Before the Revolution
The Nauseous Sweetness of Living
What is nausea? Jean-Paul Sartre describes it well at the end of his book of the same name. "I am free: I haven't a single reason for living left, all the ones I have tried have given way and I can't imagine any more. I am still quite young. I still have enough strength to start again. But what must I start again?" Earlier in Nausea, though, Sartre talks about a man who has "all the best wrinkles: horizontal bars across the forehead, crow's feet, bitter creases at both corners of the mouth, not to mention the yellow cords hanging under his chin. There's a lucky man for you: as soon as you see him, you say to yourself that he must have suffered, that he is a man who has lived. Moreover, he deserves his face, for never, not even for a moment, has he misjudged the way to keep and use his past."
One of the questions we might ask here is how does nausea stop one from living, how do we fail to live a future that can accumulate a past we can live happily with? Generally the problem with nauseous characters is this sense of a past that is meaningless, and a present into the future that is, in Leibnizian terms, incompossible, in that it creates mutually incompatibles futures. What nauseau reflects is this absence of the best of all possible worlds contained by a higher being, for the essential meaningless world of multiple variables. While Bertrand Russell notes in History of Western Philosophy, discussing Leibniz: "There are an infinite number of possible worlds, all of which God contemplated before creating the actual world. Being good, God decided to create the best of the possible worlds, and He considered that one to be the best that had the greatest of excess of good over evil," what happens if one does not believe in God? Thus no one can rest easily on their laurels because our actions no longer have an air of the inevitable, an inevitability that would thus make our past actions take the only path they could take; no, instead all past actions become merely the chosen path that could have been taken differently, and the present into the future actions contain the same indeterminacy. Consequently our past, our present and our future remain in a constant state of flux.
Now what's central to a cinema of nausea is the inability of its characters to find a place within this flux. Without a defining, transcendent conscience to dictate our actions; how to find a place of inevitability with which our actions can make sense? Generally nauseous characters cannot make these decisions because their past actions haven't been consistent enough to suggest the right next action. In a maybe over-simplified take on Sartre, the writer Colin Wilson in The Strength to Dream talks about Sartre's pessimism, that in Nausea it's "the diary of a man whose feelings keep drying up completely and leaving him confronted with objects that seem to crush him." For the nauseous character objects can crush because they're not subjectified enough to be made one's own. But to make objects into one's own image is surely empty egotism.
It is this crisis Bertolucci takes as his subject matter in Before the Revolution. Here the central character's friend commits suicide early in the film, apparently unable to find any meaning in his life. Before the suicide, Fabrizio says his friend should get involved in politics: 'You must join the [Communist] party. It's important; for politics...and for poetry, too. Then whatever you do or say has a meaning. If you make a mistake, that, too, has a meaning.' What Fabrizio suggests is that the carapace of political engagement can serve to fill the existential void, to alleviate the nausea of meaninglessness. For Fabrizio's friend lives constantly for flight; either taking off to Parma and getting no further than Milan, or dropping out of one course or another.
Yet for all Fabrizio's talk of political engagement, it's the sweetness of passivity and emotional futility that drives him during the film's running time. The film's opening quote from Talleyrand goes: "He who did not live the years before the revolution cannot understand the sweetness of living." But we might wonder whether this sweetness comes from a degree of Sartrean bad faith, so that Fabrizio accepts on the one hand the political conscience that can give his life a superstructural meaning, but by the same token lives the pleasures of a pre-revolutionary society. After all, we must question an activist whose most politically engaged moment comes when his lover (his aunt Gina) flirts lightly with an aristocrat who's down on his luck. 'You don't know the power of habit, Fabrizio. One inherits attitudes, that's why I'm ashamed,' the aristocrat says, defending himself against Fabrizio's accusations. But has Fabrizio not inherited a habit also, the conventional habit of jealously possessing his sexual partner? Earlier in the film he churlishly says to Gina 'me or another man, it's all the same to you.' And when a cinephile friend talks about a tracking shot being a question of morality Fabrizio is no longer too interested in the combination of politics and poetry. 'I'm in love,' he admits.
