The Dreamers
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci. Cast: Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrel, Robin Renucci, Anna Chancellor. Screenplay: Gilbert Adair (based on his novel).
This review is for Shirleen, a dreamer in the good senses, who was my companion for this screening.

Photo © 2003 Fox Searchlight Pictures/Recorded Picture Co.
Who are "the dreamers," anyway? Beautiful innocents oblivious to harsh reality? Naïve simpletons fatally disengaged from the world? Committed social actors with utopian ideals for progress? The term allows all three definitions, and Bernardo Bertolucci's limited but vividly realized film The Dreamers accommodates at least two of them. In fact, it is by abjuring the third that the film coheres beyond the level of glistening collage and erotic mini-adventure. Michael Pitt, the saucer-faced and naggingly pretentious actor from Murder by Numbers and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, stars here as Matthew, an American student living shabbily in Paris in 1968. Thirsty for the city but entirely unsophisticated, Matthew's only stable connection is to the cinema; he receives movies the way other people receive kisses, and indeed his notion of the artform is so swooningly romantic that it's fair to say he receives movies in place of kisses. Gradually, Matthew's fixation on the screen at the Cinématheque Française loosens enough for him to notice other recurrent audience members his own age. The pair who most catch his eye—though he doesn't meet them until the reactionary government has closed the Cinématheque, whose loyalists gather in bereted protest—are Isabelle and Théo, the fille and fils of a wealthy poet and his English wife. Bertolucci and the new actress Eva Green immediately locate Isabelle within the archetype of the premature, eager voluptuary, just as Louis Garrel's Théo is the young, superficially radical hothead. Newly acquainted with Matthew, the American innocent abroad, all three seemingly united by parabolic personalities and a political sense minted exclusively at the movies, The Dreamers looks to gear itself up for an allegorical story about ideological and sexual revolution in the impressive instant of May 1968.

This does and doesn't come to pass, or at least not in the way Bertolucci's signature might imply. Always an opulent visualist, fueled by his Italian brio for locating the micro-political inside the sensual, Bertolucci is for all these reasons an interesting and a frustratingly uneven filmmaker. Both The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris, the movies that guaranteed him a lifelong career, strike me at bottom as unconvincing theses about the incipience of fascism and the ironic boredom lurking within ribald, anonymous sex. Already odd as companion pieces—one mourning the death of freedom, the other puncturing the illusion of total freedom—what The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris really share is a sloping narrative line (robust at the beginning, erratic and listless by the end) and a sense of framing, color, and camera motion that is so hypnotic we can forgive most of the shortcomings. Plus, with staggering lead performances by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Marlon Brando, and underrated female leads in Dominique Sanda and Maria Schneider, the heat coming off the actors is never simply erotic.

With his reputation thus staked on flawed movies, whose tendentious ideas are redeemed by genius-level style, Bertolucci was unlikely to go anywhere but down, and his latter-day career has been remarkably bizarre. His big Oscar opus, The Last Emperor, privileged a total though surprisingly static gorgeousness over the slightest shudder of emotional life. The Sheltering Sky was altogether too turgid to swallow, and I avoided Little Buddha out of residual suspicion. Not that it could have been much worse than Stealing Beauty, a prim paean to Liv Tyler's budding sexuality that fills itself with self-conscious epicureans but never shares their spirit. Operating from the point of view of Jeremy Irons' ailing, autumnal playwright, this was a film about youthful curiosity saturated in the regretful fade of the aging, and that well-worn contrast seemed to strike Bertolucci as enough: a film in absolute refusal of ideas. The slightness of this film, clearly scaled as a miniature but tiny even so, made it all the more surprising that Bertolucci's last film, the underseen Besieged, used its own minimalism in such bold and compelling ways. Beautiful, poignantly acted, and rhapsodically scored, Besieged did not copy the work of the early-70s Bertolucci but it did finally re-frame him in a viable new standpoint. The internal limits in his movies would no longer be set by oppressive ideology, as in The Conformist or The Last Emperor, though the political turmoil of Africa and the modern condition of exile are crucial sounding points for Besieged. All the same, limitation had become mainly formal within Bertolucci's style, and it worked in a way it didn't in Stealing Beauty: this time, in paring down his focus and his cast, his quest for signs of sensual life served as a counter-melody for his story of mundane, politically structured lived reality. Nothing epic happens in Besieged, but the characters and their situation are evoked with such piquancy that it expresses much more than The Last Emperor does, and, even better, it manages this feat by playing to the filmmaker's real strengths.

