Review: ‘The Last Emperor’

Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor" reaches DVD in the version the Academy recognized, as opposed to the longer, misleadingly labeled 218-minute "director's cut" Bertolucci calls "not much different from the other one, just a little bit more boring."

Twenty years after it swept the Oscars, Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” reaches DVD in the version the Academy recognized, as opposed to the longer, misleadingly labeled 218-minute “director’s cut” Bertolucci calls “not much different from the other one, just a little bit more boring.” A fancy new Criterion edition privileges the original 165-minute theatrical cut; however, lest consumers think they are paying more for less (the set retails for a staggering $59.95), the package includes fresh transfers of both versions and another nine hours of behind-the-scenes material. Now if only Criterion would get on the Blu-ray bandwagon.

For all its grandeur, “The Last Emperor” may be the least revisited best picture winner of the past quarter-century, but it also ranks among the classiest. “The Last Emperor” is epic in the sense the Academy appreciates, but also poetic as only someone such as Bertolucci could have interpreted it (in contrast with a film like “Kundun,” for example). And now, this precious cultural snapshot seems ripe for discovery by a whole new generation, one that brings insights into modern China to the experience — not to mention hardware capable of doing justice to the film’s striking widescreen compositions.

There are worse things than boredom in cinema, and Bertolucci is wrong to dismiss the four-hour version, which proves quite manageable at home. Newly rechristened the “television version” by Criterion, this longer cut can easily be divided over two or more nights (the project actually originated as a five-part series). Though no major scenes were sacrificed in editing it down, the extra material (much of it depicting Peter O’Toole’s character) provides more fabric in this most exquisite of tapestries.

Though O’Toole serves as a Western proxy of sorts, audiences discover the film’s unfamiliar world through the eyes of Pu Yi. His countrymen may have judged him a war criminal, but Pu Yi appears here as a victim of his time, his life defined as a series of literal and metaphorical prisons. From his coronation at age 3, Pu Yi experienced divine status and power that extended no further than the walls of the Forbidden City. These scenes appear in stark contrast with the Communist rehabilitation camps of his later life. By weaving the two periods together, Bertolucci illuminates the tragedy of Pu Yi’s so-called “glory days,” his palace little more than a gilded cage for the empty symbol he represented.

That poetic sensibility extends to the film’s visuals as well. Though beautiful compositions come naturally to Bertolucci, this lavish production outdoes even the director’s earlier epics. Unique among independent productions, the film boasts a cast of thousands and previously unheard access to the Forbidden City itself — tangible qualities too frequently synthesized with computer-generated imagery these days. Here, such assets were heightened by the contributions of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, costume designer James Acheson and late art directing legend Ferdinando Scarfiotti (the former two appear extensively in the extras).

Documentaries old and new shed light on all aspects of the production, from Storaro’s sophisticated color design to the unique score (which blends Western-style orchestration from Ryuichi Sakamoto with David Byrne’s unique Orientalism). In the commentary, Bertolucci explains that he originally wanted Sean Connery for the role of Reginald Johnston, the emperor’s Scottish tutor. Ironically, Connery won his only Oscar that same year for “The Untouchables,” while O’Toole wasn’t even nominated.

“The Last Emperor” marks only the third Oscar best picture winner in Criterion’s impressive DVD catalog and builds upon the company’s ongoing relationship with Bertolucci. Witnessing the care and respect they pay “The Last Emperor” (going so far as to indulge Storaro’s controversial reframing of the film’s aspect ratio from 2.35:1 to 2:1), it’s a shame Criterion didn’t handle restorations of either “The Conformist” or “1900,” two of the director’s earlier epics that Paramount released from their vaults with minimal attention just over a year ago.

Unlike the EPK-style featurettes that so frequently accompany studio releases, these hand-picked extras focus more on artistic philosophy than hype. An hourlong documentary entitled “The Italian Traveler,” for example, captures the randy sensuality of Bertolucci’s love affair with cinema, as reflected in the suggestion, “Instead of full-page ads to promote a movie, we could run a personal ad like this: ‘Sexual vagabond, 50 years old, erotic and virile, wishes to meet perverse woman with an adventurer’s soul to live out extraordinary sexual fantasies. Come meet me at the movie theater at 3:00, 5:00, 7:00 and 9:00.'” Where others make movies to make money, Bertolucci does so in order to ravish the imagination.

The Last Emperor

Release: Feb. 26; $59.95


A Criterion Collection release.
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