From Bernardo Bertolucci: Interviews edited by F.S. Gerard, T.J. Kline & B. Sklarew (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000; pp. 260-267)
The husband is a kind of character from a dream because the movie starts with a dream, a dream which is half a dream and half a flashback, like often dreams can be. In fact, when she cries, when she shouts at the jeeps, the jeeps which are taking away her husband, you can’t hear her voice, like in dreams when you can’t hear words.
In fact, from there we cut to her in bed having a nightmare, shouting and waking up. And the present is the noise of the dumb waiter coming down with a question mark (written on music paper among her clothes). And later, the objects disappear, sculptures, paintings, tapestry.
And then she tells him, when she’s vacuuming, that there is not much to dust here; he says, ‘I know,’ with a kind of joy, because he’s in the fulfillment of his mission. And the mission is to free her husband. The disappearing objects correspond to a great gratification for him. So giving away, he gets something—giving away, he gets this kind of great gratification. You can see it, while at the beginning he was awkward and weird and shy and aggressive, at the end he’s kind of growing up. He’s more adult. It’s a true relinquishment. It’s not a manipulation at all because she doesn’t know what he is doing. So he’s doing it without even the privilege of being able to say, ‘You see, I’m doing this for you.’ So it’s the total annihilation of selfishness which gives him an incredible substitute for sex—a very solitary feeling of being able to take this mission to an end. He will free her husband.
The real character of the film is the spiral staircase. Then the piano. Then you have a woman and a man. In fact, it could be considered a kind of post-modern variation on the Tango theme, but I believe I have been even more economical here on the minimalist side.
She lives there and in exchange for having a nice room, she cleans and irons. The arrangement is that she has the room and maybe some pocket money. But there is a kind of meditation, washing and cleaning. It is a kind of therapy.
You can see that when she’s in the nightclub pouring a beer; the foam of the beer becomes the foam on the floor and then she wipes the floor with this foam and there is a Beethoven piece and she’s in the spiral staircase and it’s a little piece I really wanted, where there are no words.
And if you noticed that in the first twenty minutes of the film, there are so few words; the beginning is completely silent of words, not of sounds, but of words. Part of the reason for this is that recently I’ve been struggling with the question: Where is cinema going? How much should cinema try to fuse with new technologies? I think Besieged answers these kinds of questions. My feeling was that I had to go back to the cinema of origins, as it was before the advent of sound in 1927 when it succeeded in communicating feelings uniquely through images. In fact the first fifteen to twenty minutes of the film are silent like the cinema of the origins.
In Besieged there is this struggle between African music and Western classic music, which is of course the confrontation of two different cultures, but it is also the way of communicating or the way of not being able to communicate. Indeed, Besieged is a metaphor for the shock between cultures—and it’s precisely their differences from the culture of Rome which unite Kinsky and Shandurai.
I’ve always been a partisan of all forms of cultural ‘contamination’ whether on the stylistic level, as an artist, or on the cultural level, as a man. So we see that while he is composing his concerto that he’s being influenced by her and it’s so underwritten, and he begins playing for her when she’s vacuuming. And the more he plays the more he becomes very sensual. She is the muse and he’s inspired by her, and because he wouldn’t dare put his hand on her, his sexual desire goes into the music and he starts giving shape and form to the music and it’s the moment where he seduces her for real. It’s not so much the discovery that he has given up everything for her; she’s already been seduced by the music.
I always had a great love for music. I always felt that in this huge amount of camera movements that are in my movies, what was driving the camera was musical input. I always thought that my camera moves for musical reasons. A kind of internal music you cannot hear.
In the beginning Kinsky is a real weirdo because he is in love. And he has an awkwardness which is not appealing. He’s shy and aggressive. I think that his love declaration is a masterpiece on the verge of becoming ludicrous, because he’s so awkward that he’s incredibly shy and terribly aggressive. He takes, he grabs her as if he wants to rape her. Then, in fact, he just wants to say, ‘Marry me.’
And then, little by little, because of the accomplishment of his mission he becomes appealing, and at the end of the film Kinsky is attractive although Shandurai was first repelled by him. I’m talking of his mission of giving a proof of love by giving up everything he owns just to get her husband out of jail. He becomes attractive and appealing because of this extraordinary proof. I mean what she does eventually is not a mercy (thank you) fuck. It’s her life; it’s going in that direction now.
I don’t know what to do. I thought I could get myself together. I thought I’d pull through. I thought I could lay to rest the ghost I’d set loose. What a fool! I sip my soup. I wipe my mouth. I drop my serviette. I don’t know what to do. I can’t believe a wandering phantom is all I am. Where is my will to struggle? Do I not have inner resources, do I not have any reserves? Once a café like this, in a city like this, would be enough to rouse my spirits. Once a high-backed banquette, with lovers sitting like that, would make me raise my glass in homage. Now they make me cry…
I don’t know what to do. I had a beer in a neighbourhood bar. I felt out of place. I took a walk by the lake. I was so lonely I felt inhuman. At the Abaton Kino I saw Bertolucci’s Besieged. In the tenderness of its silence I let my tears flow. Leaving the cinema, I tried to talk to a woman. I asked her if she’d liked the film. She just walked away. I invited another to a café; she said she’s waiting for her boyfriend. I don’t know what to do. There’s no more Beatles on the Reeperbahn. I don’t know what to do…