Bernardo Bertolucci’s decades-long preoccupation with confinement gets a minor workout in Me And You, the director’s first film since 2003’s The Dreamers. It would be a stretch to call it a comeback; the movie’s central themes—disaffection, rebellion, addiction, subverted families—are Bertolucci chestnuts, which the director has explored more deftly, and in greater detail, elsewhere. The lush intensity that has characterized his best work—a meshing of the political and the sensual—is absent. Instead, the movie is an underwhelming coming-of-age fable that skirts around its own lurid undertones.
Me And You is set over the course of a week, as severely pimply 14-year-old Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) hides out in the basement of his apartment building, having convinced his parents that he is on a school trip. He whiles away the hours reading, eating junk food, and looking after an ant farm, which is loaded with more symbolism than it could possibly bear. His claustrophilia is an expression of introverted, independent-minded teen angst—the craving for a small personal world, where the only sound comes from headphones and the only words live in novels. For better or worse, Bertolucci—who is now 73, and gets around in a wheelchair because of back problems—has always been an angry young filmmaker, and smart, withdrawn young men are his speciality.
One day, the boy’s older half-sister, Olivia (Tea Falco), barges in, looking for a gold bracelet that she thinks Lorenzo’s mother took from her. She leaves, but returns later that night, eventually admitting she needs a place to lie low while she tries to kick heroin cold turkey. Her fits of screaming, crying, and vomiting stir Lorenzo’s sense of responsibility, leading him to venture into the outside world. When she sleeps, he examines her skin and hair with a magnifying glass.
Me And You works best when it busies itself with mapping the private interior of the basement hideout, letting the camera move like a dance partner around the half-siblings. The movie’s biggest pleasures come from the way Bertolucci traverses the cramped space, with Lorenzo and Olivia continually draped over couches and armchairs. (The director originally intended to make Me And You in 3-D, and a viewer can’t help but wish that he’d carried through with the plan.)
Though Antinori—who looks like an escapee from Pasolini’s Trilogy Of Life—invests Lorenzo with authentic awkward aloofness, the nominally more complicated Olivia never comes together as either a character or an idea. The problem seems to be less with Falco’s performance (a withdrawal scene shows that she’s capable of giving her all), than with Bertolucci’s un-characteristically restrained direction. Once a vivid, broad-stroke stylist, the filmmaker seems to have softened with age, an impression underscored by the movie’s finale, an awkward homage to The 400 Blows. François Truffaut’s 1959 debut—one of the definitive coming-of-age movies and a cornerstone of the French New Wave—is hardly sentimental, and it ends on a note of uncertainty. When Bertolucci replicates its iconic freeze-frame, however, he zooms in on a smile; the effect—like much of Me And You’s final act—is mawkish and more than a little corny.