In his five decades as a director, Bernardo Bertolucci has tended toward grand political filmmaking. His movies have generally been set in turbulent times: the rise of fascism in Italy in The Conformist and 1900; the leftist youth movements of the 1960s in Partner and Before the Revolution; the years prior to the Chinese Communist revolution in The Last Emperor — moments when social orders are being overturned.
But another foundational theme of Bertolucci's work has been wealth. His characters are often firmly upper class. More than many artists, Bertolucci has repeatedly explored the ethics of privilege: the question of how to behave in a world where, by virtue of birth, you've been destined to benefit from an unjust status quo. And so, while there are no revolutions underway in Me and You, the conspicuous backdrop of wealth marks it as a Bertolucci film, albeit an abnormally bland one for the great director.
Me and You is Bertolucci's first film in 10 years, in part because ongoing health issues that now require him to use a wheelchair led him to doubt for some time that he would work again. It shares most in common with his 1972 classic Last Tango in Paris and 2003's The Dreamers. Like those two films, Me and You focuses on a small group of characters, in this case the 14-year-old Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori), a bratty teen for whom other humans are, at best, a nuisance, and his older drug-addicted half-sister, Olivia (Tea Falco).
It also follows Last Tango and The Dreamers in its intimacy of setting, trading their Parisian apartments for a basement storage room that Lorenzo makes his home for a week while his mom thinks he's on a school skiing trip. Olivia, home for a brief and possibly undisclosed visit, finds Lorenzo while she's searching for some stowed jewelry and decides to join him and attempt to kick her heroin habit cold turkey.
Lorenzo is the kind of character whose intense existential anguish results partly from the fact that he knows no other worries. His ability to carry out his dream of isolation is very much a symbol of luxury, particularly since the storage room he retreats to contains the furniture and belongings of a countess who lived and died in Lorenzo's apartment before his family moved in.
As a chronicler of privilege, Bertolucci's concerns, if not his style of filmmaking, relate to those of Lena Dunham in Girls or Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha. Both Hannah in Girls and Frances in Frances Ha struggle to connect to the people around them and the world they live in — their self-centered or oblivious behavior is precisely the problem that Dunham and Gerwig hope to explore.
That same struggle to connect is central to Me and You. Lorenzo desires nothing more than to disengage from those around him — for him, isolation is freedom. It's only through his encounter with Olivia, who has alienated the world with her drug use, that he begins to realize the dissatisfactions of such a position. But Lorenzo's journey proves thoroughly unsatisfying — or, more to the point, it ends right as it might get interesting, right as Lorenzo's about to confront the world. Right as he's about to, as Olivia puts it, "get a life."
Bertolucci's normally pristine visual talents have gone askew here, featuring needlessly odd angles and brusque camera movements. But mostly what's missing in Me and You, what drains it of insight and resonance, is a sense of the world outside of Lorenzo's apartment building. The storage locker becomes Lorenzo's bunker, a feeling emphasized by the few exterior shots that Bertolucci cuts to after Lorenzo goes into hiding, each pointed toward the building and the small window that is Lorenzo and Olivia's only connection to the outside world. What's going on elsewhere on the street, in the neighborhood, in the city, you can only guess at.
Bertolucci is working on more conceptual terrain than normal here. In many ways, his focus is on theoretical human nature — on how it differs from our base animal instincts — and not, as in his best films, on human nature as it messily expresses itself among others, in society. Last Tango and The Dreamers both explicitly set their characters' confinements against the political and sexual revolutions of the '60s and '70s. That historical context gave the characters' behavior added significance. It's also a time period that Bertolucci, no doubt, knows intimately. Watching Me and You, which is set in the present day, you get the sense that his connection to contemporary culture is much shakier. Lorenzo spends a good part of the film with headphones on, but his soundtrack — a hodgepodge that moves from David Bowie to The Red Hot Chili Peppers to The Arcade Fire — has no identity and neither, really, does he, apart from a penchant for narcissistic tantrums.
It's not that a lack of protesters upending political institutions is the problem; even the calm and circumscribed middle-class society that Lorenzo belongs to is only sketchily drawn. And with no sense of the world that Lorenzo is so scared of joining, no sense of where his insecurity comes from, his story and his character remain frustratingly generic. The misstep is an uncharacteristic one for Bertolucci. More than most other artists, he should know that if you want to get to the heart of a person, you can't isolate him; you have to see the circumstances in which he lives.