But he is not just in love with any woman, but more specifically his aunt, and more significant still, a woman whose own grip on reality resembles in some ways the friend who's committed suicide. When she talks about a date she was thinking of accepting, she says: 'I promised to go to a football match with him on Sunday. Then I didn't feel like giving him my name and number and he felt cheated.' She's one of life's undecideables, or the capricious as we would usually say. However, it is maybe her very undecideability that is so appealing to the only apparently politically sure Fabrizio - a man finally who is one of life's procrastinators as readily as one of its activists. As he says early in the film, while he very much loves and desires a beautiful young local girl, Clelia, the very fact they're made for each other means he must resist. 'Have they been born to life? Does the present resound in them as it does in me, insatiably?' He's talking of the people of Parma, and of course Clelia and his prospective marriage to her. 'We've always been engaged, predestined for each other. But Clelia is that part of the town I have rejected. Clelia is that sweetness of life I don't want to accept.' Shortly after this voice-over as we see Fabrizio searching the churches of the town for her, so he can 'see her for the last time', Bertolucci cuts to a series of statues, then to the lovely Clelia walking in the church with her mother, and then to a slow, reverse dolly round another statue as the notion of beauty contains a petrified, conservative symbolism. Nevertheless by the end of the film Fabrizio admits that ideology was a holiday for him. That for people like him it's always before the revolution.
We can see here that Fabrizio's caught in a twofold bad faith: political and emotional. Unlike his friend who commits suicide, Fabrizio accepts the political possibilities of revolution, and the emotional release of an affair with a capricious, nervously confused woman who will stave off his feelings of nausea. In Sartre's The Age of Reason a character, Boris, says, "Until twenty-five. I've got five years yet, and after that I'll blow my brains out." It is really a variation on Fabrizio's realization that while the present might resound in him insatiably now, this insatiability has a time limit. For Mathieu, the central character in Sartre's The Age of Reason, he achieves the age of reason by accepting his life is in some way over. "No one has interfered with my freedom: my life has drained it dry...he yawned: he had finished the day, and he had also finished with his youth." He had attained "the age of reason." But Mathieu and Fabrizio sink into their lives, whether they be in relative youth and - Fabrizio is in his early twenties - or their mid thirties, like Mathieu, there's a sense that life isn't to be lived throughout one's life, but to be lived until the time when limitations are accepted, and social expectations met, or denied to the point that one can longer keep fighting them.
What is eschewed is Belief, and it is perhaps because 'illusionment' gives way to disillusionment. What Fabrizio cannot seem to do is give his life meaning, a singular meaning, from his lifeforce, from his energy. As he runs through the streets of Parma believing more life surges through him than through anybody else, he attaches the energy to a political cause. Hence the illusionment that will later give way to disillusionment, the socialist to the bourgeois, and the capricious aunt to the conservative girl. "I won't, I won't grow old,'" Boris insists in The Age of Reason, as though the very notion of youthfulness is his illusion, as if there can be no life force in an aging body. But of course in Nausea we have the man who has known how to use his past - it shows in his face. So while Fabrizio insists that politics can give life meaning even to his mistakes, we might ask whether he needs to work not with a superstructure that replaces God with Marx, but a more tentative illusionment based on Belief.
For Fabrizio, 'for my sort it's always before the revolution', but whilst this allows for a temporary good faith as the singular energy connects to a broader political force, at a certain point, maybe as the energy decreases, the political beliefs become less significant. What is offered is a short term energetic political activism followed by a long-term bourgeois conservatism as one stops fighting the prevailing order. While for Fabrizio's friend a lack of political purpose results in suicide, as his tentative, unsure way of living leads to his demise, the political for Fabrizio allows for a personal certitude. It is not so much Fabrizio giving himself to politics, as politics giving Fabrizio a stronger sense of identity.
