Bertolucci’s ‘The Sheltering Sky’ (Blu-ray)

❉ Arrow Films have produced a handsome-looking disc with extras galore, writes Daniel Marner.

‘One of modern cinema’s great sensualists, Bertolucci claimed that by filming The Sheltering Sky he was done with politics on screen, at least temporarily, to concentrate on the intimate, the personal, the interior, as he had done two decades earlier in Last Tango in Paris.’

“Never, under any circumstances, write the story of your own life. Even fiction can incriminate you”

-Paul Bowles (quoted in the video essay Lost in Transit)

We open in New York in a time that is not our own. A fuzzy, monochrome montage of wintry cityscapes and the warm tinkle of Lionel Hampton’s Midnight Sun. It’s familiar terrain to us, maybe, and beds us in snugly for…what? A comedy of manners set among the 1940s smart set maybe, bon mots flowing over cocktails, perhaps a little daring romance?

No. We won’t get that, exactly. We’re not going to set foot in America again, not once during this film’s running time. A close-up of a fevered brow is our doorway to North Africa, and the three whitest, most privileged-looking people you’ve ever seen popping up like meerkats to peer over a dock to their new land, followed closely by copious sets of heavy luggage borne aloft by dishevelled North Africans. As our protagonists pontificate under a rusty crane about the difference between ‘travellers’ (which they imagine themselves to be) and mere ‘tourists’ (which the dominant male of their party accuses the junior member of being) they’re being watched by dozens of small children, hiding out of sight behind stacked barrels, all crossing their fingers that the whitest people on Earth will part with a little cash to have their massive steamer trunks and valises schlepped to another destination. And this is what happens, the dominant male coaxing them out of hiding like he’d coax a cat out from under a car, making little soothing, repetitive noises, then leading them off like a Pied Piper of entitlement to their hotel. When you have money, you never have to carry your own baggage. Not physically.

Bernardo Bertolucci claimed that by adapting Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky in 1990 he was done with politics on screen, at least temporarily. One of modern cinema’s great sensualists, he wanted to forget the overt political themes of his last film, the multiple Oscar-winner The Last Emperor (which charted the long life and interesting times of Pu Yi, who went from being Emperor of China to political dissident, to forgotten nobody in a matter of decades) and concentrate on the intimate, the personal, the interior, as he had done two decades earlier in Last Tango in Paris. But this extraordinary opening sequence demonstrates that a longtime Marxist thinker like him can’t simply choose to unmake himself and forget the political. It’s not that he dislikes these people, or wants us to dislike them. But colonialism and inequality are the very air they breathe. You could no more remove this aspect from them than you could ask them to stop swallowing that air.

The film charts the disintegration of this gloomy, catty little trio, both internally and (in one case) physically. Married couple Port and Kit (and can’t you just TASTE the eliteness on your tongue saying those names aloud?) played by John Malkovich at his most effetely dislikeable and Debra Winger at her most brittle are a successful composer and an aspiring writer respectively: third wheel Tunner (Campbell Scott in his first major film role) has been invited by them (or invited himself, no one is sure) as a kind of buffer or sounding board, something to distract them and deflect their negativity into. They love each other, they say, but it doesn’t take much for them to ruffle one another’s plumage. Port tells Tunner about a dream he’s had and this reduces Kit to angry tears. She doesn’t want him to dwell on morbid death symbolism, he wishes she were made of harder stuff. If a successful relationship needs to keep moving like a shark, Port and Kit’s is on the verge of coming to a standstill. Their desire to move forward physically through the vast Sub-Continent is half-hearted CPR on their marriage, at best. Within minutes of meeting them we know they won’t be together when this is all over. 

Like our protagonists The Sheltering Sky meanders from place to place and situation to situation with little sense of joy or abandonment. Long-time Bertolucci collaborator Vittorio Storaro films the endless yellow planes and jagged grey mountain ranges beautifully but coldly. The film is certainly a fellow traveller of exotic landscape pornography like David Lean’s Passage to India or even actual pornography like Just Jaeckin’s Emmanuelle which it superficially resembles in places (sexual abandon with swarthy natives in front of a stunning backdrop as a way to puncture the ennui of richesse). Ryuichi Sakamoto’s plangent, string-heavy musical score plays up the heartache of our doomed lovers, as they weep in each other’s arms or gaze blankly and wearily at the worldly wonders whipping past their bus window. It all feels incredibly adult and incredibly depressing, but this has been Bertolucci’s modus operandi for decades: his people are forever fleeing some past trauma by blundering directly into their NEXT trauma, and trauma, dissolution and death are the real destinations here.

