The Conformist


“Molina is the moviegoer as auteur.
Babenco was reaching for something
larger, something tragic and aggressively
moral”—Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

Perhaps this film, “The Conformist,” directed by Bernaldo Bertolucci is the reason why Manuel Puig preferred Jean-Louis Trintignant to play Molina in “Kiss of the Spider Woman”—rather than William Hurt.

European directors like Bertolucci, Visconti and Pasolini—as well as actors like Jean-Louis Trintignant—are relatively more sophisticated and acquainted with decadence and homosexuality on the screen. 

“The Conformist” was probably seen by Puig in Buenos Aires—known as the Berlin of South America. The way Trintignant plays Marcello, a repressed homosexual in pre-war Fascist Italy, is perhaps close to what Puig had in mind in terms of an actor who could authentically play a gay personality like Molina.

Molina and Marcello aren’t naïve when it comes to being gay in a repressive anti-gay fascist society—in many ways Italy and Argentina are scenes of the same perverted fascist belief systems.

Pauline Kael in her review of Spider Woman in The New Yorker quipped that “Hurt as Molina is like having a basset hound playing a chihuahua.”

The problem is did William Hurt have any experience or idea what goes through the head of a Latino drag queen—who like so many movie-loving gays had arranged a personal theater of romantic fantasy constantly playing inside her imagination.

Puig in his novel is saying that queens may be useless, silly window-dressing, like movie romances—but it can be lovely to enhance life, making it more rapturously giddy despite or because of how awful the world around them can be.

Trintignant plays Marcello in “The Conformist” with a homoerotic depth much more seriously and authentically—than a rather clueless Hurt who never quite manages to capture the pathos, irony and fag jouissance of Puig’s Molina. 

The Italian novelist Alberto Moravia who wrote the acerbic  “The Conformist” met Puig in a colloquium discussing movies in Rome. Moravia, a seasoned cineaste, was asked by Puig how a star’s presence affected the interpretation of a novel—wondering if it either strengthened or weakens a character.

One has to ask would Trintignant playing Molina had been as successful at Cannes and the Academy Awards—as William Hurt playing Molina was?

Obviously, one has to also ask to what extent did the Hollywood str8t bourgeoisie mentality—purposely “transumptively” recast Molina as a politically correct courageous heroic fag femme fatale in respect to Puig’s quite different version of Molina in his movie?

Puig wasn’t a sentimentalist. There is no authorial voice as such—and the motives behind what the men say are elusive. 

There’s an indication that both men are subversively using each other. Molina using Raul Julia to squeal to the warden—and to get her release. And Julia using Molina to pass the time and fuck every once in awhile. 

The movie supposedly about Molina’s transfiguration thru the power of love, happiness and self-respect (that is shedding his effeminate mannerisms)—all this bourgeois redemptive crap is as phony as the forties screen movies that Molina watches.

Puig shrugged—responding to interviewers with an author’s fatalism, alluding to the nasty old Hollywood story in which writers so often felt cheated fiscally as well as creatively.

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