Young people, film buffs, a whole generation discovered that they were not locked out from society as they believed they had been, in a way, that they could actually, themselves, effect real change.
—Gilbert Adair, “Outside the Window: Events in France, May 1968”
It’s an eye-opener.
—Michael Pitt, “Bertolucci Makes The Dreamers”
“Because of the character of my movies, I see the story, but I see especially the characters going to their shape, day after day, and if you shoot in chronology and continuity, you can see even better that phenomenon,” says Bernardo Bertolucci while watching the opening credits of The Dreamers. “At the beginning, they are a bit unshaped, and day after day, you can see them becoming something new, something that didn’t exist before.”
The start of The Dreamers shows a young American student, Matthew (Michael Pitt), as he encounters Paris, signaled here by conventional images like cobbled streets and the Eiffel Tower. He looks naïve and pale and, as someone tells him soon, “clean.” But, for all Bertolucci’s skills and the beauty of his backdrop, Matthew doesn’t exactly become “something that didn’t exist before.” Rather, he’s a character you’ve likely seen before, in part by design, as The Dreamers quotes from all sorts of 1950s and 1960s films, in particular the French New Wave. As becomes clear on the Fox DVD commentary, separate tracks by Bertolucci, Gilbert Adair, and screenwriter Jeremy Thomas, each man brought to bear his memories and subjective senses of Paris 1968, the hope, energy, and eventual dissipation of that moment, filtered through some serious nostalgia
This multiply layered frame is revealed in the film’s two historically-minded featurettes, the 14-minute “Outside the Window: Events in France, May 1968” (including footage and interviews with experts on the relevant cultural history) and “Bertolucci Makes The Dreamers,” in which interviewees repeat some of the same comments as before, but here in the service of describing the production per se. As the production is so “autobiographical” (for the director especially, who was involved with the cinephile riots in France in 1968), much of the recollection is doubled, as the makers recreate what they remember, to make it immediate for the screen.
Bertolucci enumerates several of his philosophical notion regarding filmmaking: for one thing, the characters and the actors are interchangeable to him, and for another, time in cinema is always “present.” “Because in cinema,” he says, “You are allowed only to contemplate only one tense, the present, because when you are contemporary to what you shoot, or whom, this prevalence of the present is something that we cannot forget, that we cannot ignore.” It’s easy to understand this idea of the present in the film, even if is occasionally strained.
During the first moments of The Dreamers, Matthew finds love at the Cinémathèque Française. The camera pans over the audience, light from the screen spilling over their upturned faces. And what is movie that so enthralls them? Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor, a film that not only inspired the Nouvelle Vague, but also brilliantly challenged U.S. political institutions and moral presumptions. Following this first scene, however, Shock Corridor is disappeared from The Dreamers, its famous immoderation—its indictments of U.S. racism and sexism, the war against North Korea, the newspaper business, and psychiatry—lost in a shuffle of other excesses (which led to the film’s NC-17 rating; it is also available on an R-rated DVD).
While these excesses will not be surprising for viewers familiar with Bertolucci’s work and ideas, neither will they challenge anything resembling the status quo. The latest movie from the director of Last Tango in Paris is all about reaffirming wistful memories of a place and time—Paris, May 1968—when revolution seemed possible and worthy, even if the crass commercialists and cynics have long since won out. The frustration of The Dreamers lies in its easy lapsing into such unimaginative nostalgia, as if recalling the moment is enough: no questions need be asked, of participants, observers, or chroniclers.
Matthew’s personal revolution tends to obscure the student demonstrations of 1968, because, the film suggests, he’s a kid—sensitive, smart, cinephilically inclined—who’s distracted by immediate gratifications. (This following the minute when he’s drawn to the student protests and speeches by film professors and Cinémathèque curator Henri Langlois, as well as the exhortations of Jean-Pierre Léaud himself, only, of course, considerably older than he was back then.) Matthew’s more captivating objects of affection arrive in the form of twins Théo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green). These crass French kids see the foreigner as an object for their own game-playing, and so they gambol on Parisian streets, accompanied by the soundtrack to The 400 Blows, in love with the spring weather, the future stretching before them, each other, and themselves.
