Disjunctive shots of a sleeping Lucy Harmon, played by Liv Tyler, flicker across the screen as a stranger aboard her train secretly films her sleeping on a camcorder. So it seems that everyone views Lucy as an object of lust in Bernardo Bertolucci’s film, Stealing Beauty (1996). The film follows the story of Lucy, an American 19-year-old girl who goes to the golden Tuscan countryside to stay at the villa of several family friends and an eclectic group of other locals.
Though she’s been sent there to have her portrait sculpted, Lucy in fact has other motives for her stay. Within a messy, scribbled journal that belonged to her mother who committed suicide, a poem speaks of a man who feeds her mother an olive leaf and beats a viper – referring to Lucy’s father. Knowing her mother spent her earlier years at the villa, she is certain that her father must be on the villa’s premises. Lucy also has other, less tangible desires. She hopes to reconcile with a former love interest, Niccolo (Roberto Zibetti), whom she met four years before during her last visit. In doing so, Lucy can fulfill her dream to lose her virginity in Italy.
Anyone who has seen Bertolucci’s other pieces such as Last Tango in Paris and The Dreamers, is familiar with his slow, vibrant, often sexualized style in which characters seem to always be “searching” for something. Stealing Beauty is no different. Everything about the movie is undeniably beautiful; each frame works conjointly to paint a dream-like picture of the villa, from the golden Italian countryside, Lucy’s poetry, to the bohemian lifestyle of the villa’s residences. The villa almost seems to exist in suspended time. People come and go as Lucy quietly floats around with a clueless demeanor around the villa, occasionally exchanging dialogue with the residences or posing as a model for Ian (Donal McCann), the sculptor. As she writes in her journal, she is “as quiet as a cup.” Throughout the film, originally written songs like Cocteau Twin’s “Alice” make these scenes take on a sudden eerie feel, giving a sense of intrigue and mystery to Lucy’s presence.
While many moviegoers are used to films being centered around the developed main character, Bertolluci instead seems to have created Lucy simply as a catalyst that makes each character asses his or her own story. One might argue that the film is not even centered on Lucy finding an elusive parent figure at all. As she romps around the courtyard sparking the sexual imagination of the men of the villa, she acts seemingly unperturbed by each man’s advances. As a result, any meaningful connection between her and the villa’s residents does not really exist. The only person she does form a close bond with is Alex (Jeremy Irons), a gay playwright dying of AIDS.
By the end of the film, everything that has been built up expectantly happens. Lucy finds her father, her playwright friend assumingly dies after being rushed to the hospital, and she loses her virginity, all in the last twenty minutes of the film. After reading her mother’s poem once more, Lucy reaches a realization that draws her to connect the Ian the sculptor to her mother. When Lucy confronts the sculptor with questions about his relationship with her mother, Ian realizes Lucy is indeed his daughter and the two embrace. The now finished sculpture symbolizes the discovery of who Lucy truly is. The film quickly wraps up with Lucy losing her virginity that night, though not to Niccolo, who turns out to be just as creepy as the next, but rather his shyer friend Isvaldo (Ignazio Oliva).
As the ending scene zooms out on Lucy happily walking back to the villa after her night with Isvaldo, the audience is left unsatisfied. Was that it? Nothing is ever explicitly explored deeply in the film, rather actions are forgotten just as fleetingly as they happen. Some criticize Bertolucci for trying too hard to make the film about actress Liv Tyler’s own life, who grew up believing her father was someone else, which doesn’t give Lucy much individuality. The film certainly makes for an interesting coming-of-age story but it is up the viewer to interpret the real motives that Bertolucci is trying to convey and decide if Lucy makes for a truly significant character.