see this as the fantasy of a pinched nobody, whose apparent lack of ambition actually translates as an intense solipsistic narcissism. There’s certainly a dream-like feel to the settings and the set-pieces: a girl-on-girl tango in a Parisian dance club is sexier than anything in Bertolucci’s later Last Tango In Paris, while the hit in a snowy forest is cinema’s best ever example of this oft-copied scene, the low winter sun igniting the mist with tangible electricity. Through it all, Jean-Louis Trintignant maintains a look of uncomfortable self-pity, embarrassed whenever he’s the centre of attention and masochistically persisting in peering through doors or around corners to see what oblivion he can find to join in with.