Twenty-odd years ago, there was still an art house cinema in Wardour Street, then a hive of post-production studios and film production offices. Intrigued by the poster (right) and with not much else to do having had a late breakfast at Maison Bertaux, bought my month’s coffee at Angelucci’s and chatted to the staff in Ally Capellino whilst wondering if I could afford another one of her rough tweed jackets, I paid £2.50 or so and went in, possibly the only punter at the afternoon show.
What I saw was astonishing. As if the plot wasn’t riveting enough – half-hearted misfit fascist half-heartedly joins secret police, half-heartedly marries a nymphomaniac then half-heartedly pursues his mission target’s icy wife before assassination and a shattering denouement in the ruins of post-Mussolini Rome. The film was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Having had a mother working in a cinema and being a regular visitor to The Scala, The Lumiere and The Renoir, I’d seen a lot of films and on proper big screens too. I’d seen Heaven’s Gate, Comrades and Days of Heaven and god knows how many other aesthetically ravishing movies. But I didn’t think photography was art – not like the stuff Cezanne, Picasso and Rothko did – it was a technique, a craft, an adjunct to the story that was told in the acting or the writing. The Conformist rather exploded that prejudice.
Bernardo Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro sustain art, real art, frame after frame through two hours – at the fourth time of watching, I still feel the urge to freeze the film just to look at the image before me. An obvious allegory for the repressive fascist society they portray, Bertolucci crowds scene after scene with straight lines, dividing the images, corralling human beings into artificial, arbitrary divisions. Light is separated by blinds, filtered through the lead criss-crossing high windows and slashed by tall thin trees. And what light! There is no warmth in the flat late afternoon watery winter rays, no illumination from chandeliers bouncing off the floors of faux classical marble halls and no light at all for the blind fascist propaganda broadcaster.
In a towering performance, Jean-Louis Trintignant’s pinched, unsmiling features give away nothing and, in so doing, give away everything. He is magnificently amoral in his confessional, done to please his wife to be (a turn from Stafania Sandrelli in which her physical beauty is slowly undermined and finally destroyed by her poverty of imagination) and he is so weak, so weak. It is cinema’s greatest portrayal of moral cowardice – a state of mind that must be as big a challenge as can face an actor. What stops us hating Trintignant’s character completely is the glimpse offered of the man he could be, as he cackhandedly attempts to seduce Dominique Sanda, the bored, bisexual wife of his anti-fascist target. Mme Sanda is reminiscent in looks, dress and sexual power of the young Lee Miller and about as hard to take one’s eyes off.
With art deco fashions and objects everywhere and the Hotel (now Musee) d’Orsay looking as austere and grand as ever it has, Paris and Rome have never been served as well by cameras. With clear memories of the locations in my mind’s eye, their contemporary connection with the slow burn towards war is sharper than ever and more than a little chilling as Europe again fractures, crying out for moral courage in its leaders.
The Conformist, made in 1970 but looking like it could have been made yesterday, is a film like no other – teak hard and uncompromising in its plot, unimproveable in its performances and stunning, just stunning to behold.