On its release, squeezed in between the shallow ‘Little Buddha’ and the painfully indulgent ‘Stealing Beauty’, Bertolucci’s ‘Besieged’ was pushed to one side with relative ease, an appropriate summation of how the cinema of Bertolucci has become somehow insignificant. His most recent film, ‘The Dreamers’, was an idealistic and heavy handed political lecture in youthful sentimentality that tried in vain to capture the chaotic 68 events of Parisian student revolution by approaching the material through a lens of post modern irony, referencing his one time friend, Jean Luc Godard. Apart from the homage to Godard’s ‘Band of Outsiders’, which was a real treat for fans of the nouvelle vague, The Dreamers fell short of expectations.
Bertolucci’s later work in no way lives up to the brilliance of what he accomplished in the 1970s, producing a catalogue of politically complex and intellectually demanding films like The Conformist, 1900, Before The Revolution and Last Tango in Paris. The Conformist is arguably one of the great works of the modernist era and its influence on the visual aesthetics of the Hollywood new wave was most readily visible in the mahogany veil of darkness perfected by Gordon Willis in Coppola’s Godfather films. The theoretically led director of cinematography, Vittorio Storora, and regular Bertolucci collaborator would later go on to work with Coppola on lighting the guerrilla epic ‘Apocalypse Now’, a film that would in turn give Bertolucci the courage to direct his own grand spectacle and shoot one of the last great historical epics, The Last Emperor. This was the film that gave Bertolucci international critical and commercial success that he has never been able to attain again, and perhaps never will as like most film makers, he has done his best work, and the films that he makes now and again seem more like an expression of curiosity rather than passionate commitment.
Much of Bertolucci’s 90s work is hit and miss, and the ‘Besieged’ is probably the best film he made in a decade that wasn’t too friendly to him, nor to his contemporary Hollywood equivalent, Francis Coppola. Set in Venice, Italy, the story of ‘Besieged’ revolves around a British pianist/musician, Jason Kinsky (David Thewlis) who falls in love with an African immigrant, Shandurai (Thandie Newton). Having escaped from persecution in her land of birth, Shandurai lives in the basement of Kinsky’s decadent apartment block and who is responsible for the well being of the building whilst at the same time studying to become a doctor.
When Kinsky makes advances towards Shandurai, he is made aware of the fact that she is married and has dreams of being united with her husband who is languishing in some African prison cell as a political prisoner and dissident. Kinsky tries to win over Shandurai but she spurns him repeatedly until he resorts to seducing her with his sophisticated appreciation and love of music. Shandurai gradually discovers that Kinsky has been working tirelessly, using what financial assets he has at his disposal to secure the release and safe passage of her husband to Italy. His piano becomes his weapon that he uses to colonise the affections of Shandurai and does so with great impunity and moral exactness that he eventually reduces her to an object, a possession over which he finally has sexual control.
Besieged is closest in its conception to Last Tango in Paris especially in how Bertolucci uses the interiors of the apartment block to create an unsettling atmosphere of claustrophobia and sexual tension. Another idea that Besieged seems to share with Last Tango in Paris is how people can be brought physically closer together when circumstances change, and the creation of need and perhaps even love is borne out of an emotional dependency. Bertolucci chooses not to condemn the actions of Kinsky who is shown to be a shrewd manipulator of emotional affections; he lays himself bare, stripping away the possessions and trappings of the bourgeoisie middle class intellectual, and by doing so, he gives the ‘impression’ of somebody who is prepared to sacrifice all his worldly material attachments so he can please this one woman that has evolved into an obsession.
Elated at the news of her husband’s release and imminent arrival in Italy, Shandurai finally surrenders to Kinsky’s advances, and awakes the next morning in bed with Kinsky whilst her husband is outside knocking to be let into the apartment. Though her husband has arrived, part of Shandurai suddenly feels deeply ambivalent towards what she has always wanted. ‘Besieged’ by a complex set of emotions, we can also interpret these final moments in a cynical and repugnant way. Perhaps the sadness Shandurai experiences lying in bed with Kinsky is not entirely guilt, maybe she finally realises the extremes to which Kinsky has gone just so that he can have her – it suddenly dawns on her how she has been bought in exchange for her husband. The sense of worthlessness and degradation that she feels as she begins to cry is a powerful and moving gesture, underlining her vulnerability as a woman in a society occupied by men like Kinsky.
This is a minor work in many respects but the carefully stated emphasis placed upon relationships is something that repeats itself throughout much of Bertolucci's work, and in many ways, though his films are about male anxieties, they are equally revealing in how they offer a sympathetic insight into the unedifying social position women are forced to take in contemporary society.