“Il n’y a pas d’amour, il n’y a que des preuves d’amour” is a line from Jean Cocteau in Robert Besson’s movie Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne. As Bernardo Bertolucci mentions earlier in his interview, Besieged is not a movie that simply tells the audience what love is but a story that shows the proofs of love. Bertolucci elaborately designs the proofs by constructing the distance and difference of the two characters. Then through the music and sound effects, he creates a beautiful interaction between their oppositions. Finally in the spectator’s gaze, we see the proofs of love gradually emerging from the changes of communication between the two protagonists.
The communication between Shandurai and Mr.Kinsky begins with “no dialogue” in Mr.Kinsky’s enclosed Roman Villa which is located in the center of Rome. It is a luxurious and antiquated house that features a four-storey spiral staircase and a dumb-waiter (locates in Shandurai’s room) which moves between Shandurai’s room and Kinsky’s on the top floor, allowing surprising objects to travel from him to her. The two characters live at different parts of the house. The talented British pianist who is often glancing through the banisters, trying to understand Shandurai’s life, lives on the top floor. Meanwhile, Shandurai, his African steward, lodger, and secret love, who is frequently drawn upwards by his music through the series of stairs resides on the first floor. With this “mise en scene” arrangement, the dumb-waiter and staircase become the crucial objects in Kinsky and Shandurai’s relationship.
Because of the silent obsession, using the dumb-waiter is the best way for Kinsky to express himself to Shandurai. First it is a piece of staff sheet with a question mark in the middle; then, it is the beautiful orchid and finally the ring. Without any conversation, the dumb-waiter not only transfers the objects but also carries Kinsky’s doubts, disquiets, and love in almost a claustrophobic perspective. However, Shandurai is not grateful for what he has done and cannot understand him. This one-sided giving later becomes a huge misunderstanding in their communication.
The first conversation between Mr.Kinsky and Shandurai happens on the staircase. Mr.Kinsky is waiting for Shandurai in the dark outside his room. When she comes in, he only turns on the light without calling her name. Then she comes back in the middle of the hallway. The camera moves vertically up to the top of the staircase and gives a medium shot of Mr.Kinsky. He looks down and says “thank you” with his awkward gestures in an anxious tone. “It was…it was the most kind…I…I mean… It was very thoughtful of you to mend the hem of my trousers.” Following the eyeline match, Shandurai stands in the shadow and looks up. “It’s part of my work Mr.Kinsky.” She says calmly. Then the camera goes back to the top, he says “Well...thank you all the same…Good night.” Again, the camera moves down to Shandurai. “ Good night.” She says. This is the first time in the movie when Mr. Kinsky talks to Shandurai. The dialogue seems simple but it involves many pauses and short silences. What makes this sequence significant is the background-the staircase. Along with the camera movements, the staircase constructs a sense of distance between Mr. Kinsky and Shandurai. It emotionally and geographically insinuates Mr.Kinsky and Shandurai’s social backgrounds: The higher powerful European country on the top and the lower colonial African country on the ground. In between is the endless spiral staircase.
In general, both of the staircase and the dumb-waiter play a static character in the movie. It is the barrier of Mr.Kinsky and Shandurai’s communication. However, it is also the one that witnesses and bears the weight of love.
From Shandurai’s perspective, Bertolucci emphasizes the obstacle of Kinsky and Shandurai’s communication by depicting her two dream scenes. Shandurai’s first dream occurs at the very beginning of the movie. Tracking shots and crane shots give us a bird view of the beautiful African landscapes. Then quickly we have the film tableau of a wizened African grio singing the old tales under a huge baobab tree. After that, the grio’s singing becomes the overall backgrounds and the jump cuts bring us to a typical colonial African city. We see soldiers and propagandas of the new national founder. Finally we are brought to Shandurai’s life. Through Shandurai’s eyes, we have a chance to observe the living and political condition of the people in her hometown. At the same time, Bertolucci also places the spectators in a particular position to witness Shandurai’s fear, anger and anxieties when the jeeps take away her husband. However, when she shouts at them, we cannot hear her voice but the African grio’s singing. Bertolucci constructs two different dimensions in the same timeline. The African grio is telling a story in African dialect. Instead of explaining in words, Bertolucci shows what happens to Shandurai. Thus at the moment when the jeeps disappear in the dust, we see the old grio coming to us. With the same facial expression as before, he is still singing. In fact, he is the magic storyteller who delivers a story about Africa, and the retrospect of Shandurai’s unfortunate life.
The African grio continues his story in Shandurai’s second dream. However, something has changed. Different form the original naked appearance, the grio is wearing a proper white suit and an orange tie. In the background, Shandurai is ripping all of the dictator’s posters off. Bertolucci utilizes a fast motion editing to accentuate her angers and uncontrollable emotions. Then Shandurai suddenly stops when she sees Kinsy’s face on the poster. This political allusion highlights the western manipulation in Africa and how Shandurai struggles in between. The cultural and emotional barrier transfers to the political dictatorship that causes the tragedy of Shandurai’s family. At the moment she tears down that poster, Mr.Kinsy’s face is split into pieces. The final sequence of Africa’s landscape is a recapture of Shandurai’s first dream that brings back the Africa theme. Landscape is the essential visualization and representation of a country. Dreaming of the landscape shows Shandurai’s longing for Africa and her desire for the sense of belonging. Unconsciously embedded in Shandurai’s mind, the two dreams are the crucial elements that indicate her own judgments and beliefs of her African identity. This identity also makes it more difficult for her to communicate with Mr.Kinsky as well as to accept his love because Shandurai’s self-consciousness does not give her any chance to enter Kinsky’s world.