The Dreamers is still recognizably the work of this latter Bertolucci, the self-disciplined gourmand. When Théo and Isabelle invite Matthew over to dine at their family's apartment, and soon after that invite him to move in during their parents' vacation, the script duplicates the exact trajectory of Besieged, moving from a prologue in the restless world of politics to the inner sanctum of a fortified building, where cultures continue to clash and conjugate, but now on the level of the individual. Two crucial ingredients have changed, though, making obvious that The Dreamers is not a repeat of Besieged. Firstly, the main characters—who because this is a Bertolucci film will inevitably become lovers—are three instead of two, and they include a brother-sister pair. Secondly, the director has a bear of a time letting go of the cinema, and his luxuriating joy in it. As studiously detached as his other films sometimes feel regarding fascism, communism, colonialism, expatriatism, literature, or mythology, cinema is the one subject that electrifies Bertolucci as much as sex does. Though he is uniquely equipped to show us characters whose minds are entirely informed by what they see on screen, which he does in fact do in The Dreamers, he isn't content to infer this connection, to leave the actual cinema so completely behind. So, though Matthew, Isabelle, and Théo live most of the rest of the movie inside their apartment (an ace bit of production design by Jean Rabasse), they can't help sprinting outside from time to time to take in another movie, or to re-enact the scenes from some of their favorites, like Jules et Jim or Bande à part. Even their dialogues are punctuated by inserts of famous shots and scenes. The film, of course, free-associates and sprints around with them.

The Dreamers, then, is a movie with its own identity that nonetheless waxes nostalgic for other movies' identities. Such divided allegiance leads to much confusion, both within the film and within viewers' reactions, about what movie this actually is. And at a certain level, The Dreamers may be too decadent in its moods, tones, and allusions to settle down as any one thing or another. The exuberant cinephilia of the characters is so similar to that of the movie itself that it's hard to believe those rare moments when the film tries to distance itself from them; the sexual curiosities and hormonal appetites of the three leads are so synonymous with the film's own luscious voyeurism that several scenes tread a line between frankness and exploitation, seriousness and silliness. Conversely, the fact that Pitt, Green, and Garrel were born more than a decade later than the film's events can't help exposing that their passions for the nouvelle vague and the nouvelle révolution are something imposed, affected, rather than blindly lived the way Bertolucci must have lived it, and wants us to live it. This disparity leads to a lingering sense that the actors aren't always up to Bertolucci's concepts, that he would just as soon cast himself if he could get away with it—a sense that these post-adolescent performers are doing something wrong, even though, by definition, there may be no actor of their generation who could do it right.

This is why, even though I saw The Dreamers during its theatrical release last March, I am only now reviewing it, as it debuts on DVD in late summer. In one sense, this is awful timing, since few films demand this strongly to be seen in a theater: the shimmer and wonder of the screen and the darkly communal environment of the cinema are such major nodes of the movie that it seems ridiculous to experience it in the den, with yesterday's mail on top of the TV and the microwave pinging in the kitchen. At the same time, The Dreamers is also a terribly hard film to pin down on first viewing, and though its characters love to bask in the direct emotional aftermaths of the movies they see, The Dreamers itself works better (I think) after a good, long marinade in the mind. Anytime a reviewer takes this approach, there's a risk of reducing the film to a few key images, indelible scenes, and durable memories, but again, this tactic proves a felicitous match The Dreamers, whose entire ésprit derives from the joy of the isolated memory-fragment.

What still compels me about The Dreamers, outliving the details of particular shots or the irritating haughtiness at the edges of the performances, is the unexpected sense of balance Bertolucci achieves here within dichotomies he seems doomed to resolve. Are Isabelle and Théo, whose incestuous intimacy and emotional dishonesty become increasingly explicit, a corrupting influence on Matthew or an eye-opening phase through which he passes? The Dreamers avoids the pure cliché of both alternatives and finds a nervy, moment-by-moment tone of combined anxiety and ecstasy. Are all three characters spoiled and self-deluding narcissists or is their radiant impressionability something we all aspire to, or else winsomely recall? Again, despite both the highest praises and most scathing attacks I have read about this film, it seems to me that Bertolucci navigates around the Scylla and Charibdis of easy targeting and ungoverned idealism, producing a movie that is wisely ambivalent about the collision of youth, sex, and politics. The characters aren't drawn as sharply as those in Cuarón's Y tu mamá también, but the movies share an admirable bravery in immersing themselves so deeply in the headstrong, oblivious delectations of student-age characters that we are forced to make up our own minds about the politics of the piece. Where Cuarón tempered the horniness of his movie and his male leads with the more sober Luisa and the omniscient narrator, Bertolucci's omniscient narrators are Godard, Truffaut, Fuller, Bresson. Already, this suggests a kind of internal deification mostly missing from the Cuarón, in part because so many of these filmmakers (Bresson emphatically excluded) were frequently vulnerable to their own self-adorations.

