According to Yosefa Loshitzky’s chapter “The Quest for the Other: Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky” in her book The Radical Faces of Godard and Bertolucci, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor is best understood politically and psychoanalytically. The idea is that sex and politics are intimately intertwined, both having to do with power and relationship with the Other. The author makes a good point, or rather many good points, but her argument is suspect because it makes Bertolucci’s film a remarkable failure. This is possible, but improbable.
For one thing, she makes the case that the Forbidden City is reified, or in her words, made into a spectacle, by Bertolucci. This point invites debate, because it raises multiple questions before it can be answered. It would seem, though, that the Forbidden City was built with the idea of spectacle in mind as a major priority. It legend, aesthetic, and history make this point. Second, film itself is a medium of spectacle by definition. Therefore, whether Bertolucci intended for the Forbidden City to appear as a “spectacle” in The Last Emperor is nearly beside the point. Spectacle plus spectacle equals spectacle. Bertolucci would have had to go to enormous pains to avoid the Forbidden City looking spectacular. Since it did look spectacular in the film, we can safely assume that he was quite comfortable presenting the palace as it is.
The idea of the palace as the womb, the embodiment of the woman, holds potential but is taken too far. Taken to its logical conclusions, the Forbidden City then signifies a level of feminine identification that encourages excessive deuterohermeneutics. That is to say, this position causes one to read into the film too much. Perhaps when the 3-year-old emperor emerges for the first time from the palace and pushes through the golden translucent sheet we are to take it as a metaphor for the birth canal. And perhaps, before that scene, when the young boy is transported into the Forbidden City for the first time, this is to be understood as penetration/impregnation. Perhaps. Problem is, when one sees a motif such as this, it’s all too easy to construct a relatively coherent justification for it. If it seems a stretch, it might be worth sticking to the more overt meanings of the film.
The author’s main argument, however, is interesting and provocative. The argument observes that the emperor’s memories (1) occur during a time of crisis, (2) are brought on by free associations, and (3) fundamentally distinguish the politics of China before and after the Cultural Revolution.
1. The film’s diegetic “presence” is found during the deposed emperor’s period of interrogation and reeducation in the labor-camp-slash-detention-center. Times of crisis tend to “color” one’s past recollections, as is literally done in the emperor’s memories. Were one to view the film solely on an aesthetic basis, it would seem that Bertolucci was glorifying pre-Cultural Revolution China as the utopia that the West should emulate. That period contains richer, deeper, and simply more colors than the film’s depiction of Maoist China. The camera shots, too, are grander and more varied (from both above and below).
2. Seemingly random occurrences spark the emperor’s memories. The first flashback (which is of dubious recollective value) takes place when knocking on a door in the detention center psychically connects the emperor to his first entrance into the Forbidden City at the age of three.
3. Most importantly of the three, the film is divided into a few pieces, but most importantly into two stages: the remembered and the present. The remembered past is connected with the feminine, the unconscious, and the imagined. China at the time was powerless, seen in the fact that the Forbidden City had on its throne a clueless child. At the child’s coronation, we glimpse the only woman in the film to hold any kind of power: the dying empress. And this is the point; she is dying. She delivers a few lines before a large, black pearl is inserted into her mouth, signifying her death. Before dying, however, she tells the boy that men are not permitted in the palace past dusk. The “men” that surround them are not really men, for they are eunuchs. Only the emperor himself may live in the Forbidden City. Thus, the city is emasculated, as its one male is still a child.
Once the boy enters adolescence, it turns out that he has poor eyesight and needs glasses. Peter O’Toole’s very Western character puts up a fight to ensure that the boy receives the spectacles. The article makes the point that his lack of site corresponds with his overall (Freudian) Lack. In classic Oedipal form, the boy’s castration matches his lack of sight. It has also been argued, however, that the boy’s glasses illustrate enlightenment, which can be easily connected with Western enlightenment/knowledge, since it was Johnston, his tutor, who got him the glasses. In this way, the past portion of the film illustrates lack of knowledge and consciousness.
Actually, how it illustrates unconsciousness isn’t totally clear. Presumably, the emperor’s lack of awareness of what is taking place beyond the walls of the Forbidden City is an instance of this. Once he finds out that he has been deposed and imprisoned, it’s much too late to do anything about it. As for the imagined, this refers to the earlier point that the emperor’s crisis-driven memories are tinted by his lack of knowledge at that time and need for imagination to fill in the gaps of knowledge.
Once the Cultural Revolution occurs and the film takes us to the “present” full-time, the emperor’s reeducation show that this is now a stage of knowledge. His imagination is not useful, because it is objectivity that now matters. When he attempts to exercise any kind of imagination, he is chastised and punished. Perhaps most significantly, women slowly disappear as the film moves into the stage of communist China. The ex-emperor loses both of his wives. The pilot woman fades away. The only display of femininity is masked in masculinity, as the woman dance on the street during the “parade” wearing men’s clothes. As has been observed, this was probably less influenced by Bertolucci than by the social reality in China, where women must wear men’s clothes in order to lessen the sexual distinction.
The author’s main contention is that Bertolucci’s attempt to glorify the Chinese utopia of communism failed. It failed because, for all his innovation, Bertolucci falls back into very normative sexual politics by reducing the past to femininity and the idealized present to masculinity. The point is actually not nuanced at all, even despite Bertolucci’s strong adherence to Communist principles. It can be added that Bertolucci also failed for idealizing his ideals and not being conscious enough of his own psyche. The drabness that covers China after the Cultural Revolution is not inspiring at all. Could it be inspiring to someone like Bertolucci, who is at his best when he gives free reign to colors and opens his lens full-throttle? As a member of the Italian Communist Party, it is shocking that Bertolucci sees post-Cultural Revolution China as the utopia when it was the pre-revolution that looked so much more appealing. In this way it is Bertolucci’s honesty that did him in. To depict Imperial China as drab and Communist China as beautiful would have been disingenuous. The film would have been seen as a propaganda film rather than an epic. So in the end, perhaps it is better to have before us a flawed epic than a glorious exploitation film.