La Luna

(aka Luna, Bernardo Bertolucci, Italy/USA, 1979)


1. (Movie-on-TV review, 1993)

From Before the Revolution (1964) to The Sheltering Sky (1991), the films of Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci have always displayed a frankly psychoanalytic dimension. As if in the throes of an interminable self-analysis, Bertolucci plunges his characters into the murky depths of unresolved parent-child traumas, ambiguous encounters with shadow selves, wildly fluctuating sexual identities and obsessive-neurotic fixations.


Beginning with the unforgettable image of a baby on a bicycle confusing his mother’s face with the sight of the moon in the dawn sky, La Luna goes further into this psychoanalytic territory than any other by Bertolucci. The baby grows up to become Joe (Matthew Barry), a teenager stranded between an overbearing, opera star mother (Jill Clayburgh) and an enigmatic, absent father. Joe’s search for his true identity takes him through several forbidden territories, including drugs and incest.


A simplistic Freudian or Jungian reading of the film would be easy, but dead wrong. Bertolucci does not seek a cure for the twin aches of desire and loss. Rather, he celebrates the divine moment when all artificial, social borders between people are confused and dissolved. La Luna is an astonishingly liberated and liberating film – as remarkable for its eccentric plot digressions and overflowing stylistic excesses as for its psychological exploration.


In his book on the director, Robert Kolker criticises La Luna for being full of grand symbols “with nothing to symbolize”. But it is precisely in the space between the pure, intense existence of objects or emotions, and what some people say they must mean, that Bernardo Bertolucci finds the poetry and freedom of his art.



2. (First release review, 1980)

Bernardo Bertolucci’s La Luna has dismayed many of his followers (and even his champions) because of its seeming regression: gone are the grand (and often clumsy) gestures toward “significant” political content of a film like 1900 (1976). In  place of politics – for shame! – we have a melodrama, soap opera (and Verdi opera), Hollywood  nostalgia. Perhaps that combo, treated on its own, could have worked for the purists. But Bertolucci’s sin was to make a film as if he were a critic or an intellectual, proclaiming his film to be a Freudian “family romance” about incest and the Oedipal complex. And there’s nothing subtle in this process: La Luna, from one angle, is virtually a psychoanalytic comic book, from its beginning (baby gazes up at its mama) to its end (family reunion choreographed and cut to operatic strains). How pretentious!


Hardly anyone, in this context of reception, was willing to extend to Bertolucci even the usual, grudging compliments: the ravishing beauty of his images, the energy and inventiveness of his performers. What’s going on in La Luna? The film, it seems to me, sets up both Hollywood cinema and Sigmund Freud for a precise critical investigation – seeing them as two sides of the same, repressive, cultural coin. It quotes these two systems in order to take them apart.


First, Hollywood melodrama. Structured on a very tight, complete series of rhymes and repetitions (see Stephen Heath’s essays on repetition-mechanisms in cinema), folding in on itself in order to solve all problems and banish all transgressions, sealing off any troublesome excesses. One has only to note the brilliantly executed pattern of repetitions from one end of La Luna to the other to grasp the degree to which Bertolucci is consciously mimicking this system. And to generalise: in Hollywood cinema (the classical kind, at least), a well-closed narrative is also and almost always a well-closed, well-repressed society: the Happy Ending (marriage, family, monogamy, heterosexuality) is usually arrived at through the exclusion of threatening desires and drives labelled as abnormal. This is why La Luna ends with a family reunion: finally the (real, biological) Father has been found, and the incest-scenario can vanish.


Freud and his loyal disciples down the decades write narratives of a slightly different kind, but they are nonetheless plots with the same kind of order and definition: the Son will desire the Mother, the Father will castrate the Son – a life-script to be followed down to the last detail, where desire runs in exact directions and is diverted (sublimated) at precise moments. The Oedipus complex, finally, is a scene, a stage, a fiction. If our culture has adopted Freud and Freudianism, it is because everyone can be given their proper place, fitted into their role … just as in well-behaved Hollywood movies. Thus La Luna’s most brilliant metaphor: when Joe sees his Mum and Dad together on the stage, he applauds. The scene is set, the positions are secure.


But the film goes much further than simply noting these aspects of narrative and culture. Indeed, if it is based on (or inspired by) anything specific, the source is not Freud’s essays on Oedipus, but Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari’s massive 1972 book Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia – which had enormous currency and influence in the Autonomist period of Italian counter-culture during the ‘70s (as well as elsewhere, Australia included). These two militant French philosophers proposed an alternative conception of desire – desire in all its forms, sexual, creative, affectionate, whatever – that is not bound by lines, scenes, places, that goes in any and every direction, through and between people, but not welded to particular people, particular wants. “Desire is revolutionary because it always wants more connections”: that’s their motto – it’s a force both collective and anarchic, overflowing set roles and positions.


And so, again, La Luna’s stage metaphor: we are shown not only the officially sanctioned performance (set up and paid for), but also the larger, more spectacular drama that overflows the stage – the crew behind it, the events and activities all around it. The show is located everywhere at once, without a centre. And Joe’s crowning gesture of applause gets him, for his magnificent hubris, a slap in the face – upsetting everything in an instant.


At every level, La Luna is constructed according to this notion of desire as something indeterminate and overflowing. Space and décor: rooms with no walls, no centre, no division. Costume: enormous, loose-fitting clothes that fall across one body, two bodies … Scenes: Joe makes crazy-love with his girlfriend (Elisabetta Campeti as Arianna) in a cinema while a film is being projected – but where are they, exactly, front, back, above, side of the theatre? Suddenly, a ceiling opens and the moon is calling Joe mother-ward; everything about this particular, majestic scene is disolcated from fictional conventions, the demands for sense and “readability”. Tone: for no good reason, intrusions of mad comedy (Joe’s impromptu drum solo in a restaurant); dialogue lines that are repeated instantly by the actors; strange characters who wander in and out at random … The film recalls the Marx Brothers; in this half-light, surely we are meant to extend the title to La Lunacy.


And this is what the moon itself stands for: the sign of desire, madness, return to an unrepressed, polymorphously perverse childhood. So that, even as the nominal Happy Ending prevails, the moon is there above to shine its subversive message – a subversion to which the film is a glorious partner. La Luna, in its force, its energy, its desire, as well as its intelligence, seems to me far more revolutionary than x-hours of 1900. Which is to say: it’s among the most erotic films I’ve ever seen.


Note: I have developed my thoughts on La Luna at feature-length in my audio commentary for the Madman DVD release of the film (Australia, 2009).

MORE Bertolucci: Besieged, The Dreamers, Little Buddha, Last Tango in Paris, Stealing Beauty, Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man

© Adrian Martin February 1993 / November 1980

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search