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Mood Over Matter

Stealing Beauty offers more scenery than plot

If you can't get away to the rolling hills of Tuscany this summer, you can enjoy the next best thing by spending a couple of hours with Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty. Cinematographer Darius Khondji (Seven, Before the Rain) makes the sun-dappled countryside so appealing that you may be content simply to bask in the bewitching warmth of the movie's imagery. Not only that: you likely will find yourself wishing you could order a nice bottle of Chianti, along with some bread and cheese, at the concession counter.

But if you're the sort of moviegoer who demands a plot as well as a guided tour, well, you may instead be stealing glances at your watch. Like the artists, dilettantes and hazily motivated hangers-on who gather in the restored farmhouse that serves as the film's central location, Stealing Beauty is in no great hurry to do anything. There is a great deal more mood than matter here, as Bertolucci permits everything and everyone to drift along with an air of blissful indolence.

The much publicized Liv Tyler, daughter of Aerosmith rock musician Steve Tyler, has her first starring role as Lucy, a 19-year-old American beauty who arrives in Tuscany with several items on her agenda. She's there to visit longtime family friends -- sculptor Ian Grayson (Donal McCann), his wife Diana (Sinead Cusack) and their extended family -- and to serve as Ian's model for his latest creation. (He's stealing, or at least borrowing, her beauty. Get it?) But Lucy is much more concerned with two other matters. First, she wants to find the man described in her late mother's journal, an unnamed lover who likely is Lucy's real father. Just as important, Lucy also wants to find someone with whom she can lose her virginity.

When she isn't striking poses, questioning suspects or considering prospects, Lucy dabbles in poetry. Her verse isn't very good, and she knows it. (She burns almost everything she writes, with reason.) But writing, Stealing Beauty implies, is Lucy's way of maintaining some kind of spiritual connection to her dead mother, who was a respected poet as well as a successful model. Or, as one character describes her, "She was the best-dressed poet, writing transporting little verses in between fashion shoots."

Characters frequently say things like that in Bertolucci's film, and intend to be taken seriously. It comes as no surprise that the screenwriter, Susan Minot, is a novelist who never wrote a script before this one. Perhaps she would have done better to work with a director for whom English is a first language.

On the other hand, the flowery dialogue isn't all that jarring, since most of the characters are self-dramatizing artsy types. In addition to Ian, who appears to want something more than inspiration from Lucy, there is Alex (Jeremy Irons), a sickly playwright with a healthy appreciation for Lucy's charms; Miranda (Rachel Weisz), a jewelry designer whose loutish boyfriend (D.W. Moffett) has designs on Lucy; and Guillaume, an elderly but fiery art dealer played by the great Jean Marais. Since Marais remains best known (in the U.S., at least) for the films he made with Jean Cocteau (Orpheus, Beauty and the Beast), it is appropriate that he gets to paraphrase Cocteau when Lucy seeks advice. "There is no such thing as love," Marais' character insists. "There is only proof of love." This turns out to be one of the most levelheaded statements in the movie.

Given all the interviews, feature stories and glossy magazine covers that are attending Tyler's first major movie performance, whether she can act seems crucial to any serious discussion of Stealing Beauty. Surprisingly, however, the question is almost irrelevant. As Bertolucci directs her, Tyler's Lucy serves primarily as a blank screen onto which other characters project their desires. To put it another way: Lucy is much closer to being a literary conceit than a fully realized character.

Which is not to say that Tyler does anything glaringly wrong. Indeed, there are moments when she seems positively inspired. When a confidant suggests that Lucy is "in need of a ravisher," Tyler responds: "I'm waiting." The ambiguity of her line reading is provocative. Is she announcing her intention to retain her innocence? (At least twice during Stealing Beauty, older characters comment on the younger generation's fear of sex in the age of AIDS.) Is she indicating impatience? Or is she simply telling Alex, her partner in this dialogue, to hurry up and make his move?

Unfortunately, Alex is by this point so debilitated by cancer that he can only be a platonic friend to Lucy. Alex, too, is a literary conceit, the dying bon vivant who dispenses witticisms along with life lessons. (The character is weirdly reminiscent of one played by Donald Sutherland nearly 30 years ago in Joanna, an underrated British comedy that haunts the lesser pay-cable networks.) But Irons is experienced enough, and graceful enough, to make his character's bemused melancholy much more compelling than Lucy's searches for a father and a lover. Near the end, Alex bids Lucy adieu with a simple yet heartfelt expression of gratitude: "I so enjoyed watching you." The beauty of Stealing Beauty is such that you know exactly what he's talking about.

Stealing Beauty. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. With Liv Tyler and Jeremy Irons. Rated R. 119 minutes.

 
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