Is it possible to make a movie audience care about a spoiled brat who expects everything to be done for him, including making his decisions? Bernardo Bertolucci may not have asked that question when he made The Last Emperor, but it arises almost inevitably from the lush layer cake he created. The protagonists of epics are usually heroically active. Here the protagonist is passive to the point of submission. The fact that this movie about Pu Yi, the “last emperor” of China, was nonetheless an international success and won the Academy Award® for Best Picture in 1987 suggests Bertolucci touched a nerve of some kind, even if it’s not clear exactly what.
The most obvious explanation for the success is spectacle, because Emperor overdoses on orientalist ostentation. Made when China was reemerging on to the world stage, and partially shot on location in the Forbidden City, the film provides an unprecedented level of exotic luxury that famed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and designer Fernando Scarfiotti lap up like drunk tourists. There’s a junk pile of decoration which, because little of it is integral to the action, ends up less memorable (and visually interesting) than the contrasting, spare prison scenes in which Pu Yi learns to be a responsible human being.
That the director is most interested in the surfaces is accidentally borne out by the Criterion edition DVD. Able to compare the theatrical cut to the longer version edited for Italian television, we can recognize that the latter, while longer, is just as sumptuously opaque. Usually directors’ cuts are, if not necessarily preferable, at least more coherent. Emperor’s longer version merely provides more “stuff” with no more engagement. It’s as if Bertolucci was so in love with the rich materials that he literally couldn’t see anything else.
Whatever drama there is exists largely thanks to John Lone’s performance as the adult Pu Yi. Lone seems to recognize that Pu Yi is not the most attractive character. He gives the emperor a convincing combination of arrogance, naiveté and, in the later sequences, a kind of scuttling, almost impish pathos. His interrogation (or “confession”) scenes with the prison governor (Ying Ruocheng) offer the most human moments in the movie, possibly because the governor’s likable, brusque manner warms things up for both of them.
The alternation between the prison scenes and the overripe flashbacks accentuate their differences, but despite the complex and sprawling structure, Emperor is very smooth, almost sedate. The grotesque lapses that mar so many of Bertolucci’s films are at a minimum, although some of them feel like efforts to trick his otherwise absent romantic sensuality into being, as if he were calculating how to astonish rather than doing it spontaneously. If that sounds like a contradiction, it is just one of many in the magisterial, floating island that is The Last Emperor, a film that never quite convinces we should care about anything more than the look of it.