Stealing Beauty has two things going for it: the lush, inviting beauty of the Italian countryside of Tuscany where the movie was filmed, and the lush, inviting beauty of Liv Tyler, the film's doe-eyed, succulent-lipped, barely postadolescent star. The rest is all numbing pseudointellectual trash that would have to undergo drastic improvement even to qualify as run-of-the-mill soft-core porn.
How bad is it? Legendary sexploitation kingpin Russ Meyer (Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) would disown the film both for its ineptitude and its pretentiousness. Stealing Beauty fails as art and it fails as turn-on. Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, shooting his first film in his native country in fifteen years, comes across as a dirty old man as well as a clumsy, pedestrian filmmaker. Within moments of Stealing Beauty's opening credits, Berto-lech-i frames a long, gratuitous crotch shot of a sleeping Tyler aboard a train. Even if you successfully stifle the urge to laugh at the director's tastelessness, you can't shrug off the uneasy sense of participating in Tyler's violation by Bertolucci's lascivious lens. The scene sets the tone for the entire film A 119 minutes of Bertolucci exploiting the naive (if her press clippings are to be believed) Tyler's youth and sensuality.
What an ironic title, Stealing Beauty. That's exactly what Bertolucci has done: hitched his wagon to Tyler's star and milked her gangly, girly sex appeal for all it's worth. Tyler plays Lucy, a nineteen-year-old American virgin who travels to Tuscany to spend the summer with a houseful of jaded, artsy-fartsy family friends. Lucy has two motives: to lose her virginity to the handsome young Italian boy with whom she shared her first kiss four years earlier, and to learn more about her recently deceased mother Sara, a free spirit who modeled, wrote poetry, and shied away from the responsibilities of raising her daughter.
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But Lucy's arrival affects her older, more world-weary hosts in unintended ways, especially once they find out she's a virgin. Lucy, oblivious to the effect her presence has on her companions, poses for a portrait commissioned by her father (who has not accompanied her to Italy), smokes pot (weren't obligatory pot-smoking scenes outlawed in the Seventies?), pines for her promiscuous Italian lover boy, fends off the advances of one of the houseguests, tries to discern the meaning of her mother's poems, and secretly writes bad poetry of her own. (Hard as it is to believe, Bertolucci and his co-screenwriter, American author Susan Minot, intend Lucy's drivel to be taken seriously. One of the young lass's better compositions reads, "The dye [sic] is cast/The dice are rolled/I feel like shit/You look like gold." Bertolucci can always plead unfamiliarity with English, but what's Minot's excuse?)
The dialogue isn't much better. At one point a character with a cartoonish aristocratic accent advises Lucy that she's "in need of a ravager." No doubt he has just the guy in mind. Another character sighs "Lucy, Lucy, Lucy" with such artifice that it reminded me of the Traci Lords porno flick Traci I Love You, wherein a voice-over narrator with the phoniest French accent in history moans "Traci, Traci, Traci" with similar intonation. Come to think of it, the movies share a similar theme -- the sensual awakening of a lovely young American girl eager to learn about sex. But Traci I Love You's dialogue was consistently more believable and natural than Stealing Beauty's, and the hard-core film's makers didn't try to pass off their handiwork as art.
Amazingly, while Tyler appears in nearly every scene, her Lucy actually says very little. It's hard to critique Tyler's acting because all she's really required to do is walk around and look like Liv Tyler. Throughout the film Bertolucci's camera shamelessly probes Tyler's lanky contours. The actress never appears completely nude, yet the director, with one cynical eye on potential box-office returns, works in a few shots of her breasts and nether region. You feel slimed and embarrassed for Tyler. The rest of the cast, saddled with awful lines and the thinnest of plots, toil thanklessly under their director's guidance.
Perhaps Bertolucci's past accomplishments persuaded Tyler to trust him. After all, the Italian auteur has made some excellent films, notably 1971's The Conformist, 1973's controversial Last Tango in Paris, and 1987's epic The Last Emperor. You can almost picture the budding actress telling herself, "He's a famous artist. He knows what he's doing." Which, of course, he does. In this two-hour snooze alleviated only by the visual allure of Tyler and Tuscany, Bertolucci steals a little beauty of his own.