Bernardo Bertolucci‘s latest, Me and You, is the director’s first Italian language film for 30 years, seeking to show that the Italian has never lost touch with his ability to translate adolescent concerns on screen after an enforced absence from the industry, and while the film is tonally quite impressive, it lacks engagement and feels like little more than an over-stretched short story concept, imbued with the kind of self-importance that dilutes any kind of enduring message.
The spartan, surprisingly high-concept story focuses on Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori), a troubled 14-year-old who lives on the outskirts of his school’s social cliques and prefers his own company, who spends a week living hidden in the basement of his home, having told his concerned mother (Sonia Bergamasco) that he is going on a school skiing trip. His holiday away from the horrors of normal life is spoiled somewhat when his half-sister Olivia (Tea Falco) turns up out of the blue, suffering withdrawal symptoms from her drug problem, and embittered by her family’s rejection of her.
The two immediately strike up a difficult dynamic as Olivia struggles with her drug demons, and Lorenzo with his social awkwardness and some darker compulsions that are only briefly hinted at in a film which is surprisingly chaste considering its potential and Bertolucci’s track record.
It’s a well-shot film, though one that never really shows off Bertolucci’s abilities (he’s only really stretching his legs after an almost decade long absence after The Dreamers). It features sparse stylistic decisions and a more matter of fact presentation that rather unfortunately relies on the actors’ performances to carry what weight the story requires. And that is where the problems start.
The first problem comes with Jacopo Olmo Antinori, who deals well enough with the more explosive flashes of anger from his character, and has at least an interesting look, but whose take on the character is stunted and largely unengaging. This makes the opening section in which we are introduced to him something of an ordeal (apart from an early conversation about post-apocalyptic incest with his mother over dinner), which is only broken up when Olivia invades his space, as her attempts to fight a drug addiction cold turkey turn his attempts to find a place of peaceful solitude upside down.
In a film that depends so fundamentally on the characters, and their chemistry, the film is derailed somewhat by the actors’ apparent self-consciousness, and the fact that it is almost impossible to empathize with either of them: they are grotesques: a teenager with social problems and a macabre fascination with issues like maternal incest, and a self-important, self-destructive junkie. We spend most of the film led by Lorenzo, and his particular brand of removal, and an inability to engage is mirrored in the progression of the film, to the extent that it feels like we’re incidentally watching caricatures in a fish bowl.
It doesn’t help that the premise robs both characters of any meaningful context, and though there is obviously an over-riding intention to show the characters’ experiential development as a direct result of their time spent together, it’s not altogether obvious what either have actually learned. The situation is clearly supposed to unlock something in each of the characters, but the suggestion of growth is so measly and the imagined likelihood that both will merely revert to type so high that it all begins to feel like a bit of a pointless endeavor.
There is some distraction involved thanks to the excellent, but rather insistent soundtrack, featuring classics from The Cure, David Bowie and Arcade Fire, and if you can ignore the hammer-like blatancy of the collective message of those songs, they offer engaging enough moments.
The long and short of it is that neither Lorenzo nor his sister are particularly interesting enough, despite their hipster problems, and spending over 100 minutes in their company lacks both the intrigue and the importance that the director clearly believed it would.
If this were Bertolucci’s attempt to wade into the shallows of filmmaking to get his creative juices flowing, then there is certainly some promise for a return to form, but it was just too meager a project in the context of the director’s earlier heavy-weight works.
The Upside: A fantastic soundtrack at least diverts when the pace and interest levels wane badly.
The Downside: It’s a two man piece in which neither of the characters are particularly interesting or engaging.