Saturday, December 5, 2009

Stealing Beauty (1996) [R] ***

A film review by James Berardinelli, for

What do you call a character study with shallow, sketchily-drawn characters, but a gorgeous setting? A scenery study, perhaps. Or an atmosphere study. Either would be appropriate for Stealing Beauty, a stylish, sensual motion picture that's hollow where it should have a heart. This film is aesthetically pleasing but not emotionally satisfying. It's occasionally erotic but rarely dynamic. While these aren't unforgivable traits, I somehow expected more from a Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris) film.

The central theme of the movie is the attempt of the lead character, Lucy Harmon (Liv Tyler), to lose her virginity. At age 19, she's never slept with a man -- a revelation that causes a great stir among the residents of the Tuscany villa where she is spending the summer. Everyone is sympathetic to her situation, and they begin to consider who might best be able to accommodate her.

There is no shortage of candidates. Stealing Beauty presents them one-by-one, then dismisses them in the same manner. There's Richard (D.W. Moffett) the American boyfriend of Miranda (Rachel Weisz) the jewelry-maker daughter of Lucy's hostess, Diana (Sinead Cusack). There's Diana's son, Christopher (Joseph Fiennes), or one of his friends, including Nicolo (Roberto Zibetti), with whom Lucy shared her first kiss four long years ago on her last visit to Italy. Then there's Nicolo's shy, sensitive friend Osvaldo Donati (Ignazio Oliva), who turns away from the sight of an exposed female breast. And, it doesn't take a genius to weed through the choices to determine who will get the opportunity to deflower Lucy.

As the story, such as it is, develops, a mystery subplot is introduced: who is Lucy's real father? There are three apparent possibilities: Alex Barnes (Jeremy Irons), a dying writer; Ian Grayson (Donal McCann), the sculptor husband of Lucy's hostess; and Carlo Lisca (Carlo Cecchi), a mysterious ex-military man. We know the truth long before Lucy does, but Stealing Beauty is never surprise-oriented. 

Despite all the screen time accorded to Tyler, her character shows little development. Events seem to swirl around her, only briefly touching her shallow emotional center. Fundamentally, she's no different at the end than at the beginning (except that her hymen is no longer intact). Several of the supporting characters show greater depth. Most notable of these is Jeremy Irons' terminally ill author, who becomes Lucy's confidante and vicariously lives out his last days through her.

There's very little comic relief in this too-serious film, which makes for a rather grim movie-going experience. Stealing Beauty is long, but doesn't really go anywhere. It is most remarkable for its excellent sense of time and place. The Italian countryside becomes as vital a supporting character as Alex, and when Lucy dives into a swimming pool, you can almost feel the cool, clear water. Stealing Beauty functions as a two-hour, surrogate holiday -- diverting and visually captivating, but far from a cinematic landmark. [Berardinelli's rating: ** 1/2 out of 4]

Labels: drama, romance

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