If Bertolucci is so often a fine filmmaker of this bad faith it is because he attaches Sartre's notion to a broader sense of denial. Thus in the director's The Spider's Stratagem a father's betrayal is covered up by his friends to suggest that he has really been a hero. When the son investigates the nature of his father's heroism as he returns to his hometown, so he finds the only reason the father has retained heroic status is to protect the political movement which he actually betrayed. After he let the party down, his friends killed him, allowing the legend to live but the individual to die. In The Conformist, the leading character is a repressed homosexual who kills a former professor as much to prove his conformist credentials as his political beliefs. Marcello Clerici wants to fit in so completely that his action must superimpose itself on his homosexual impulse. What we often see in Bertolucci, then, isn't the self-defining hero of good faith, but the impulsive bad faith of weak men whose active political deed and self belief are poles apart.
Bertolucci often talks in psychoanalytic terms, and more specifically Oedipal terms, and himself underwent psychoanalysis. As he would say of Pasolini in Mira Liehm's Passion and Defiance: "he's always been a father figure to me. When he spoke badly about Last Tango in Paris, I felt a kind of liberation. The more he insisted on the film's poor qualities, the more he was destroying his image of the father figure." Bertolucci, though, found authority figures elsewhere: 'Beginning with The Spider's Stratagem, a direct influence of my analysis became manifest. I said to my analyst. "Your name should be in the credits of all my films."'
Thus what we still see is this need for superstructural father-figures, for a wider meaning beyond one's own existence for the justification of behaviour. It is the idea of looking outside of oneself (be that through father-figures, political systems, psychoanalytic models) rather than something immanent within oneself that constantly evolves. Now even the doctor so described at the beginning of this chapter, the doctor in Nausea, is presented by Sartre ambivalently. After the narrator marvels at that face, the narrator says "for the first time I see his face without the eyes: you might take it for a cardboard mask, like those they're selling in the shops today. His cheeks are a horrible pink colour...The truth suddenly dawns upon me: this man is going to die before long....That's what their experience amounts to." Earlier the narrator has said such people are professionals in experience. "...about forty, they baptize their stubborn little ideas and a few proverbs with the name of Experience, they begin to imitate slot machines; put a coin in the slot on the left and out come anecdotes wrapped in silver paper; put a coin in the slot on the right and you get precious pieces of advice which stick to your teeth like soft caramels." This isn't so much the doctor's limitations expressed, but the narrator's reservations. After all, the narrator's a man, like the hero in The Age of Reason, of irresoluteness, and Sartre's notion of this impossible irresolution is nausea.
But Milan Kundera writes about a different type or irresoluteness in Life is Elsewhere and calls it "an idyllic state of non-fate." In many ways this middle-aged figure (the closest to Kundera himself of all the writer's characters, he insists) is the antithesis of Boris in The Age of Reason. In his chapter on the middle-aged man, Kundera describes both the man's flat and also his body. The flat has "one big room serving as a combination living room and bedroom. It contains a wide couch, a large mirror, bookshelves all around the walls." "The man went into the bathroom, turned on the hot water faucet over the tub, started to undress and examined his body with satisfaction; he is in his forties, but since the time he'd begun doing physical labor he'd been feeling in excellent shape; his brain seemed lighter and his arms and legs stronger." Here we see a man who has escaped the nausea of his existence perhaps by virtue of the very decision-making the narrator provisionally offers the doctor in Nausea. Has this middle-aged figure not achieved a way of using his past to live in the present as a middle-aged man?
Here we see how Kundera's notion of non-fate, Sartre's idea of nausea, and Bertolucci's ambivalence towards the youthful state of living before the revolution help us to understand the problems of being in relation to living with and without superstructures in our lives. When Talleyrand talks about the sweetness of living before the revolution, it is that one lives with the possibility of the revolution and at the same time within bourgeois comfort. It's this that allows the Leibnizean incompossible, but that is not quite the same as living a Kunderan non-fate. We could say the young friend who commits suicide at the beginning of Before the Revolution lives more authentically than Fabrizio because he is willing to live his nausea, but aren't there other ways to live authentically without this feeling overtaking us?
