For his return to an Italian-based story after a 30-year absence - and for his first feature in nearly a decade - Bernardo Bertolucci decided to shut himself up in a dingy basement. There's undoubtedly a deliberate irony as much as a practical limitation involved in the choice, since health issues have confined Mr. Bertolucci to a wheelchair. But, as is usual in the director's later, visually breathtaking but overly formalist work, Me and You is a sensual yet hollow exercise in filmmaking that is pretty unconvincing as a narrative work, using recognisable elements of provocative titillation as mere decoys, false leads that end up having little to no relevance to the end result. It also works as a sort of minimalist, more austere take on his previous film, The Dreamers. 

     Whereas that film, based on Gilbert Adair's novel, seemed to be an old man's nostalgic trip to the "golden days" of 1960s cultural guerilla, Me and You, from a novel by Niccolò Ammaniti, sees Mr. Bertolucci reconfigure that film's central concept of siblings finding their way around the world. In The Dreamers, Eva Green and Louis Garrel played a dilettante, inseparable sister and brother intoxicated by the sexual and cultural freedoms brought on by the events of May 1968. They are here redrawn as conflicting, estranged half-siblings whose unexpected re-connection may put their ways to right. The first problem is that Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) and Olivia (Tea Falco) are brought together by a MacGuffin that is never properly explained: Lorenzo's ingenious plan to pretend to go on a class skiing trip while in fact holing up in his apartment building's basement storage area, borne of his unwillingness to reengage with the world after an unexplained incident seemingly heightened his anti-social tendencies and required psychiatric help.

     That week of loneliness is stymied, though, when his older half-sister, an artist and model whose mother was "traded in" for Lorenzo's mother, shows up penniless and desperate in order to quit her heroine addiction cold turkey. Though unwilling to welcome in the blood relation, the forced cohabitation will eventually make the teenager understand his family better and lead him out of his self-absorbed petulance. But the fact remains that Mr. Bertolucci does little to nothing that would make the viewer side with either of them: Lorenzo and Olivia seem to be presented as shining examples of a privileged youth that has pointedly lost its way - or maybe refused to find its way. Both trade in nihilism, obliviousness and aimlessness, neither cares one jot about the world outside (no wonder it takes a week of isolation to make them come to their senses), until a forced timeout makes them realise the human connection they're missing and they so obviously need. They are two of the least interesting lead characters I have seen in any recent movie, and the pitch-perfect tone of Mr. Antinori as the obnoxious, manipulative little brat sits oddly at ease with the plot's coming-of-age arc, since so much is left unsaid and unexplained.

     Granted, that may have been the point all along. And while the director has certainly not lost his grip on the images, he doesn't seem to have any idea where he wants the story to go. There are some flashes of brilliance throughout, especially towards the end, when the growing complicity between a more understanding Lorenzo and the highly vulnerable Olivia gives Me and You a semblance of a heartbeat. That's when Mr. Bertolucci is at his best, finding a tone that could sustain the whole movie and gels the disparate elements into a whole. But by then it's far too late; the film is unable to recover from the virtuoso formalism that dulls its already little-convincing intrigue, and you are left asking what exactly was Mr. Bertolucci aiming at with this awkward little chamber piece, other than proving he still had it in himself to do a small-scale picture.

Cast: Jacopo Olmo Antinori, Tea Falco, Sonia Bergamasco, Veronica Lazar, Pippo Delbono, Tommaso Ragno
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Screenwriters: Niccolò Ammaniti, Umberto Contarello, Francesca Marciano, Mr. Bertolucci, from the novel by Mr. Ammaniti, Me and You
Cinematography: Fabio Cianchetti  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Franco Piersanti
Designer: Jean Rabasse
Costumes: Metka Kosak
Editor: Jacopo Quadri
Producer: Mario Gianani  (Fiction and Wildside in co-production with Medusa Film, Sky Cinema and Mediaset Premium)
Italy, 2012, 97 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, October 7th 2013


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