Music also reflects the barriers and obstacles in Kinsky and Shandurai’s communication. Bertolucci states: “In Besieged there is this struggle between African music and Western classic music, which is of course the confrontation of two different cultures, but it is also the way of communicating or the way not being able to communicate”. In the movie, there are not many “words” between the two characters but music. Thus music eventually becomes the main intermedium and expectation to pass the messages and thoughts from one to another. The movie starts with the traditional African music performed by a half-naked African groi. Then we have the scene that Mr.Kinsky plays Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor while Shandurai is dusting his antique collections. The huge contrast between the two different music genres is also the manifestation of two different cultures of the characters. When Mr.Kinsky plays the piano, he is actually performing the piece for Shandurai because he is aware that she is behind him or she is somewhere in the house. He wants her to become his only audience. He also imagines and believes that she can understand his perspectives through his music, and more importantly, his love. However, for Shandurai, Kinsky’s music is something dry and obscure. It is something that does not belong to her. This misunderstanding leads to the explosion of their emotions. When Kinsky expresses his love through his music, Shandurai shouts, “I don’t understand!” She shouts, “Why? I don’t understand this and I don’t understand your music!” Suddenly, the music stops and all of Kinsky’s expectations are destroyed.
However, things start to change at this point. Rather than simply expressing his feeling to Shandurai, Kinsky begins learning about Shandurai as a person and respects her culture in a really precise way. He goes to the African church and studies the totally different music forms. Later on, he develops the African style elements into his own composition. This change is significant because their differences that assimilate within the culture of Rome in a way unites Kinsky and Shandurai. Influenced by Shandurai, as Kinsky composes his concerto, he also constructs his proofs of love. First there are the short chords and he starts playing for Shandurai when she is hoovering. From Kinsky’s view, we find a distinctive beauty that is lively and powerful from Shandurai’s profile: her hair, eyebrows, and her dark skin. Every movement of Shandurai inspires Kinsky’s minds and senses. As he observes Shandurai, the progressions of the melody flow into his mind, just like fires and waterfalls. At the same time, we discover Shandurai’s response from her facial expression. This is really the epic moment of the movie because it is the fist time our two characters start to understand each other and are actually communicating with each other. In addition, a sense of resonance and harmony slowly builds up between the two characters. Bertolucci suggests “She is the muse and he’s inspired by her, and because he wouldn’t dare put his hand on her, his sexual desire goes into the music and he starts giving shape and form to the music and it’s the moment where he seduces her for real.” Indeed, Shandurai smiles. The color of her pupils becomes soft and gentle. Her body dances along with the rhythm of the music. Through music, Shandurai hears Mr.Kinsky’s love. There is no need for more words and illustrations because in this particular moment, Shandurai sees both of the passion and sorrow of Kinsky’s soul. For Kinsky, at the same time, Shandurai is the goddess who gives his music life and makes him understand what the sound of love is.
Beyond Kinsky’s music, the change of communication is also subtly constructed in silence. Back to the beginning of this movie, along with the presence of the question mark sheet, the pink orchid, the ring that are carried by the dumb-waiter, things start to gradually disappear: the sculptures, the paintings, the tapestries, the furniture, the carpet…When Shandurai was astonished with all the disappearances, She exclaims “Oh! The bookcase!” and Mr. Kinsky does not reply anything. However Shandurai is aware of his sacrifice. The envelope, the disappeared statue that she discovered in the antique store, and finally her witness of the transportation of the grand piano… All of these clues pass her a silent secret: Kinsky is ready to give away everything in order to bring her husband back to her. In this way, the communications finally transforms into the proofs of Mr. Kinsky’s love. By collecting these proofs, Shandurai’s attitudes towards Kinsky have changed. From rejection to acceptation, Shandurai struggles in her experience of her obscure feelings to Mr.Kinsky. Yet at the moment she knows that her husband is alive and is coming to her, Shandurai cries and screams his name: “Mr.Kinsky…Mr. Kinsky!!” At the sunset of Rome, she sees the truth: The truth of love. In the end, with all of her passion and gratitude, Shandurai writes down her silent secret: “Mr. Kinsky, I love you.”
Love, is probably the most paradoxical and mysterious existence in the universe. Everyone believes in love. However, love is not easy to be portrayed, and it is complicated to give the evidence that illustrates what love really is. “Il n’y a pas d’amour, il n’y a que des preuves d’amour.” (There is no love. There are only proofs of love.) It is such a sorrowful and striking line that depicts the impression of love. Bertolucci says, “ If I happen to say ‘I love you,’ but the other person says, “Yeah.” Well, it’s easy to say ‘I love you,’ it’s more difficult to give proof, proofs of love, Right? Besieged is all about that.” Later he adds, “I had this idea that came naturally out of the story. The only way of being really happy is making happy the people you love. ” Bertolucci makes such a concise statement of love. He presents us an extraordinarily beautiful love story simply based on giving and sacrifice. However, Besieged is also the most exquisite piece of love because Bertolucci creates different ways of communication between the two characters. It combines varying elements from different temporal planes. Every element is a proof. By following these proofs, we finally capture the smile on Kinsky’s face in his empty house. He is satisfied and content just like a baby who receives the most precious candy, and we know the candy is her, Shandurai.
1. Movie : Bernardo Bertolucci. L'Assedio (Besieged)
2. Book: Bernardo Bertolucci Interviews, Ed Fabien S. Gerard, T. Jefferson Kline, University Press of Mississippi 2000
3. Articles: Lesley Chow. Besieged: http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/05/36/besieged.html
Francis Akpata. Besieged:http://www.talkingpix.co.uk/ReviewsBeseiged.html