Me and You, the terrific title for Bernardo Bertolucci's comeback, commends it to filmgoers who might not know Bertolucci as one of the major artists of sexual revolution. In Me and You, teenage Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) withdraws from his schoolmates and divorced mom, hiding out in the basement of their luxury co-op where his hermit's idyll is interrupted by his worldly half-sister Olivia (Tea Falco). It's the most interior coming-of-age movie I can recall, using Lorenzo's hormonal revolt to explore the confusions that define adolescence and early self-awareness--the universal concerns of me and you.
This topic goes back to Bertolucci's beginnings; his first films about youths realizing themselves (Before the Revolution as well as Stealing Beauty and The Dreamers) reveal his fascination with often misunderstood sexual impulses. Novelist Will Aitken wrote a marvelous, perceptive and severely critical essay in a 1977 Jump Cut magazine detailing what he saw as Bertolucci's grappling with gayness and attraction/repulsion. But Aitken's keen eye and political motivation left out Bertolucci's great humanity and his unsurpassed ability to express sensuality--especially gay sensuality--even as his plots struggle with characters trapped in self-loathing.
It is Olivia's worldly experience--her nearly destructive knowledge of sex, drugs, and art--that allows her to help bring Lorenzo through his crisis of isolation and self-reproach (hiding away, gorging on junk food, repressing his desires). As one of Bertolucci's two-character chamber dramas (Besieged, Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man, Last Tango in Paris, Luna) as opposed to his lush, opulent epics (The Conformist, Little Budda, The Last Emperor), Me and You uses its characters' intimacy to show how working through sexual frustration and inexperience is basic to everyone's development. A remarkable image of Lorenzo imagining his parents looking for a lost item is a richly poetic expression of childhood alienation that links to primal psychological realization.
But Bertolucci is no mere Freudian; after a nine-year sabbatical due to illness, he remains one of the most visually elegant and emotionally generous filmmakers ever. No film this year will have a scene as sinuous and moving as Lorenzo and Olivia dancing to an Italian pop version of David Bowie, turning "Space Oddity" into one of cinema's all-time sensitive tearjerkers. Their spiritual intimacy recalls the deep empathy that always made Bertolucci's films feel gay--whether or not he made same-sex endorsements.
The "lesbian tango" in "The Conformist" (1970)
Many of the finest, most sensual--and gayest--moments in movie history come from Bertolucci's films: The great lesbian tango in The Conformist, the naked boys at the lake in Before the Revolution, the cuckold and wife's lover sharing identical secrets in Last Tango, the bathtub menage a trois in The Dreamers or the debonair "funny uncle" who introduces larger worlds of arts and sophistication in 1900.
Bertolucci's films are filled with many such moments--including the tragic, controversial sexual aggression in Last Tango in Paris (especially as Aiken and Ingmar Bergman decoded it). His own worldly erudition embraces a variety of sexual habits and puts them on screen in ways common to sophisticated filmmakers from Renoir and Visconti to Cocteau, Vigo and Pasolini (Bertolucci's mentors).
You and Me is a small masterpiece that speaks to evolving ideas about LGBTQ identity. Olivia's vitality recalls Bertolucci's most androgynous heroines and Lorenzo's feral, perfectly unformed features suggest an as-yet undetermined identity--innocently open to life's possibilities just like the oddest, richest movies. "So much can be responded to without forming definite attitudes," Pauline Kael once defined cinema. That's what gives You and Me--and all Bertolucci's films--their fascination, plenitude, and beauty.