Shandurai (Thandie Newton) is living in Rome after her teacher husband is taken prisoner
in an African state. She works as a live-in housekeeper to reclusive English pianist
Kinsky (David Thewlis), who falls madly in love with her. Kinsky will do anything to make
her love him, whatever it is; but what she wants is her husband out of jail.
"A flawed gem, this, from Bertolucci the visionary, the man who sees life in huge
sweeps and bold colours. His sensibilities have been seduced by the flow of passions in
the story, but by the time the passions reach us, they have been drained from the subject.
So has much of the clarity. Hacking the film (was it Jacopo Quadri or BB himself who
called the shots at the edit suite?) into convulsed sequences that sometimes irritate and
sometimes confuse, Bertolucci seems to have fallen into the trap of self indulgence.
Scenes of a medical team that includes Shandorai are a good example of both the self
indulgence and the lack of clarity; you need to read the production notes to make sense of
these. And even then, Newton’s characterisation seems at odds with itself. Instead of
bringing the audience into his work, Bertolucci has managed to distance us, with
inscrutable story telling coupled with a misjudged stab at ‘image constructed’
characterisation that just doesn’t work – despite my admiration for Thandy Newton's work elsewhere. Bertolucci’s use of the music, while magnificent in its own musical terms
(marvellous African music contrasted with great classical European works), is as often put
ahead of his cinematic requirements, so that images are put in service of musical
passages. This adds to the sense of distance for the audience, and by the time we
recognise the love story he is trying to tell, we have lost our way and our emotional
care. Perhaps it’s the confusing and confused payoff that makes it all seem so much
less than it ought to be."
Andrew L. Urban
"Bernardo Bertolucci returns to the theme of grand and difficult love he explored in films like Last Tango in Paris and Stealing Beauty. The master filmmaker entrances with his wonderful camera work, his subtle approach and touches of brilliance in this very simple story of two damaged people coming together in less than ideal circumstances. Through this tale, he takes the opportunity to explore cultural differences, and how people overcome them to find a connection. Some may find Besieged maddeningly obtuse, as Bertolucci elects not to spoon-feed the audience with the details that would have made this a more 'commercial' film. He keeps dialogue to a minimum. Indeed the opening sequence is an object lesson in storytelling with few words. The film is filled with magical little (but significant) moments - a look is exchanged, a missing picture is noticed, a letter is received - which convey more meaning than a page of dialogue. The director uses a variety of filmic techniques to add texture, and on occasions the result is breathtaking. Mention should also be made of the wonderful blend of African rhythms and classical piano music. As it's basically a two-hander, the performances from the leads need to be spot on. And they are. Thandie Newton and David Thewlis are wonderful. Newton displays a depth she's rarely had the opportunity to before; and Thewlis turns in a performance as powerful, if not as showy, as he did in Naked. Someone argued to me that Besieged was a triumph of style over substance. There may be an element of truth there - but what style! It's one of the most elegant and romantic films you'll ever see."
"This exhilarating film seems to take place on a directly sensual,
non-psychological level. There’s hardly any dialogue; the words used by the
characters are less important than their gasps and silences, the emotions they display or
hide, the music that surrounds them. The camera leaps round Kinsky’s palatial villa,
with smooth gliding movements or shaky tentative ones: every shot is an event in itself.
At the same time, the constant motion makes you feel like each image is bound to topple
over into the next. We jump from a white piece of paper to white sheets flapping on a
clothesline; from a foaming mug of beer to soapsuds on a tiled floor. At first, Kinsky and
Shandurai are mapped onto a predictable set of oppositions – male vs female, wealth
vs poverty, rigidity vs looseness, classical vs pop music, white vs black; yet these terms
are similarly unstable, and the whole drive of the narrative is to transcend them or make
them irrelevant. There’s a wonderful example of all this in David Thewlis’
eccentric performance. His fey smile, skew-whiff posture and choked speech at first seem
disastrously mannered, a stiff and clumsy pantomime of stiff clumsiness. Yet Bertolucci
simply accepts this actor as one of the physical facts of the film. It’s sheer
physical proximity, as much as anything, that creates the possibility of love between
these two unlikely characters; and since the whole movie is devoted to showing us how they
look, speak and move, we eventually know their bodily tics and quirks as we know those of
people we care about in real life. So towards the end Thewlis/Kinsky, juggling in the
garden, seems to have come out of his shell with an awkward grace that’s all his own:
something surprising, unique, and lovable."
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SOFCOM MOVIE TIMES
CAST: Thandie Newton, David Thewlis, Claudio Santamaria
DIRECTOR: Bernardo Bertolucci
PRODUCER: Massimo Cortesi
SCRIPT: Bernardo Bertolucci, Clare Peploe (James Lasdun story)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Fabio Cianchetti
EDITOR: Jacopi Quadri
MUSIC: Alessio Vlad
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Gianni Silvestri
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: September 16, 1999 (All states except Perth – Sept 23)
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: New Vision
WORLD PREMIERE AT TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL, 1998
VIDEO RELEASE: February 9, 2000
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: 21st Century Pictures
RIVERSIDE SCREEN PREMIERES
A program of premiere screenings of new movies prior to their commercial release
on 6 consecutive Tuesdays, starts February 17, 2015 at Riverside Theatre,
Curated & presented by Andrew L. Urban, discussion to
follow with special guests. Briefing notes provided.