Stealing Beauty (1996): The Dream of the Nineties is Liv Tyler

There’s no film that is, for me, more quintessentially nineties than the Bertolucci film, Stealing Beauty. Not in the way that everyone is walking around with condoms hanging off baggy overalls or they are all listening to the Spice Girls, but in the way that the mentality and viewpoint of the characters represent the time. It’s also a film whose premises would be rendered useless if the internet and social media were in play. It’s on the cusp, so it’s not that the film feels dated, just the simplest hint of nostalgia. Bertolucci, in 1996, was known to Americans by his films The Last Emperor and Little Buddha, which dealt with themes of religion and the nature of humanity. Stealing Beauty was a simpler narrative, almost feeling like his attempt at a teen film. Liv Tyler, model and “it” girl of the nineties as Lucy, an American girl visiting the friends of her deceased mother in their villa in Italy. I have to believe that Bertolucci found a muse in Tyler, as the camera lovingly films her face, her body, her every action. And the story is completely Lucy, with the others just playing a role in the story of her life. At nineteen, this was not an accident, her self-absorption is conveyed. We are to be the ones to relate to Lucy, but also to hold her in regard for her beauty and seeming innocence. At nineteen, she’s a virgin, which soon becomes the business of everyone in the house. Everyone in the house includes her aunt Diana, Diana’s brooding artist husband Ian, her precocious daughter Lily, and adventurous globe-trotting brother. Her excuse for visiting is that Diana’s husband, a sculptor, wants to do her portrait, as he did her mother’s when she was Lucy’s age. Ian is weird and creepy, but he and Lucy grow close when Lucy learns that he may actually be her biological father. Much of the film could be classified as “travel porn.” Lucy arrives at the villa surrounded by stunning countryside. The house, of course, is impeccably decorated and she finds her guest quarters charming, although it is open to one side and the toilet is out in the room (“rustic chic”). Also staying with the family is Jeremy, an ailing friend of the family who becomes enchanted with Lucy after a late night smoke. Because, Lucy charms everyone with her long stag legs and sweetness. (No way in real life a nineteen-year old looking like Liv Tyler would be self-conscious). He tells the rest of the family she’s a virgin, and they vow to help her make that change for the summer. It’s creepy and gross, but it’s just another example of how everything is about Lucy. And the irritating thing is that she doesn’t demand everything to be about her, it just ends up that way. Lucy is sensitive and romantic. So much so that she writes lines of a poem on paper and then burns each one before writing another. [These days, she would have posted it on a Tumblr.] Enter the mysterious Nicolai Donati, friend of Patrick and former first kiss of Lucy, when she was with the family at age fifteen. They flirt and he relishes the attention from her, even when she accidentally vomits on him at a party. Eventually they wander off in the countryside, and Lucy is ready to lose her virginity to him, although she senses something is not right, and Nicolai doesn’t stop when she wants to. She runs away completely freaked, to be comforted by Jeremy. Lucy and the family attend a party at a large estate, where the camera follows Lucy around as she observes musicians, people playing games, drinking, and even urinating on themselves. It’s a dreamlike moment, and we are made to feel like we are at this beautiful house with beautiful people. It’s not hateful or shallow, at this point it is literally Bertolucci showing off his cinematography, which is worth showing off. At the party, Lucy starts to befriend Oswaldo, the awkward friend of Nicolai. In a walk in the woods, Lucy learns that Osvaldohad sent the letters all along and was in love with her. They end up having sex, and it’s awkward and painful and sensual all at the same time, and is realistic for two people having sex for the first time. In the morning, he walked her back home, promising to visit her in America. Lucy walks up to the house, and we end with a beautiful aerial shot. Some things were resolved, some weren’t (how much longer does she stay? What happens to Jeremy?). This feels like a slide show or postcard from her visit, and only shows us the interesting parts. One could say that Lucy finds her happy ending only when she gets the boy, but in retrospect, there isn’t much to Lucy except for some broad brushstrokes: she wants to learn her true father and find true love. And you know what? The characters, and the viewers thinks she deserves it. Because she’s beautiful. I’m not begrudging the film for that, but we are attracted to beautiful people, and Lucy simply needs to be not evil to be liked, whereas a more traditionally average looking person has to earn our trust. This is also that artifact of the nineties in which cell phones and internet do not yet exist, creating a world that seems bizarre and foreign. Lucy is not constantly in touch with family and people from home so has the time and patience to take in her surroundings. She doesn’t have Nicolai’s cell phone, she has to wait for the chance encounters.  She relies on other to show her the town, instead of Yelping it. It seems more and more difficult these days to depict real relationships and human experience because so much of it happens through technology. I don’t begrudge that; this film is pure fantasy fulfillment. We identify with Lucy because we want to be Lucy. We want to frolick around a beautiful countryside, our long shapely legs in skirts and tank tops, always looking beautiful and graceful, enchanting every room and every person we come in contact with. We want to earn the love and respect of the respectful, brilliant houseguest with one pout. The reason this also feels indicative of the nineties is because it does unabashedly feature someone beautiful (physically privileged, as you will) to identify with. Most teen films of the nineties star attractive mainstream kids, and if the characters aren’t mainstream or attractive, they end up becoming just that by the end of the film, therefore, “winning.”If this film were to be released today, it would probably be well-received, but there would also be more talk about how Lucy is unrelatable and doesn’t represent many young women, how Lucy doesn’t have any agency, and barely passes the Bechdel test. I think all those criticisms are important, but the escapism of this film outweighs the critical points. Besides, for a while, what is wrong with pretending that I am young, long-legged, slender, silky-haired, stylish Liv Tyler dancing around my room in a floral baby doll dresswith a Walkman screaming the lyrics to Hole’s “Rock Star”?