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In the ’60s, the decade when directors briefly became superstars, Italy’s Bernardo Bertolucci and France’s Claude Chabrol were lionized by journalists and film buffs. The theatrical release of their latest efforts, premiered at this year’s Filmfest D.C., gives us an opportunity to examine how well they have fared since making their debuts nearly 40 years ago.

The precocious son of a poet and film critic, Bertolucci, born in Parma in 1940, was a widely published poet by the time he turned 12. His second feature, Before the Revolution (1964), a semi-autobiographical account of the intellectual and emotional crises of a privileged youth torn between radicalism and bourgeois complacency, immediately established him as a major filmmaker. The movie’s eloquently visualized theme mirrored the dilemmas many young people faced in that turbulent era and announced the conflict between aestheticism and social engagement that has marked his subsequent work.

Other richly stylized, intellectually challenging features followed, notably The Spider’s Stratagem (1970), The Conformist (1970), and Last Tango in Paris (1972). The last, a psychodrama starring Marlon Brando, was initially banned in Italy for its sexual content. The resulting controversy, combined with Brando’s extraordinary performance, made the film an international box-office sensation, winning Bertolucci the artistic freedom and financial support to realize his most personal projects.

That’s when the filmmaker’s career began a slow but steady decline. He lost his footing in the heady atmosphere of big-budget, star-studded, polyglot international co-productions. He devoted four years to making 1900 (1976), a five-hour Marxist epic depicting the Italian class struggle between the turn of the century and the end of World War II. Although magnificently photographed by Vittorio Storaro and sporting a stellar ensemble headed by Burt Lancaster, Robert De Niro, and Gerard Depardieu, 1900 turned out to be a cartoonish rendering of political history. (To make sure we recognize that the proto-Fascist characters are evil, the writer-director shows them killing a cat and dashing a child’s head against a stone wall.) Although 1900 ends with a stunning, red-hued revolutionary pageant, this sequence comes too late to redeem an otherwise punishingly long and didactic misfire.

Following another blunder, La Luna (1979), an Oedipal melodrama sunk by Jill Clayburgh’s gauche histrionics, Bertolucci briefly recouped with The Last Emperor (1987), a spectacular but disjointed and turgid two-and-a-half-hour chronicle of the life of Pu Yi, China’s child monarch. A prestige project that won a Best Picture Oscar, The Last Emperor has not withstood the test of time. (Last year’s release of the “director’s cut,” which restored an hour of additional footage, was summarily blown off by critics and audiences.) Since then, Bertolucci has produced a trio of flops: The Sheltering Sky (1990), an enigmatic, snail-paced adaptation of a Paul Bowles novel; Little Buddha (1993), a ludicrous spiritual allegory paralleling the story of an American boy believed to be the reincarnation of Buddha with the life of Prince Siddhartha (played by Keanu Reeves!); and Stealing Beauty (1995), a sumptuously atmospheric but banal tale of an American girl’s coming of age during a summer in Tuscany.

With Besieged, Bertolucci retreats to the small-scale art movies on which he built his early reputation, only to prove that you can’t go home again. In an African prologue, we’re introduced to Shandurai (Thandie Newton), a young woman forced to expatriate after her idealistic teacher-husband is imprisoned by a totalitarian regime. (The specific country is never identified; the film thus condescendingly implies that all African nations look alike.) Shandurai travels to Rome to study medicine, supporting herself by working as a live-in domestic for Jason Kinsky (David Thewlis), an eccentric English classical pianist who has inherited an ancient house overlooking the Spanish Steps. Bewitched by her, Kinsky proves his love by selling his possessions to finance an attempt to liberate her husband, a selfless gesture that draws her closer to him.

A potentially intriguing chamber piece combining politics, art, and romance, Besieged (terrible title) suffers from an undernourished screenplay adapted from a James Lasdun story by the filmmaker and his wife, Clare Peploe. Structurally, the film simplistically juxtaposes the First and Third Worlds: upstairs (Jason’s wealth, art collection, and classical music) and downstairs (Shandurai’s poverty, servitude, and Papa Wemba Afro-pop.) The screenwriters seem to believe that establishing this contrast is sufficient, shrinking from the more demanding task of creating multidimensional characters and nuanced content. As a result, Besieged plays more like a pitch for a movie than a fully imagined work of art.

