DREAMERS, THE(director: Bernardo Bertolucci; screenwriter: Gilbert Adair/from the story The Holy Innocents: A Romance by Gilbert Adair; cinematographer: Fabio Cianchetti; editor: Jacopo Quadri; cast: Michael Pitt (Matthew), Eva Green (Isabelle), Louis Garrel (Theo), Robin Renucci (Father), Anna Chancellor (Mother), Florian Cadiou (Patrick); Runtime: 116; MPAA Rating: NC-17; producer: Jeremy Thomas; Fox Searchlight; 2003-France / Italy / UK-some French with English subtitles)
“Bertolucci pays affectionate homage to cinema, goofy youthful exuberance, romance, innocence and the student revolt of May ’68.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The 63-year-old Bernardo Bertolucci’s (“Last Tango in Paris”/”Before the Revolution”/”The Sheltering Sky”) playful erotic drama The Dreamers is adapted from the 1988 novel The Holy Innocents: A Romance by English author and film critic Gilbert Adair, a book inspired by Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles. The Dreamers is played against the backdrop of the 1968 student riots in Paris (with obviously staged street scenes rather than shooting for authenticity). Bertolucci pays affectionate homage to cinema, goofy youthful exuberance, romance, innocence and the student revolt of May ’68 in his coming-of-age period film presented with a pronounced nostalgia buzz and a festive eye for lush photography through the expressive cinematography of Fabio Cianchetti. He does wonders roaming around the nooks and crannies of a truly enchanted house with his intrusive camera.
The film opens in 1968 showing “The Ugly American,” the twentysomething twit-like Matthew (Michael Pitt), a Leonardo DiCaprio dead-ringer, as a cute, young, empty-headed, reserved and lonely Californian taking in the sights of Paris as an exchange student. In the voice-over narration provided by Matthew we learn that he is living in an inexpensive hotel and is a regular visitor to the famous Cinémathèque Française theater, founded by its current director Henri Langlois, where the film shown on Matthew’s visit is Sam Fuller’s wonderfully hypnotic trashy Shock Corridor. Matthew sits in the front row because he wants to get the images first when coming off the screen (a silly belief that echoes how hollow is his thought process). When the founder is fired by the French government, the cinephiles protest in front of the theater, where the stunning Isabelle (Eva Green), sexily garbed in a beret, has seemingly chained herself to the gate in front of the structure and called over Matthew because she took notice of the quiet pretty-boy in his regular visits to the theater. She soon calls over her Siamese twin brother Theo (Louis Garrel), who we will later see has a matching scar on his shoulder, and the three similar aged youths bond over their common obsession with films and their youthful spirit for discovery, with Matthew especially attracted to Isabelle. He is enthralled with the siblings’ sophistication and arty lifestyle and fervor for life, and is pleased with himself that he met such interesting friends. After a romp through the Paris streets, the twins invite him to their parents’ home for dinner. There he meets their English mother (Anna Chancellor) and French father (Robin Renucci), a famous and wealthy poet. When the parents leave for their long holiday the next day, Matthew is invited to live in their roomy flat. He soon gets drawn into their kinky and incestuous games, which involve Truth or Consequences-like situations over identifying movies from re-enacting scenes, taking baths together, and casually walking around in front of each other in the nude. By the last reel, their discussions turn to politics and highlight how differently they see the world. Their ménage à trois runs analogous to the protests by the cinephiles and filmmakers, but they remain inaccessible to the world outside. The twins only talk revolution but live in luxury supported by their father, while Matthew shuns violence and causes and prefers to live paradoxically as an innocent solipsist. The street demonstrations pick up in intensity and the film buffs’ protest gives way to student demonstrations and workers’ strikes, which leads in May to clashes with the police that nearly shuts Paris down. It also leads the trio out into the streets to take part in the unwieldy demonstration, that after a suicide is interrupted by a rock thrown through their flat window. Theo is suddenly energized to rejoin the revolution and hurls a Molotov cocktail at the riot police; while Matthew cowers over the need for demonstrations and defends America’s Vietnam War even though he’s got a student deferment.
The film received an NC-17 rating for a scene where Matthew has sex with Isabelle on her brother’s insistence and breaks to his surprise her cherry, a masturbation scene over Marlene Dietrich in costume with her gorilla’s head removed in a film poster from Blonde Venus, and all the full-frontal nudity which goes along with homo-erotic posturing. This unwarranted rating only shows that the industry censors are a pack of fools who view sex as the most revolting thing in a film, while the most violent films get the more desirable R rating.
Throughout there are film-clips to match the present story from movies such as Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights,” where he’s the Little Tramp who meets the blind girl whom he saved; Buster Keaton’s “The Cameraman,” where he hauls his camera around to woo a film star;” Tod Browning’s “Freaks,” where the freaks chant ‘One of us, we accept her;’ Robert Bresson’s “Mouchette,” where the peasant girl rolls herself down a hill to her death; Greta Garbo caressing the furniture after a night of making love in Rouben Mamoulian’s “Queen Christina;” and, Jean Seberg hawking the International Herald Tribune in Jean-Luc Godard’s signature movie of that era “Breathless.” The deepest the film gets in seriously probing anything, is when Matthew and Theo briefly argue over the merits of Chaplin versus Keaton.
The Revolution of 1968 is shown as a time of hope that the youth can change the world and make it a better place. In the world’s present climate, that same optimism no longer prevails. Bertolucci’s more innocent world in 1968 was filled with so much change-in-the-air, but showed that the world couldn’t be changed only through a sexual revolution and love of movies. This was clearly the direction the film was heading until the big let down in the final act, where the great filmmaker shows that ‘life is a movie.’ Bertolucci took a refreshing personal film down a few notches by leaving us with a clumsy lesson about violence that seemed manufactured and already well dissected as a 1960s cliché. He piled on more nostalgia, in a film loaded with nostalgia from movies to rock music, with the French allure of Edith Piaf singing as the final credits rolled by “Non, je ne regrette rien.” It’s a fine song to sing but did nothing to help relieve the feeling that this was a dishonest ending to a film that had too many jerky moments for us to swallow the dreamers as anything more than shallow characters haplessly caught in the Revolution.
REVIEWED ON 2/25/2004 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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