Bernardo Bertolucci, 2004
Starring: Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrel
Bernardo Bertolucci’s sexually explicit romantic drama set in Paris, 1968, concerns three young cinephiles: Matthew, an American studying French, and the twins Théo and Isabelle. They meet at the Cinémathèque Française, which all three attend religiously until it is shut down for political reasons. Matthew has no friends until Théo and Isabelle seek him out and soon bring him home for dinner. When their parents go out of town, Matthew essentially moves in and the three ignore the outside world with an intense exploration of cinema, sex and identity until their idyll is shattered by the events of the outside world.
Known for his beautiful, sometimes controversial films, The Dreamers is no exception. Due to its sexual content, the film was released in two versions, an uncut NC-17 limited release and a shorter R-rated version. The sex is certainly more explicit that most historical dramas with tons of male and female nudity, shots of genitalia, etc. I don’t think anyone reading a cult movie blog should feel uncomfortable about the kind of sex and nudity portrayed here, but then I’ve never understood why violence is more acceptable than sex in the visual arts (at least in the U.S.). The sex is obviously simulated and is not going to blow any pornography enthusiasts out of the water, but it might be too intense to watch with, say, a family member or a coworker. There is the implication of incest between Théo and Isabelle, particularly in the scenes where they sleep naked in the same bed, but this is never fully realized.
All three of the actors seem perfectly comfortable with the nudity and sex scenes. It is difficult to say that one of the three shines more than the others, but Eva Green sets herself apart simply because she is the only primary female character and because she is so lovely. Incredibly, this was her film debut despite strong encouragement from her family and agent not to take the role. Michael Pitt (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) is known for choosing daring roles. He gives a great early performance here as Matthew and perfectly expresses the character’s vulnerability, insecurity, and anxiety. Though none of the characters are very developed, Pitt’s Matthew is responsible for the arc of the story. French actor Louis Garrel (Ma Mere, Les chansons d’amour) may have less material to work with than the other two actors, but he brings intelligence, charm and mystery to Théo’s character.
The flawless cinematography from Fabio Cianchetti is a strong reason to see this film. Both the Parisian exteriors and the interior of the apartment have a painterly influence and there are many visual references to other classic films. The script was written by British writer Gilbert Adair, based on his novel The Holy Innocents, which he later re-wrote as The Dreamers, allegedly feeling that the film improved on the original novel. The only major difference between the film and the novel is that Matthew explores a sexual relationship with Théo as well as Isabelle. I’m not really sure why this was left out of the film.
The politics — Matthew as a pacifist and Théo as a violent revolutionary (though only in talk, not action) — weave in an out of the film and don’t form a cohesive argument. In case you are unaware of the history, Paris in 1968 was the setting of the infamous May student riots, which could be a fascinating film in and of itself. A general strike of students successfully brought the French economy to a standstill, if however brief. The government nearly collapsed. Amidst this historical setting is a second backdrop: classic cinema and the French New Wave. There are clips of historical figures like François Truffaut and Henri Langlois inserted into the film. Scenes from various films are also inserted into The Dreamers or quoted or acted out by the three protagonists, such as a famous scene where the three recreate the race through the Louvre Museum from Godard's Bande à part.
Cinephiles will absolutely love many moments of The Dreamers. Bertolucci manipulates the three characters' love of and reliance on cinema to create a dream world of emotionally stunted but smart and imaginative people who live their lives by watching films. Their exile in the apartment symbolizes their withdrawal from life, which Bertolucci refuses to romanticize. They live in absolute squalor, blow through the money their parents gave them, have no money for food, and play cruel emotional games with one another that are instigated by Isabelle. The characters, particularly the twins, represent the failures of insisting to exist in an imaginary world, frozen in time, while the real world is blaring outside their window.
The Dreamers is a film about too many things - a specific period in French and cinematic history, a battle for personal identity, a debate about political effectiveness, and sexual exploration. The film’s love of cinema and related love of sexual exploration will delight many viewers, but there is just not enough development and cohesion to put this on the same level as some of Bertolucci’s great works, like Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor. It has tremendous potential and comes highly recommended, but unfortunately fizzles out into frustrating inactivity and a murky, anticlimactic ending. The film raises subjects and asks questions it is simply incapable of fully exploring or answering.
This French-British-Italian co-production is available uncut on DVD from Fox. The disc includes two documentaries, Bertolucci Directs The Dreamers and Outside the Window: Events in France, May 1968. There is an audio commentary track (recorded separately) from Bertolucci, Adair and the producer, Jeremy Thomas, as well as a few more extras. A mediocre Bertolucci film is still worlds better and more interesting than the best work by your average filmmaker.