Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Luna (1979)


          Jill Clayburgh made intriguing choices during her brief run as a box-office attraction, bouncing between commercial fare like Silver Streak (1976) and arty projects like Luna, a provocative drama from Italian auteur Bernardo Bertolucci. It took nerve on Clayburgh’s part to play Caterina, an American opera star who embarks on an incestuous relationship with her heroin-addicted teenaged son, Joe (Matthew Berry), while the duo recovers from the sudden death of Caterina’s husband, Douglas (Fred Gwynne). Clayburgh commits to the role without any reservation, putting all of her considerable dramatic resources into every scene, whether she’s mimicking the grandiose performance style of an opera diva or getting handsy with her onscreen son.
          If only the material was as vibrant as Clayburgh’s performance.
          Co-written by Bertolucci, the story is meandering and pretentious, unfurling across a nearly interminable 140 minutes. Bertolucci’s camera probes every trivial nuance of character interaction, so many scenes feature pointless shots swishing around actors as they contemplate whether to step forward or simply stand in place with angsty expressions on their faces. The movie also includes long visual sequences that add nothing to the story, like montages of characters wandering aimlessly through picturesque Italian neighborhoods. Some of these random visuals have flesh-and-blood intensity simply because the cinematography by frequent Bertolucci collaborator Vittorio Storaro is so magnificent; he creates a palpable sense of heat and texture in almost every frame, lending gravitas to scenes whose actual content is of no real interest.
          The large supporting cast of European actors (including, very briefly, a young Roberto Benigni) gets overshadowed because the picture is obsessively focused on mother and son. Although newcomer Berry is naturalistic as Clayburgh’s petulant offspring/paramour, he is incapable of making his character’s absurd mood swings believable, so his weak performance is yet another one of the pictures fatal flaws.
          As for the picture’s most lurid aspect, even though Bertolucci eases viewers into the incest material (the duo doesn’t get physical till halfway through the movie), the plot development feels ridiculous because the opera singer’s choices are incomprehensible: Instead of seeking treatment for her addict son, she provides heroin and comforts him with her body. So rather than being daring and memorable, Luna comes across as unfocused, forgettable, and more than a little distasteful.

Luna: LAME

1 comment:

Bonnie Kidd said...

I am mystified about why Jill Clayburgh took on this role. Her character is a supremely incompetent mother, astonishing in her self-centeredness and lack of awareness of her son's needs. Although the performance is terrific, the character is repugnant. This woman thinks the cosmos revolves around her and has almost nothing to give to any other human being. Luckily for the son, his birth father, a middle-class, law-abiding, mature teacher, takes on the role of parenting the wayward teen. This terrible "secret" that has been kept from the teen--that he was the teacher's son and not Fred Gwynne's progeny--proves to be the boy's salvation. The character study of the mother is so thorough and so disgusting that her infantile neediness colors nearly every scene in the film, including those in which she does not appear. Clayburgh couldn't invest this character with any redeeming qualities because she has none.