“Me and You” is only Bernardo Bertolucci’s second film of the new millennium, and his first since 2003’s “The Dreamers.” Next to the scalding beauties of the director’s 1970s peak (“The Conformist,” “Last Tango in Paris,” “1900”), it’s a trivial work. Yet the old master remains a master even in miniature, and this dark, hermetic tale of bourgeois children going bonkers in self-imposed exile has its swoony pleasures. Attention must be paid.
Based on a novel by Niccolo Ammaniti (who had a hand in the screenplay along with the director and two others), the movie is a two-character drama set in a basement. Casting is crucial, clearly. Jacopo Olmo Antinori plays the 14-year-old misfit Lorenzo, and he’s a find: a gray-eyed wolf of a teenager, scarred with acne and sneering at the world like the grandson (or grandfather) of Alex the Droog in “A Clockwork Orange.”
He has a fair amount to sneer at: a dithery fashion-plate mother (Sonia Bergamasco), a divorced and distant father, an upscale life in Rome to which he can’t relate. Telling his mother he’s going on a week-long school skiing trip, Lorenzo instead stocks up on junk food and settles into a storage room in the basement of his apartment building. More than anything, he just wants to be left alone.
No such luck. On day two, his half-sister Olivia (Tea Falco) bursts into the storage room seeking family belongings she can sell. The two barely know each other, since their father left her mother to be with Lorenzo’s before the boy was born. At first an unwanted intruder, Olivia quickly comes to seem a glamorous blonde emissary from a world Lorenzo’s aching to grow into. Eventually, he sees her for what she is: a junkie.
With no place else to go as she tries to kick her habit, Olivia joins her half-brother in half-lit purgatory, their relationship by turns antagonistic and tender. Aside from occasional trips to the surface world — a night-time foray into Lorenzo’s mother’s apartment, with the giant TV screen lit by a bouncing “DVD” logo, says everything about the world the two are fleeing — “Me and You” unfolds in the overheated metaphorical womb of the basement. The water heater clanks overhead and the trunks are filled with the gowns of a long-dead Contessa, clothes that fit Olivia perfectly. On one hand, the two are playing dress-up with the past; on the other, they’re the logical end-result of years of upper-middle-class inbreeding, as much prisoners of their society as the ants in Lorenzo’s oh-so-symbolic ant farm.
The film’s a treat to watch, with luxuriant camerawork by Fabio Cianchetti and a gorgeous, intimate score by Franco Piersanti. It’s a professional piece of work that carries echoes of earlier Bertolucci films — the cloistered emotions of “Last Tango,” the incestuous intensity of “Luna” (1979) and “The Dreamers” (2003) — as well as the forerunner in this mini-genre, Jean-Pierre Melville’s spooky “Les Enfants Terrible” (1950).
But “Me and You” ultimately is less interested in shock value than in an abandoned generation finding companionship and even love as it heads into an unknown, possibly doomed future. Has Bertolucci gone soft or has he grown wise? Discuss.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version incorrectly listed where “Me and You” is playing. It is playing at Brattle Theatre.