It is enough really for us to say that is not Bertolucci's concern. In Before the Revolution he is a filmmaker of luxurious nausea where the contradictions of self manifest themselves in a cinematic style that is constantly shifting perspectives. For Pasolini this makes Before the Revolution a key example of the 'cinema of poetry', in his article of that name, full of 'free indirect point-of-view shots'. Here what we have is a cinematic style that no longer takes on the point of view necessarily of a character, nor is it an impersonal narrative perspective, it is instead a camera somewhere in-between the point of view of the character and the filmmaker. However, where for Pasolini this indirect point of view is "a mutual contamination of the world views of the neurotic woman [the aunt] and of the author" (Heretical Empiricism), we are inclined to see it more clearly as the viewpoint of Fabrizio/Bertolucci. Certainly that is the case in the scene near the end of the film when Fabrizio talks to a former teacher about how he has failed to change despite the teacher's influence. The conversation takes place though at one remove because of Bertolucci's breaking of the hundred and eighty degree rule that creates a confusion of screen space, and by the way the camera laterally tracks back and forth as they talk. This is Fabrizio's free-indirect point of view if anybody's, because it echoes well both the character's bad faith and yet also Bertolucci's 'good faith'. As the camera finds a style to counter conventional film technique, so we might ask why Fabrizio cannot live up to the phrase 'men make their history in a milieu which conditions them.' The teacher, Fabrizio says, interpreted this as 'men acting in an existing milieu. But history is made by men, not the milieu in which they inhabit. I am the failure of that phrase.'
Thus Fabrizio fails the phrase yet Bertolucci in his technique as he films the conversation in some ways lives up to it. It goes back to the scene where there is a conversation with the cinephile (played by the script's co-author Gianni Amico), who reckons Godard's Une Femme est une Femme is more engage than De Santis and Lizanni. 'Style. Moral fact.' Without Bertolucci's style, without the free indirect point-of-view shot would the scene not settle for bourgeois melancholy? It is in the very style we could argue that the film's political radicalism holds even as it offers a conservative narrative conclusion with Fabrizio marrying Clelia. We could say it is the Pasolini notion of a cinema of poetry that moves the film forward politically, and why Pasolini had so many problems with later Bertolucci films where, critics noted, "devastated by the failure of his previous films" Bertolucci yearned for the "recognition of a popular director" (Passion and Defiance)
It was this that Gideon Bachmann suspected would be the problem with Bertolucci's mid-seventies epic, 1900, about the rise of Fascism during the first half of the century. Commenting in his diary on the set of the film, Bachmann says: "Bertolucci says that all his scenes are based on research, that the epoch did produce cruelty from ignorance...But there is the gnawing doubt that this is not material for an extravaganza. Why the monumental form for the poetic, cruel content?" (Sight and Sound) Bachmann's comment here connects to Amico's statement about morality and style, to Bertolucci's desire to make more commercial films, and also his 'killing' of Godard in The Conformist: in famously giving the professor whom Clerici murders the Paris phone number of his key earlier influence, Godard. By virtue of denouncing Godard's influence (after earlier recognizing it so obviously in Partner) is Bertolucci saying he is no longer interested in engaged cinema? Has he, by the mid-seventies, become a glorified Fabrizio, a corpulent bourgeois who is in Bachmann's words "the young cinema grown to full establishment proportions, the chubby figure looking more like Balzac every day?"
Perhaps we should be wary of drawing too many connections between Bertolucci and his work; yet the director himself constantly draws the parallels (Godard's phone number) and if we equate character subjectivity with directorial subjectivity, then a director's shift in style and the reasons behind it are relevant. As Pasolini says in the same essay quoted above, "This insistence on particulars, especially on certain details of the digressions, is a deviation in relation to the method of the film: it is the temptation to make another film. It is, in short, the presence of the author, who transcends his film in an abnormal freedom...a moment of barefaced subjectivity." In moving from a free-indirect style to "the patterns of melodrama with "operettic" overtones", did Bertolucci lose the stylistic engagement that keeps us at a safe distance from Fabrizio's recapitulation during his conversation with his mentor? By the time of 1900 Bertolucci's work, if we take on board both Pasolini and Bachmann's remarks, was no longer exploding "in a sort of technical scandal", as Pasolini would say, but to narrative excess. Hence the caricatural image of Bertolucci as Balzac, as if Bachmann is reversing Pasolini's free indirect subjectivity where the director is inside yet at one remove from the character, and replaced by a director superimposing a melodramatic view of the world.