The middle stretch of The Dreamers finds Isabelle seducing Matthew, Matthew longing for both Isabelle and Théo, and all three eventually settling for a shut-in life of equal parts nakedness and posturing. It is this passage of the film that seems most focused on the characters, and it refuses editorialization; here is where the ears of moralists, ideologues, and crude auteurists could all prick up in hopes of a commentary, and they are all bound to be disappointed or offended. But I think Bertolucci is smart here. Not only does the artist in him refuse to condense the movie into a statement, but the poet in him seems to realize that things, bodies, images, and moments speak more eloquently in this situation than filtered comments or interpretations do. This is especially true for characters who are all discovering each other with the half-detachment of anatomists, studying the topography of their bodies and their feelings, taking information but not yet drawing conclusions. A case in point: in an already notorious shot, largely responsible for the absurd NC-17 rating, Isabelle pulls down Matthew's underwear and finds a small photograph he has tucked beneath his penis for erotic safekeeping. Bertolucci's camera goes in close for this image, which is unlike almost anything else in current commercial movies: a penis in close-up, half-erect and arcing down, the skin of Matthew's body perspiring just enough for the photograph to adhere to him of its own accord. However it sounds, it is not an especially sexy image, just as Isabelle's prostrate body, after what turns out to be her first experience of intercourse, is not a sexy image, though a comparably frank one. In both cases, what Bertolucci has captured is the thing-ness of the body, how it sweats and quivers and bleeds and follows its own directives, absent the sublimating art of conventional film. The reason these are touchstone shots for The Dreamers is not because it is a venture in soft-core or a prurient movie; Stealing Beauty featured much less nudity and felt much more prurient. It is instead because the objective eye fixed on an erotic detail, the cool gaze on beautiful things, is the keynote of the movie, serving as a second bridge (beyond their cinephilia) between the uninitiated characters and their 64-year-old director. These boys and this girl are addicted to looking, as is Bertolucci. They don't really want to change anything, and they haven't the faintest idea how to, anyway. They just want to see.

Maybe The Dreamers goes on a little too long, or flirts a little too much with the idea it is going to evolve into any kind of political discourse. Maybe the very setting of Paris in 1968 yields an unsurmountable expectation that the movie will be about politics. The only way in which The Dreamers is about real politics, though, is by negation. At its conclusion, when Matthew, Isabelle, and Théo emerge from their stroking and body-prodding cocoon and pour into a massive street protest, the unmissable implication is that they are not, contrary to anything they might think of themselves, prepared for or even aware of their agenda. The self-containment of their recent experiences, while not something Bertolucci is inclined to judge, is at least something he is inclined to differentiate from the more engaged, programmatic outrage of the other protesters. The 1968 riots are a fly-by here, like the African coup was for Besieged; it has not become a defining point simply by falling at the film's conclusion. To assume a metaphor between the movie's taboo-breaking sexuality (and its filming) and the revolution outside is not a good idea, or a fair one; it seemed to me that The Dreamers knows that its self-indulgent characters, the wealth-insulated siblings and the self-righteous American, are not revolutionaries.

The fact that Bertolucci refuses to come out squarely against self-indulgence leaves him open to all kinds of contrary charges, but I don't think the film bears these out. Sure, it's occasionally wooden, when Eva Green's heavy brows or Louis Garrel's brooding eyes are relied upon to supply emotions that don't belong here. There is an eleventh-hour scene of attempted suicide that almost arrives from another planet, and is itself mistakable as some kind of epiphany, "leading" to the events that follow. The cinematography is uneven. The movie is imperfect. But maybe the worst thing Bertolucci has done is make a good film that is too blithe to distance itself from the offensively precious one it constantly threatens to be, the one that, say, Franco Zeffirelli would have made of the same material. These "dreamers" are class-protected naïfs, and they are beautiful innocents. But they are not role models, not leaders in training, and not indexical figures for the wider scene of social revolt. For this, Bertolucci should not be faulted, he should be thanked. Set when and where it is, cast as it is, presenting steamy material in an unsteamy way, slapped nonetheless with the NC-17—a thankless rating that always connotes smut—The Dreamers is almost guaranteed not to be the film that any of its varied audiences expects, particularly those browsing the shelf at Blockbuster. But on its own terms, it's involving, honest, and memorable. Extend the benefit of the doubt. Take the risk. See the film. Grade: B

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