The striking, sensitive Newton scores a personal triumph, illuminating the screen with the magical radiance that Audrey Hepburn brought to Rome in her first starring role. (Newton, however, is oddly cast. The film avoids explaining why an actress with fair coloring and Caucasian features—she’s the daughter of a Zimbabwean mother and an English father—was chosen to play a refugee from a remote African village. One gets the uneasy impression that Bertolucci shrank from selecting a performer who looked too African.) Unfortunately, Newton’s efforts are neutralized by Thewlis’ absurdly fruity posturings as Kinsky. Without question, he’s a gifted actor, as demonstrated by his tour de force turn as an alienated, abusive drifter in Mike Leigh’s Naked. But the role of a besotted aesthete falls far outside the expressive range of this working-class, flounder-faced actor, whom any sensible director would have replaced after viewing the first day’s rushes.

Bertolucci unwisely attempts to conceal the shallowness of his material by indulging in an assortment of intrusive editing gimmicks: slow and fast motion, stop-printing, jump-cutting. Near the fadeout, he gratuitously replicates the masturbation scene from Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, another homage to the sublime cine-poem that he previously alluded to in Last Tango in Paris. One leaves Besieged haunted by the memory of Newton’s talent and grace—the camera adores her, and you will, too—but depressed by further evidence that Bertolucci is unlikely ever to fulfill the promise of his youthful films.

Unlike Bertolucci, who has completed only 14 features, Claude Chabrol cranks them out like baguettes. Starting with Le Beau Serge in 1958, he has made 50 theatrical movies, not counting dramas and miniseries for French television. When he can’t secure backing for films he wants to make, he accepts commercial assignments to keep busy. Famously obsessed with food, the owlish writer-director admits that he often chooses the settings of his movies because of the quality of the local cuisine, and he has been known, while working on impersonal projects, to hand over the directorial reins to assistants so that he can dine at leisure.

Although his works are seldom revived these days, Chabrol, at his best, is a master filmmaker, a precise craftsman concerned with some of the same topics that preoccupy Bertolucci—sexual obsession, the behavior of the bourgeoisie. However, unlike his Italian counterpart, he approaches these themes with a sardonic sense of humor, casting a cool, skeptical eye on his characters, their desires, and their material possessions. A Chabrol retrospective would uncover any number of forgotten treasures, among them Les Bonnes Femmes (1959), about the economic and sexual exploitation of four unworldly shop girls; Le Boucher (1969), an oddly affecting romance between a celibate schoolmistress and a serial killer; and Une Partie De Plaisir (1974), in which a womanizer talks his wife into accepting an open marriage, with disastrous consequences.

The Swindle finds Chabrol in an uncommonly antic mood. Michel Serrault and Isabelle Huppert star as Victor and Betty, a duo of petty scam artists whose relationship—father and daughter? generation-gap lovers?—is never clarified. After the pair rips off a married conventioneer in France, Betty vacations in the Swiss Alps with Maurice (Francois Cluzet), a businessman planning to abscond with 5 million Swiss francs that he’s been charged to launder for international mobsters. Betty’s scheme to double-cross Maurice becomes complicated by Victor’s unexpected arrival, and the treacherous trio takes off for Guadeloupe for a violent confrontation with Maurice’s bosses. Predictably, Chabrol’s screenplay devotes considerable attention to greed and food consumption. Serrault gives a sly, polished performance as the veteran grifter, and even Huppert, the great stone face of French cinema, whose glacial presence has weakened four previous Chabrol films, is uncharacteristically vivacious, as mercurial as her character’s frequent changes of identity and colorful hairpieces.

Although considerably less ambitious than Chabrol’s best work, The Swindle is, nonetheless, a sleek, unpretentious divertissement, proof that the old New Waver, who turns 69 this month, hasn’t lost his touch. A pity that the same can’t be said for Bertolucci. CP