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Liv and Let Liv in Italy

Age to the Left of Beauty: Jeremy Irons plays a dying dreamer on vacation in Italy lusting after a ripe teenaged girl (Liv Tyler) in Bernardo Betolucci's "Stealing Beauty."

Aging rakes take a pouter in Bertolucci's 'Stealing Beauty'

By Richard von Busack

'THOU HAS nor youth nor age/But as it were an after dinner sleep/Dreaming of both." As T.S. Eliot's epigraph to "Gerontion" indicates, the poet was fond of playing hide-the-credit on quotations, so I don't know where he got this verse or whether he indeed wrote it himself. Wherever it originated, the lines completely describe the sensibility of the snoozy new Bernardo Bertolucci film, Stealing Beauty--a vague daydream on screen.

I know it's in the eye of the beholder, but Liv Tyler, the much-publicized star, seems to these eyes a very ordinary beauty. True, she has a better-than-usual mouth, which is everything these days. (Lips are destiny; look how far Aerosmith coasted on lead singer Steve Tyler's Jagger-like pout; Liv has inherited her father's kisser, part Don Knotts and part red snapper.)

Stealing Beauty represents Bertolucci's return to moviemaking in Italy after an international career with The Last Emperor and Little Buddha. Something of a working vacation, Stealing Beauty focuses on a group of vacationers lolling away some summer days at a villa in the Tuscan hills, drinking wine and trooping down to the nearest town for some pizza. The friends are stirred by the arrival of Lucy Harmon (Tyler), an American virgin who is seemingly doubly impenetrable, by fiat of nationality as well as maidenhead. It is her beauty that our director proposes to steal, coasting his camera on her face as she tries to enjoy herself while being perturbed by men.

Harmon is the daughter of an old family friend, and Ian Grayson (Donal McCann as Bertolucci's surrogate), the wealthy Irish sculptor who owns the villa, is doing a portrait of her. As soon as the girl arrives, the lazy summer talk turns to when and whether she will find a lover.

She, however, has more practical stuff in mind. Her dead mother, whom she resembles, had spent a summer at this very same villa two decades before. Harmon doubts her own legal paternity. She is, she says, a few inches taller than her father, and so she's on a mission easily definable as "Which one of you Italians is my father?" Even this mystery is easily resolved; they're aren't enough candidates.

THERE IS no diversion from these two issues of fatherhood and womanhood, even in places where it might be found. Bertolucci's camera plays around the swimming pool, trying to animate nearly a dozen characters--too many for the sun-dazed film to keep track of. There is some pleasure to be taken in the personality of the old sulptor (an Irishman of few words--go figure) or the common sense of his wife (Sinead Cusack, the brightest and lewdest-looking woman in the film).

Stealing Beauty could have used more of Cusack's character and less of another of the guests, a Yank entertainment lawyer named Reed (D.W. Moffett), whose coarseness, lechery and overuse of the cellular phone are presumably Bertolucci's sour revenge against the whole species.

Another of the houseguests is about to perish. Alex Parrish (Jeremy Irons), dying slowly of some wasting disease, presumably AIDS, makes calf eyes at Harmon and uses his last breaths to urge her into finding a boyfriend on the grounds that youth doesn't last. He even asks her bluntly, "I mean sex; do you disapprove of sex?"

I suppose in Bertolucci's view you're either for or against it, as if it were a ballot proposition. How did the director of Last Tango in Paris ever become so fuzzy-minded? Bertolucci's moral simplicity--as in The Conformist, where what the fascists all needed was a good lay--is back in action, but Stealing Beauty is erotica that stints portions, and the film is too wispy to be anything but erotica.

There's no tension in the film except for the occasional sexual tension. If Harmon looks suitably unawakened throughout, neither her dialogue or her bad schoolgirl poetry ("I feel like shit/you look like gold") convey a personality that would let her body lead her brain into temptation. Sex-positivity, like beauty, isn't enough to sustain a film. After two hours of in the company of this vapid young girl, to raid another poem, as far as I was concerned, worms could try her much preserv'd virginity.

Stealing Beauty (R; 119 min.), directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, written by Susan Minot, based on a story by Bertolucci, photographed by Darius Khondji and starring Liv Tyler, Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack.

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From the June 27-July 3, 1996 issue of Metro

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