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Last Emperor, The—Director’s Cut

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

(Italy-U.K.-China| 1987. Colour. Anamorphic. Dolby stereo. 222 mins.)


Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor is being released in an extended ‘director’s cut’ to coincide with the opening of his latest film, The Dreamers. This enormous film marked a successful attempt by Bertolucci to return to an epic treatment of history and politics after the commercial disaster that was 1900. With its lavish production values and sumptuous visuals, the film has something of the grandeur of a David Lean epic, and indeed it won a slew of Oscars to rival those bestowed on Lawrence of Arabia. The two films are fascinating for their very different treatments of historical figures. In Lean’s movie, T.E. Lawrence is presented as the ‘visionary’ man of action who pursues his own agenda with an audacity and single-mindedness that is perhaps born of self-delusion. In The Last Emperor, the last Chinese monarch is viewed by Bertolucci as a creature who changes his personality to conform with the prevailing circumstances. Snatched from his mother as an infant, Pu Yi was taken to the Forbidden City, where he led a closeted existence. The 1912 Republic restricted him to this enclave, where he remained until 1924 as a virtual prisoner. He left the Forbidden City to live as a Westernised playboy before being installed as puppet emperor in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Arrested by the Russians at the end of WW2, he was handed over to Mao’s Communist government. After ten years of imprisonment and re-education, he was given the humble job of gardener.
As Bertolucci has said, the theme of the film is change: ‘Pu Yi’s story is a story of metamorphosis from emperor to citizen, from caterpillar to butterfly.’ The filmmaker’s familiar blend of Freudian and Marxist ideas makes for a compelling drama, but the film is most distinguished by its rich visual style, which goes beyond mere spectacle to embrace a genuinely creative and meaningful use of colour, movement, lighting and composition.

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