2003Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Cast: Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrel
aking a quick glance at the directorial filmography of Bernardo Bertolucci, it immediately became obvious that I was ill equipped to measure The Dreamers against the rest of his body of work. Having only seen Last Tango in Paris and Stealing Beauty, it’s a bit presumptuous of me to call myself a Bertolucci fan, even if I did love both. Therefore, all the Bertolucci fans out there are going to have to take this review from whence it comes; from the pages of a film lover’s diary.
The Dreamers is a tale of sensual awakening in volatile 1960s Paris based on the Gilbert Adair novel of the same name. Matthew (Michael Pitt), an American exchange student studying abroad, wiles his days away in the front row of the Cinematheque Francais, voraciously devouring old Hollywood classics. There he eventually meets Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel), mysterious twins who share Matthew’s love of the cinema…
…and that’s not all they share.
Along with a decidedly inappropriate invitation to ditch his hotel room and join them in their rambling Paris apartment while their parents are away, offered mere minutes after meeting him, Matthew gets a glimpse of something equally inappropriate; the relationship between Isabelle and Theo. As twin children of busy intellectuals who are rarely if ever at home, Theo and Isabelle spend literally every moment with each other, their only contact with the outside world consisting of trips to the theater. Not exactly the stuff of healthy socialization, but that’s not the half of it.
Through their shared baths and shared bed, it becomes apparent to Matthew that the closeness between the twins is unlike anything he has ever encountered before, or is likely to encounter again. And as his attraction to Isabelle grows, he finds himself, by turns, equally mystified and frustrated by the ambiguous sex games the twins play, not to mention bewitched by their playful inclusion of him in them.
With the Cinematheque Francais closed until further notice and the 1968 student revolutions beginning to roil in the streets, the trio plunges deeper and deeper into their insular hothouse world of sex and cinematic re-creation. But how much longer can The Dreamers dream before the world outside literally comes sailing through their window?
Those less familiar with Bertolucci and more familiar with the scandalous side of cinema hype are no doubt remembering that The Dreamers is the current flap du jour for its NC-17 rating. And kudos to Fox Searchlight for not putting The Dreamers under the knife to give it an R rated facelift. On the other hand, those who are more familiar with Bertolucci than the media’s tendency to freak out at the drop of the drawers will find these supposedly shocking scenes of full-frontal nudity and deviant sexuality far less surprising than, say, those in Last Tango in Paris.
In fact, while The Dreamers isn’t exactly first date (unless you’re looking to orchestrate a really hot or awkward first date) or family viewing (unless you are a couple of freaky twins), I found myself hard-pressed to see what all the fuss was about. In one camp, we have the American mainstream where violence, no matter how bountifully or sadistically served up, has become an almost essential (or at least expected) ingredient of successful filmmaking. In the other camp, there is the current art house trend of heaping on tons of explicit sex, but with an unfortunate tendency to present it as brutishly, coldly and wretchedly as possible (see: Romance, Irreversible, or Intimacy for examples). Why must sex be dragged through the muck before it can be considered artistically valid? Is it really so subversive of Bertolucci to have given us a bit of explicit sex and then dared to celebrate its beauty and power, or more specifically the power of youthful vitality? Why not more sexy sex onscreen? Can’t we all just get it on?
But enough about the sex, already. Even more people seem to be up in arms at Bertolucci’s use of the '68 student revolt, and indeed the 60s themselves, as mere props to bolster a story that is flimsy and perverse. To this I also cry foul. When you are in your 20s and your personal and sexual destiny is unfolding in huge and immediate ways around you, a little thing like revolution is hardly going to distract you. The Dreamers, for all its wistful nostalgia, isn’t about the 60s. It’s about three young peoples’ passion for the golden age of cinema that propels them forward, quite literally in one fantastic scene where they race through the Louvre in a reenactment of the same scene from Godard’s 1964 film A Band Apart, but more importantly into each others’ orbit. And as they race toward each other heading for an inevitable collision, will they awaken from their respective dreams to face the changes in themselves and the world around them, or merely be destroyed, disillusioned?
The trio is played with amazing fearlessness and promising skill by Pitt, Garrel, and most especially Green. Green wears wily feminine wiles effectively as she torments Garrel, who accepts her abuse with gracefully dignified submissiveness. It will be interesting to see where their careers go from here, particularly Pitt’s—he looks so much like Leonardo DiCaprio that he seems doomed to headline Hollywood fluff forever more. Perish the thought, though, as he (and the rest) appear made for much finer things.
Perhaps as a reaction to the cold gray realism of art house cinema, Bertolucci manages to make even the destruction of Theo and Isabelle’s twisted paradise look warm and beautiful, and I, for one, find this refreshing. The Dreamers isn’t the prurient exercise in voyeurism some insist it is, but rather a very intimate dollhouse of sorts where childish fantasies are played out with an unexpected innocence... especially considering the subject matter. Those looking for more than a beautiful fairy tale with a few unsettling flourishes might not be impressed, but those enamoured with cinema surely will. There doesn’t appear to be any heavy meaning at work here, and to look for one not only invites disappointment but also ruins the illusion.
For all its supposed “faults”, The Dreamers is a lovely, hypnotic film that inspires a sort of longing for the drunken passions of youth, when our worlds were bigger than the world outside us, and its events weren’t enough to stir us from the dream. Dreamers everywhere should flock to this one.
By: Jen Cameron
Published on: 2004-02-25