Bernardo Bertolucci's third feature, Partner, released just months after the legendary events of May 68, finds the Italian director at his most abstract and least narrative point of his career. The Pasolini influence that informed La Commare Secca and (to a lesser extent) Before the Revolution has here been replaced by post-Masculine, Feminine Godard.
Owing more than a slight debt to 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, Partner touches on all the hot-button topics of the day, particularly in Euro art-cinema: politics (personal, social, sexual, ideological), Vietnam, psychology, philosophy, theater, cinema, and the nature of the self. A very loose adaptation of Dostoyevsky's The Double, Partner's non-narrative structure is primarily a showcase for its star Pierre Clémenti, who plays dual roles as a theater prof and his revolutionary doppelganger/antipode, both named Giacobbe. We're never quite sure which one is the genuine item, and the film plays out like a more cerebral, less humorous Fight Club.
Watching Partner makes one appreciate Godard that much more, for though it's easy to spot the references (Le Mepris' Cinemascope and lush score, Weekend's tracking shots, 2 or 3 Things' psychology/ideology), Bertolucci lacks both the puckishness and gravitas of his French counterpart. The ideas presented throughout Partner never reach convergence, and what we're left with are a series of vignettes -- some which work, while others don't. It's kind of like a variety show for the smart set.
However, there's still much to admire about the film. The Cinemascope is gorgeous, and the Hermann-esque score by Ennio Morricone amusingly alludes to tension and a sense of foreboding that never arives. There's a quasi-comical recreation of the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin, and a wonderful car scene with Clémenti and Stefania Sandrelli, in which a third character is providing the engine sounds for the stationary vehicle. And then of course there's the single best line in the film, which comes during a polemic about cinema -- "Distributors have no soul." I'm on the fence about Clémenti's performance, which though certainly fearless and reminiscent of his work with Garrel, Pasolini or Cavani, veers dangerously close at times to amateur theatrics. It's fascinating to watch, but feels as if Bertolucci didn't provide enough guidance.
Bertolucci never again ventured into such experimental waters, which is a good thing, as he happens to excel at narrative, yet never at the cost of art, ideas, ideals, politics, etc. Partner makes for an interesting companion to The Dreamers, if just to see the director's two extremely different takes on the events of 1968. But on it's own, Partner doesn't come close to the brilliance of The Conformist, 1900, or even Last Tango in Paris.
However, that said, there is a sequence in the film that is not only one of Bertolucci's greatest, but quite possibly one of the best from the cinema of the 1960s as a whole, and I've shared it below. It's a spoof of crass commercialism, specifically in the marketing of laundry detergent. Clémenti and the gorgeous Tina Aumont are a loving couple driven (at first) to sexual ecstasy by their suds, all set to a bit of chamber-pop perfection by Morricone (Splash!), with vocals by Peter Boom. The change of mood and tone within three minutes is both fascinating and more than a little bit disturbing. Borderline NSFW, perhaps. Check it out. (The silence in the first ten seconds is as it is in the film.)
Enjoy! (Crossposted to my Tumblr page.)