What Before the Revolution wonderfully explores then is the problem of the creative force, a life force, finding a correlative in meaning that is found rather than assumed. Again Kundera is useful here. In Testaments Betrayed, he offers a mini-chapter called 'Changes of Opinion as Adjustment to the Spirit of the Time'. Here, Kundera distinguishes between two types of opinion changing, or attitude changing. The first type of person he says changes internally, "it is precisely when their interior worlds change shape that Bezukhov and Bolkonsky [from War and Peace] are confirmed as individuals; they surprise; that they make themselves different; that their freedom catches fire, and with it the identity of their selves..." In the second type, though, "the people I see changing their attitude toward Lenin, Europe, and so on expose their nonindividuality. This change is neither their own creation nor their own invention, not caprice or surprise or thought or madness...In the final analysis they always stay the same: always in the right, always thinking what, in their milieu, a person is supposed to think..." If we attach nausea to Kundera's ideas about the two types of self, then the nauseous state is an existential necessity, a way of accepting the abyss from within where one self-defines or self-collapses. That is what Sartre's narrator is so ambivalent over in the passage concerning the middle-aged doctor. Has he evolved through an internal process or through external assumption?
If Fabrizio enters a healthy middle-age will he become a corpulent Balzac? Has he failed to live the crisis that has killed his friend and turned his aunt into a neurotic compulsive? If we said earlier that the free-indirect point of view shot in the film was Fabrizio's, maybe we should say at a certain point (at the point in which Fabrizio moves towards conservatism) so the free point of view shot becomes much more the dead friend's and the aunt's, as though the point of view could belong to Bertolucci/Fabrizio while Fabrizio lives a degree of ambivalence, but deserts Fabrizio when he conforms. This may seem overly ingenious, but it helps make sense of the cinephile's insistence on morality as a question of style, and Pasolini's belief that the filmmaker must search out an ambivalent, neurotic technique that aligns itself with the subject matter. When Pasolini talks about the brilliance of City Lights and the disturbing beauty of The Devil's Eye in his essay, he still sees the films fitting into a transparent and humble significance. The camera was motionless; it framed those images in an absolutely normal manner. It was not felt.
Thus central to certain filmmakers (Godard, Antonioni, maybe Fellini, Bunuel Resnais, and Bergman) working during a particular period was how to make nausea felt. How do filmmakers deal with nausea as both subject matter and cinematic style? Bertolucci remains an important director because this tension may in Pasolini's view have collapsed into a general conservatism, and in Bachmann's into melodramatic excess, but it would nevertheless still be an issue from film to film. Bertolucci's very examination of nauseous characters is also at one and the same time an examination of his own feelings of the abyss. Finally it could be said Bertolucci's problem is that he is finally closer to Kundera's second type of 'nonindividuality' in the way he picked up on trends as readily as working through inner evolvement. Hence the significance of Godard and Marx in the sixties, Freud and psychoanalysis after he had killed off his symbolic father (Godard) in the late sixties and early seventies, and on to the influence of the East and Mysticism in later films like Sheltering Sky and Little Buddha. There is, with Bertolucci, a sense that while he never quite conformed to the demands of bourgeois life, neither did he quite find his own meaning within nausea, instead moving from belief system to belief system like a man rapidly moving from rock to rock to avoid falling into a fast moving river that awaits him. However that needn't be as big a problem as we might think; in Bertolucci's work this usefully leads to different modes of nausea. There is the nausea alleviated by politics here, by Oedipal expectation in The Spider's Stratagem, by a social conformism in The Conformist, sex in Last Tango in Paris... In Bertolucci's films the whole problem of nonidentity on the one hand, and its escape into a temporary belief or state, gives his work a tension, as different modes of nausea are explored. If that tension became less present in his later work, it was entirely intentional. As he said in an interview given some time in the late seventies/early eighties in the book Film Forum: "It was strange [he says of his earlier work] because my nature is to make a very narrative kind of emotion, and now I hate to be forced to think and I love to be passionate, drawn into thought but seduced by feelings." How sweet we might believe that nausea to be is a moot point.
© Tony McKibbin