Stealing Beauty (1996): Bertolucci’s Romantic Melodrama Starring Liv Tyler and Jeremy Irons

The romantic melodrama, Stealing Beauty, a minor film from major director Bernardo Bertolucci, world premiered at the 1996 Cannes Film Fest in competition to mixed to negative response.

The scenario, co-written by Bertolucci and Susan Minot, is diffuse and not particularly involving.  Surprisingly it’s also unintentionally sexist.  The whole film, which is in English and benefits from an international cast, seems aimless.

Liv Tyler plays Lucy Harmon, a sensually beautiful American teenager, who arrives in the lush Tuscan countryside to be sculpted by a family friend who lives in a beautiful villa there.

Lucy visited there four years earlier and exchanged a kiss with an Italian boy with whom she hopes to become reacquainted.

Lucy’s mother has committed suicide since then, and she also hopes to discover the identity of her father, whom her mother hinted was a resident of the villa.

Once she arrives, Lucy meets and befriends a variety of eccentric visitors.

Lucy has decided to lose her virginity and becomes an object of intense interest to the men of the household, but the suitor she finally selects is not the initial object of her affection.

Narrative Structure: Detailed Synopsis

Lucy Harmon, a nineteen-year-old American, is the daughter of well-known (now deceased) poet and model, Sara Harmon.

As the tale starts, Lucy arrives for a vacation at the Tuscan villa of Sara’s old friends, Ian and Diana Grayson (Donal McCann and Cusack). Other guests include a prominent New York art gallery owner, an Italian advice columnist and an English writer, Alex Parrish (Irons), who is dying of unspecified disease.

Going for a swim, Lucy finds that Diana’s daughter from a previous marriage, Miranda Fox (Rachel Weisz), is also there with her boyfriend, entertainment lawyer Richard Reed (D. W. Moffett). Miranda’s brother, Christopher (Fiennes), is supposed to be there, but he is off on a road trip with the Italian son of a neighboring villa, Niccoló Donati (Roberto Zibetti).

Lucy was particularly hoping to see Niccoló, whom she had met on a previous visit to the villa, four years earlier, and who was the first boy she’d ever kissed. Lucy and Niccoló had exchanged letters after her visit, and one letter was so touching that she memorized it.

Lucy plans for her portrait to be made by Ian, who is a sculptor, but it’s really just an excuse for her father to send her to Italy, “as a present.” Smoking marijuana with Parrish, Lucy reveals that she is a virgin.

When Parrish shares this information with the rest of the villa the next day, Lucy is embarrassed and furious and decides to cut her visit short. But Christopher and Niccoló return from their trip, and Lucy is once again happy, although she is disappointed that Niccoló did not recognize her.

Niccoló comes to the Grayson villa for dinner, accompanied by his brother, Osvaldo (Ignazio Oliva). After dinner, the young separate from the adults to smoke marijuana. Relaxed, Lucy laughs about Parrish’s betrayal, and the group take turns recounting when they each lost their virginity.

When the question comes around to Osvaldo, he just says, “I don’t know which is more ridiculous, this conversation or the silly political one going on over there at the grown-ups’ table.” Lucy fawns over Niccoló but abruptly vomits in his lap.

The next day Lucy rides a bicycle to the Donati villa, looking for Niccoló.  She finds him in the garden kissing another girl. Hastily bicycling away, she passes Osvaldo, who has been hunting with his dog. Osvaldo holds up a jackrabbit he has killed and cries, “Ciao, Lucy!” Lucy loses control of the bicycle at the next turn. Osvaldo tries to help but Lucy rebuffs his efforts.

The next day, Lucy poses outdoors for Ian’s sketch studies, exposing one  breast. Niccoló ogles Lucy, but Osvaldo looks away, decrying Lucy’s lack of propriety. Ian dismisses Lucy, who wanders off into an adjacent olive grove, followed by Niccoló. They begin to make out, but Lucy pushes him away.

Retreating to the guest house, Lucy shares a notebook with Parrish. It’s one of Sara Harmon’s last notebooks, with a poem that holds clues to her real father’s identity.

Throughout the film, she has been asking probing questions about her mother. Did Parrish ever know Sara to wear green sandals? Had Ian ever eaten grape leaves? All of these images are found in the poem, which Lucy now reads to Parrish.

That evening, Lucy wears her mother’s dress to Donati’s annual party. Lucy sees Niccoló with another girl and Osvaldo playing clarinet in the band. Lucy picks up a young Brit to take back to the Grayson’s villa. On the way out, Osvaldo chases Lucy down and says that he’s interested in visiting America. They agree to meet the next day. Lucy leaves with the Englishman, who spends the night at the villa but without having sex with Lucy.

The next day, Parrish is taken to the hospital. Lucy sees one of Ian’s sculptures of a mother and child. She goes to Ian’s studio and inquires about his location in August 1975, when she was conceived.  Ian says he was here, fixing up the villa.  Without saying so, the two acknowledge that Ian is Lucy’s biological father; she promises to keep the secret.

When Lucy exits Ian’s studio, she is stung by a bee, and Osvaldo rescues her. As they walk through the countryside, Osvaldo confesses that he wrote to Lucy once, pretending to be Niccoló. This letter turns out to be the letter that Lucy loved the most, the one she memorized. to make her believe, Osvaldo recites part of the letter and takes Lucy to a tree he had described as “my tree.”

Lucy and Osvaldo spend the night together under the tree, and Lucy finally loses her virginity. As they part the next morning, Osvaldo reveals that it was his first time, too.

The original music score is composed by Richard Hartley.

The film’s tagline was “The most beautiful place to be is in love.

Though not one of Bertolucci’s strongest features, Stealing Beauty displays the customary visual lushness expected of the director.