I bought my tickets in advance to Bernardo Bertolucci’s new film The Dreamers, fearing an opening weekend rush. Much to my dismay, upon arrival I discovered that I had overestimated the film’s popularity. The theater was almost empty. As the last preview faded to black and the Fox Searchlight logo appeared on the screen something very unusual happened. The undersized audience began to clap in response to the Fox logo! I have seen audiences clap for an actor, or even at rare instances a favorite director, but I have never in my life seen an audience clap for a studio. The reason that these intrepid movie-goers were applauding takes a bit of explaining.
The Dreamers, following in the footsteps of Henry and June and Showgirls, garnered the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) notorious NC-17 rating due to its graphic sexual content. Instead of cutting it down to receive the more lucrative R rating, as is typical studio practice in such situations, Fox Searchlight made the brave and potentially ruinous decision to release it as it was. It is for this rare show of studio integrity that my sophisticated fellow viewers were clapping (what they lacked in quantity they apparently made up for in quality!). It is, perhaps, a sign of the times that a studio would take such a risk.
The Dreamers is the story of a young American student named Matthew (Michael Pitt) who is studying in Paris in 1968. An avid cinephile, Matthew hangs out a lot at the Cinémathéque Française. One day, during a demonstration against the firing of its director, he meets Théo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green). Théo and Isabelle are twins who are also big film buffs and the three of them strike up a friendship that takes an overtly sexual turn early on in the film.
Matthew is invited to stay with Théo and Isabelle, and he soon discovers that his hosts’ relationship is rather incestuous. As he falls in love with Isabelle, the three create an insular world for themselves where sex, politics, and cinema are the only things that exist.
Few filmmakers have the talent to be as sexually explicit with a film and not cross the line into pornography like Bernardo Bertolucci. But even by his standards, The Dreamers is extreme in the graphic nature of its sexual depictions. Nevertheless, we don’t at any point get the feeling that the nudity is gratuitous, or exploitative; this is quite an accomplishment considering that the characters are naked for the majority of the film.
The politics discussed by the charectars are of its time and the soundtrack, though a bit heavy-handed, helps to convey the emotional atmosphere of its tumultuous era.
There are certain scenes in which the dialogue seems a bit wooden, as when the Vietnam War is brought up. But, for the most part, the exchanges are realistic and engaging. When it comes to dealing with cinema, Bertolucci chose to use footage from some truly great films and he intercuts them in a visually literal manner with the actions and thoughts of his characters.
This technique is the most risky part of the film and it is only partially successful. It is successful to the extent that the film references establish an elitist culture within the fantasy world. This is important, because it makes for a fertile political contradiction. In perhaps one of the most interesting scenes of the film, Matthew confronts Theo with the fact that despite his espousal of an extreme form of Marxism and his support of Mao’s cultural revolution, he is, in fact, living a bourgeois existence.
The referencing technique, however, is not as successful. When the film clips begin to feel like a glorified form of Jeopardy: What is Blond Venus? What is Breathless? What is Bande á Part? I could bear the flippant references to André Bazin as well as the inane debate about whether Keaton is more funny than Chaplin. But on balance, using actual clips from the films ended up distracting me more from the interesting psychosexual drama and the insular fantasy world. Some may see these clips, such as a scene where Théo, Isabelle, and Matthew recreate a race through the Louvre, as an homage to great film. I feel that there are more interesting ways to reference great cinema than literally inter cutting it with a staged recreation. Indeed, the last clip used is from Robert Bresson’s Mouchette, and this reference, as well as a few others, succeeds in engaging in a more complex manner with the story.
Leaving the theater, I was left with many mixed feelings. On the one hand, the sexual sensibilities are intense and engaging. We are successfully seduced into following these characters on their wild sexual odyssey, despite its transgressive overtones. On the other hand, the politics are thin and somewhat superficial and it is this paucity that allows us to dismiss these young adults as spoiled bourgeois brats. How much more powerful could this film have been, if we didn’t have the luxury of being able to easily dismiss them and alienate ourselves from their intellectual immaturity? At the end of the day, The Dreamers is an intriguing film, but its main characters fail to really challenge us.
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Starring: Michael Pitt, Louis Garrel, Eva Green