Interview: Bernardo Bertolucci, director of Me and You

File photo of Bernardo Bertolucci, taken in 2010. Picture: Getty
File photo of Bernardo Bertolucci, taken in 2010. Picture: Getty
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CONTROVERSIAL film veteran Bernardo Bertolucci has released his first film for a decade, directed using a wheelchair

It’s been ten years since Bernardo Bertolucci’s last film. The Dreamers was a nostalgic, visceral and – this being Bertolucci – sexy love letter to the Paris student protests of 1968. Many considered it his best film for years. And then what happened? The director of Last Tango in Paris, The Last Emperor, and The Conformist disappeared. He suffered a back injury from a herniated disc and then the trauma of failed surgery. He ended up in a wheelchair and resigned himself to the fact that he would never make another film.

“Listen,” he says, more an order than an invitation. “After I shot The Dreamers I spent years in pain. I thought, ‘OK, I might be able to go on but I can’t go on making movies.’ I felt that was all finished for me.” Bertolucci is 73 now, and he directed his first film – The Grim Reaper – when he was just 21, a fiercely determined young man who had grown up on a farm in Parma dreaming of poetry and films. Making films is all he has ever known. So how did he feel about stopping? “Depressed,” he says. “I thought my career was over.”

Thankfully, it wasn’t. A friend of his, the Italian author Niccolo Ammaniti, gave him one of his novellas, Me And You, and Bertolucci decided he would make another movie after all. “I thought this is something I can do,” he says. “I can do this if I accept my fate.”

The story was small-scale and simple. A lonesome teenage boy lies to his mother about a school ski trip and instead spends the week alone in the family basement, listening to music and eating hoarded-away junk food. Then his drug-addicted half sister pitches up, looking for a quiet, dark place to get clean.

“I thought it was a moving story,” Bertolucci says. “Just two characters, more or less in one location. I could manage it.”

The result is Bertolucci’s first Italian language film in 30 years. “I made many English language films in between. English dialogue is the best in the world. So dry and direct. The Italian language is beautiful, but it is too literary.” Me And You is a surprisingly sweet film – OK, with Bertoluccian Oedipal and incestuous overtones – and a killer soundtrack. “I have seen people’s faces when they come out of this movie and they are smiling,” he says with an amused laugh. “This is a new response to my movies. There isn’t a happy ending, but there is a liberation.”

Once again, Bertolucci decided to work with young actors who had never been in front of a camera before. He has always been drawn to youth.

“It is true. Maria Schneider [in Last Tango in Paris] had only done one movie when I cast her. Liv Tyler [in Stealing Beauty] celebrated her 18th birthday during filming. I like being able to see an innocence in people. I see a lot of beauty in youth. Young people are in progress. Their faces and bodies and minds are constantly changing. It’s exciting to capture that on film.”

Today Bertolucci, who appears as macho, lively, and charming as ever, is in Rome, apparently being tortured by his cat. He is packing for London, where he has a home in Notting Hill with his English wife and screenwriter, Clare Peploe. “Commuting in a wheelchair is not easy,” he sighs. “I live in a very old part of Rome. These cobbles everywhere … terrible! In London it is the same. Every pavement is uneven. It is not only difficult for people like me. Mothers with buggies, old people with walking sticks, women in high heels … I have a louder voice than others in my situation and so I talk about this. Maybe it will help.” Now he gets exasperated, as though I have forced him to talk about this. “Anyway, maybe we can talk about something else now,” he says curtly.

So I ask him about feminism. Bertolucci’s films are renowned for their fascination with sexual transgression, whether incest or obsessive love. His women often fit the mould of the youthful, troubled, oversexualised femme fatale. His camera likes to linger on nubile women. Last Tango in Paris was particularly infamous for its anal rape scene between Marlon Brando, then in his late forties, and Schneider, who was just 19 and often wasn’t told what was going to happen until the morning of the shoot. In fact both actors claimed they were manipulated by Bertolucci during filming. And Schneider, who called the director “a gangster and a pimp”, spent the remainder of her life campaigning for better representation of women on screen.

“I think Tea Falco [who plays the drug addled half sister in Me and You] is fascinating,” he says. “I thought Maria in Last Tango was fascinating too. But I don’t see much difference between men and women. I just see people who make me curious.”

So what would he say to people who call Last Tango in Paris anti-feminist, or indeed anti-women? “Listen,” he orders. “When the movie opened it was wildly controversial in my country. I was condemned and sentenced to four months in prison. I lost my civil rights. I could not vote. And the fact is there were friends of mine who were feminists and they were wonderful. One of them was Germaine Greer. She thanked me personally for the film. So although some people call me anti-feminist I know I wasn’t because Germaine Greer supported me.”

The past few years have seen the arrival of the requisite lifetime achievement awards, tributes, and major retrospectives in London and New York. Bertolucci seems as in love with his medium as ever. He watches as many new films as he can and is a huge fan of American television series. (“Breaking Bad, Homeland, and Mad Men is the bible as far as I’m concerned.”) He has embraced new technologies, considered making Me And You in 3D, and recently saw his Oscar-winning epic The Last Emperor in 3D.

“I thought it was magical. You feel like you are walking in the Forbidden City.”

So much has changed in Bertolucci’s time, from the way films are made to the fact of directing from a wheelchair. Yet in other ways he feels he hasn’t changed at all. “When I was on the set of Me And You I remember thinking this is a miracle,” he says. “I am still doing this. Six months ago I was thinking it is all over, and here I am. But on the other hand, I’m just doing what I’ve always done. It comes naturally to me. The only difference now is the height of my eye because I direct sitting down. I am not like one of you standing-up people.” Bertolucci chuckles, pleased as ever to be doing his own thing. “Some things do not change,” he adds. “Making movies still keeps me alive.”

•  Me And You is in cinemas from tomorrow