The Anti-Bartleby

Il Conformista

Bernardo Bertolucci 1970

Though it seems to be incidental, one of the images that sticks in the mind in this film was Raoul, a relatively minor character, having walnuts covering every surface in his home. He walked and talked, nutcracker in hand, as space was gradually freed up with every snack. It seemed a kind of loosening, of surfaces, of architecture – the thickest of dusts – or some way of measuring behaviour, tracing where one has been. This remained (suitably) unexplained in the film – contributing nothing, it just was, which was something that the set design and art direction was arguably guilty of generally, with many over-the-top (though beautiful) sequences, such as the shots of patients scattered over the grand steps of the insane asylum, like white oracles spread over the tiers of a shallow amphitheatre overlooking the bay. Marcello Clerici, the central character of the film (played by Trintignant), in his desire to conform – which would seem to be consonant with a desire to disappear – takes his assimilation of the prevalent ‘norms’ of society to the extreme of joining a covert government organisation, working to seek out dissidents. Clerici’s desire to become anonymous is interesting for many reasons, not least in the way it is portrayed on film – not only as a critique of the origins and nature of Italian Fascism, but also in the way that the character is seen to become an agent of passivity and inaction. Clerici’s mania for his absorption into the mass, whether it be into the prevailing political system, or the anonymities of domestic life, seems a complex mixture of a violent desire to belong and a terrible blankness. This is obviously connected to the formative trauma in his childhood (where he appears to kill a chauffeur who tries to seduce him) and contributes to his intended withdrawal. One of the interesting sequences was the confession he takes with the priest in preparation for his marriage to a middle-class girl. After questioning him about past sins, which include the volunteered murder of the pederast, the priest asks him about his new bride. Marcello’s reaction, his articulation of blankness and his approach to it, is oddly compelling. Condemning with faint praise, Clerici’s description of his future wife as desperately ordinary, of average intellect and lacking any emotional maturity, he somehow relishes an implied description and delineation of the space she provides for him to dissolve into. He admits that the ‘average’ or ‘normal’ life is what he seeks – “painfully” – as if slipping from an ill-fitting garment in order to dissolve his body entirely – to change the nature of the shadow he casts. This desire to blankness is rooted in uncertainty. Tormented by suppressed memories, and uncertainties about his own desire, Clerici seems eager to disappear into whatever vacancy can be created, and the most readily available, the easiest (no matter what the consequence) is the anonymity of a superficial, sedentary life. Clerici’s movement into blankness and vacancy – an empty space slowly being filled by the prevailing prejudices of the society of the time – is a kind of recession that resonates with other forms of withdrawal, such as Melville’s Bartleby. Yet the vacuum at the heart of Clerici is a passivity borne out of a converse desire – rather than any non preferred act of passive resistance or contamination, Clerici’s disappearance stems from an excess acquiescence, that of going along with anything in order to become inconspicuous, to belong so effectively as to be unnoticed. Clerici’s movement toward dissolution is based in desire and will (based in excess – excess of the average), even if it is the willing denunciation of will. As a result of his own isolation, Clerici’s obsessive pursuit of the mediocre naturally leads him into the heart Fascist regime, yet still he cannot really accomplish anything, lacking the commitment to any cause. The task he has been given (to assassinate his former professor) is eventually taken away from him – the gang of men kill them as he sits impassively in the back of the car, simply remaining in his seat watching it unfold. It is as if Clerici had finally shrunk back beyond himself, as if in a dream, or lost to an out of body experience. His incapacity has overtaken him, and his conforming makes him a passive voyeur, forced to stand by as the figure of difference, the possibility of another life (Sandra) wordless screams at the window. Clerici’s withdrawal into passivity, as he is wrapped up in his overcoat, huddled in the back seat, seems particularly horrific – the anti-Bartleby.

It also seems that his attempts to dismiss or misdirect focus, to avoid attention, only brings it upon him – even the desperate horror pressed against a car window (a screen that is a blockade) – and that he can’t fail but be engaged, to have demands put upon on him, which leads to his ultimate inaction – the scribe who has stopped writing yet watches his task get completed nonetheless. In another two sequences there are other images of Clerici’s contraction. In the first, set in the dance hall, Clerici is caught by the Polonaise that had briefly exited the room – the spiraling dance snares him like an insect in the centre of its vortex, as if he were the blank singularity at the centre of a black hole.

Another beautifully shot sequence alludes more directly to Clerici’s dissipation. He is talking to his former professor in the Paris office. With the blinds closed and sunlight concentrated in deep chiaroscuro, the characters (discussing Plato’s allegory of the cave) cast strong shadows onto the walls. When the blinds are suddenly opened again, Clerici’s silhouette, clearly marked on the plain surface, is suddenly erased – the disappearance of an ideal form, or an illusion, or of all preferences and presence and the opening up of potentiality.