There is infidelity along the way, inevitably. Port is led off to a mysterious rendezvous with a Berber prostitute which ends badly for both of them: Tunner plies the increasingly insecure Kit with booze until her already-flimsy defences are shredded like wet tissue. They are pestered by an English mother and son, the Lyles (Jill Bennett, snarling with snobbery and cynical prejudice in her final film role, and Timothy Spall pushing the campery and grotesquery up to 11) who turn up like bad omens throughout the trip. They dwindle from a trio to a couple again as Tunner splits off by mutual consent to follow his own adventure. Before long only one of them will remain as the narrative focus, a lone voyager into the unknown, cut adrift from all she has known by tragedy and grief.

This last section may be the most interesting part of the film as Kit completely dissolves in the face of loss and allows what remains of her to be buoyed along on the tides of fate. As the typically less adventurous partner in the marriage she seems to feel that it’s her duty to carry on Port’s torch and go on and on and on: but this decision again leads her to a dead end.  She emerges at the other side of her experiences hollowed out, numbed, shell-shocked. At the last she even denies us a resolution: as the orchestra booms with romantic emotion an anticipated lover’s reunion is yanked from beneath our feet. She wants to stay lost. She doesn’t want to be a survivor; she just wants to keep living.

No film by Bertolucci and Storaro could be accused of not being compellingly beautiful and there are moments in The Sheltering Sky to rival any in their joint filmography. Jaw-dropping landscapes and architecture abound, of course, and Storaro’s habit of giving his camera its own destination which it sometimes sweeps past the actors to find is often oddly affecting: a conversation in a clifftop graveyard continues, even as our point of view turns from it and alights on a team of horsemen far off in the distance. A charming early shot tracks along with a hurrying waiter reflected in a café looking glass, and just as we run out of mirror a tiny boy selling newspapers takes the waiter’s place, almost in step with him, giving us a shot that would no doubt have delighted Melies and his audience. But it’s faces or more correctly eyes that will probably stay with you here. Debra Winger somehow aging decades in a matter of weeks then re-emerging with a harder set to her eyes and a more youthful glow to her skin. A shot of those green eyes peering patiently through a face-covering headdress is as startling as any mountain, valley or wetland we have been shown. The eyes of her Tuareg ‘rescuer’ Belqassim (Eric Vu-An) are similarly aglow with a mix of kindliness, curiosity and mischief that intrigues her and us.

The eyes that make the biggest impression on us, however, could be those of an old man, observing our hapless trio from a corner table in the Tangier café where their adventure properly begins. These watery lenses, and the sad, thoughtful countenance that houses them belong to the Sheltering Sky’s original novelist Paul Bowles, and his wavering voice narrates the film’s opening and book-ends it (aptly) with the novel’s most famous passage: a matter-of-fact summation of life’s limitations, the finite borders of our existence, and how we can’t see them from where we are because ‘It all seems limitless’. Despite his active involvement Bowles reputedly hated the film, calling the ending (altered and somewhat uncharacteristically softened by Bertolucci and co-screenwriter Mark Peploe) ‘stupid’ and mentioning it very disparagingly in the foreword to a later edition of the book. Nevertheless, his watchful presence is something of a masterstroke. It doesn’t have to be there and serves only the most meta of narrative functions, but you’d notice its absence. It completes the jigsaw without even being a piece of it.

Arrow Films have once again produced a handsome-looking disc: not only in terms of the crispness of the image (at times the desert vistas almost appear 3D, such is the depth of the image) but the embarrassment of riches they’ve handed to us as extras. As well as a fascinating commentary by Bertolucci, Peploe and producer Jeremy Thomas (who surely must be due his own biographical documentary by now) it comes replete with interviews and documentaries galore, from the likes of production designer Andrew Sanders, screenwriter Mark Peploe, Bertolucci, Malkovich and Storaro, as well as an hour-long making-of documentary directed by the film’s editor Gabriella Cristiani and a captivating, insightful and poetic video essay by married film writers Fiona Watson and David Cairns, which sees them handing off commentary duties to one another relay-race style and delving into the film’s influences, techniques and themes with expert analysis.

Special Edition Contents

High Definition Blu-ray™ (1080p) presentation
Original uncompressed stereo audio
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Archival audio commentary with director Bernardo Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, and screenwriter Mark Peploe
Desert Roses (47 mins) – archival featurette
Brand new video essay by David Cairns & Fiona Watson
Brand new interview with art director Andrew Sanders
Archival interviews with cast and crew (10 mins)
Image Gallery
Original Trailer
Reversible sleeve featuring original theatrical artwork
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Kat Ellinger

❉ The Sheltering Sky (Blu-Ray FCD2068) was released by Arrow Academy, 2 November, 2020 and is available from the Arrow Store. Running time 138 mins. RRP £24.99.

❉ Daniel Marner is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

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