The idea of the twins surely resonates with the sort of self-involvement that The Dreamers investigates, but these kids are so languid and lovely, so immersed in each other as self-reflecting images, that they also pose a risk and seduction for the naïve and intense American. And so, they invite him inside. First, he enters their home, specifically, the classically lovely apartement where they live with their bored-seeming, sophisticated mother (Anna Chancellor) and poet dad (Robin Renucci).
At first Matthew is enchanted by the dinner table “philosophical speculating,” Isabelle and Théo smoking ceaselessly, he in black turtleneck, but of course. Matthew even imagines himself quick enough to step in, regarding the ways that all lines intersect and all things connect—Matthew is surprised to learn that the performance he thought was solidly smart and entertaining has only bored Isabelle and Théo. His perspective apparently needs some adjustment, and he’s all too willing to shift—or go through the motions of shifting—in order to impress his new friends.
When the parents leave for a month’s vacation, the kids hole up together, immersing themselves in dense discussions of the relative merits of Hendrix and Clapton, or Keaton and Chaplin. By way of increasingly heavy-handed illustration, the film repeatedly reveals the sources of their potentially clever allusions, as well as having the kids name the films in question. Thus, Isabelle brings up Jean Seberg in Breathless, and the film shows that; she performs a scene from Blonde Venus and the film shows that (the memorable Dietrich in a gorilla suit scene). Rarely does The Dreamers trust its audience to grasp a reference—all are spelled out, such that any deeper context—what movies meant in the ‘60s, for the Cahiers du Cinema and others, how movies intersected with sexual or political revolutions—is laid out like a roadmap, ironically leaving little room for viewers’ own “dreaming.”
As a surrogate viewer, Matthew provides simultaneous judgment of and seduction by the twins, whose “corruption” is suggested in their incestuous intimacy (they never quite sleep together on screen, though Matthew’s erect penis is shown, as he serves as mediating lover for the siblings). Once he proves himself able to keep up—literally, during a run through the Louvre emulating the one enacted by the three youngsters in Godard’s Bande à Part—Matthew finds himself accepted. Bertolucci says in the making of documentary, that here he is quoting the filmmaker who is obsessed with quotation. Moreover, this moment is underlined by cuts to Tod Browning’s Freaks, as Isabelle and Théo chant, “One of us, one of us.” Quoting, yes, it’s a meaningful exercise.
This thematic interest in the ways that movies reflect and shape lived experience is exacerbated by the kids’ sexual experimenting. The camera lingers on their exquisite, lithe bodies - bodies that plainly haven’t spent much time outside the privileged existence the film depicts—in ways that are not so much shocking as they are deferential and, after a while, redundant. Framed by mirrors, lounging in tubs and at the kitchen table, the kids are, as Bertolucci puts it, “regressing” into childishness. Matthew unknowingly deflowers Isabelle (girls losing various forms of virginity being a favorite topic of Bertolucci’s), the boys gaze longingly and competitively on one another, and Isabelle begins to unravel.
Adair describes the dynamic this way: There is a sexual tension between Matthew and Théo, but their relationship is between Matthew and Isabelle, though… it’s an early time for sexual arousal, nobody’s that formed. So in this film, they’re learning about sex, they’re all virgins… They’re learning about those feelings in the film. It’s the ‘60s after all, and that was a wonderful period. Some would say a decadent period, but in fact, it was not. Of course, it was a wonderful, free and innocent time. And sex had a different meaning then because it was a moment when one didn’t have an idea of sexual disease.”
Isabelle’s destruction is this unoriginal film’s least compelling, least compelling, and least worthwhile quotation—the crazed young girl, driven over a series of edges by cruel young men (Théo is obviously selfish and angry, Matthew is only self-absorbed enough not to look out for her very carefully). Isabelle’s increasingly self-destructive tragedy doesn’t reveal anything you haven’t seen or thought of before, especially if you have even a passing familiarity with the array of films quoted by The Dreamers.
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