Long, long ago there was an electrifyingly talented filmmaker who made movies that were poised on a unique nexus of sex, politics and pure cinema. His name was Bernardo Bertolucci. In 1964, his second feature, Before the Revolution, appeared; it was an intoxicating, boldly romantic adaptation of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma. A personal favorite of mine, it concerned the sexual and socialist fervor of an idealistic young man and it remains one of the greatest movies ever made about being consumed with youth, beauty and the need to radicalize the world.
When Bertolucci made Before the Revolution, he was all of 22 years old. Other adventurous, difficult films of political and sexual intrigue followed, including The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris and the five-hour epic 1900. But as the heady brew of the 1960s fell flat, Bertolucci seemed to lose his way. Although his later, less inspired work continued to be strong by any fair standard, there was an inescapable feeling that he’d lost touch with the surging brilliance of his youth. By the time he made Stealing Beauty, his wet dream ode to Liv Tyler, he seemed to be in the throes of a mid-life crisis. Now, he’s made The Dreamers, a film that’s both something of a wet dream and a wan attempt to recapture the ferment of the 1960s.
Based on a novel by Gilbert Adair, The Dreamers is set in a specific historical moment: Paris in 1968. There were student and labor strikes that spring, but The Dreamers is primarily concerned with a French film world controversy that revolved around the firing of Henri Langlois, director of the French Cinematheque. For the then-ascendant filmmaking generation of Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol (in addition to the Italian Francophile Bertolucci), the ditching of the revered Langlois was an act of war. In response, Parisian film stars, directors and fans rallied around Langlois, holding demonstrations in front of the Cinematheque.
This all-but-forgotten controversy provides the backdrop for Bertolucci’s film, and the story begins when a young American student named Matthew wanders into a protest outside the Cinematheque. Matthew is played by the young and perhaps talented Michael Pitt (Bully, Murder by Numbers), but my heart began to sink as I watched him move through the crowd of protesters. Pitt is a very pretty boy, but he’s blank as a magazine model–rather than appearing to be a typically intense, shaggy kid of the period, he looks like an affectless cross between Leo DiCaprio and Reckoning-era Michael Stipe.
At the protest, Matthew meets a fetching Frenchwoman (Eva Green) who’s chained herself–sort of–to the door of the Cinematheque. This woman is Isabelle and she’s gorgeous and she’s wearing a red beret and her cigarette needs lighting. Nearby is her twin brother Theo, who’s as dark and brooding as she is cheerful. The three of them become fast friends, bonding over their mutual appreciation of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Howard Hawks. Soon, Isabelle and Theo invite Matthew to move in while their parents are on vacation.
While revolution brews in the streets of Paris, the young trio sits inside to talk movies the way people outside are talking politics. But very quickly, they’re engaged in sexual gamesmanship with ever-increasing stakes. The passive, sheltered Matthew, already unnerved by Isabelle’s ripening hotness, is alternately repelled and intrigued by the overtly incestuous bond between the two twins (for one thing, Theo and Isabelle sleep together in the nude). The three movie buffs quiz each other on movies by enacting bits of scenes–early on, Isabelle does an impression of Greta Garbo inspecting a room and is pleased when Matthew identifies the film correctly as Queen Christina. But give a wrong answer, and one might have to, say, masturbate in front of the others as punishment.
Now, it’s not clear what this incestuous menage a trois has to do with Paris, or politics, or movies, but it is clear that Isabelle’s breasts–which float like nippled zeppelins–have more to do with this film’s raison d’etre than that poor old movie geek Henri Langlois.
Part of this movie’s point, of course, is that these young, sexually naive film buffs are so self-absorbed that they’re missing the revolution that’s brewing outside, the revolution to which they’re all supposedly committed. Okay, fair enough, but Bertolucci himself is the chief solipsist–his movie is larded with clips of classic films, particularly from the French New Wave era. While it’s certainly nice to see, for example, the famous sequence in Godard’s Band of Outsiders where Anna Karina and her two lowlife suitors dash through the Louvre in 10 minutes, is it really necessary for Bertolucci to pack his threesome off to the Louvre to repeat the stunt?
Although his use of old movie clips could serve some educational value for young audiences, the overall effect is analogous to a great painter who takes photographs of his or her favorite paintings by other artists, then tacks the snapshots up on the wall of his gallery. And why would a man who produced such famous images of his own in the 1960s indulge in such cheap quoting? Rather than being a work of art, this film seems designed to be sold as a luxurious, audience-flattering “art” film, and it’s dismaying to see Bertolucci–the man who made The Conformist, for crying out loud–participating in this middlebrow trade.
The marketers behind this fake art film have made sure we know about its exhaustively photographed young naked bodies and its shocking, shocking, shocking sexuality. In general, I’m all for young naked bodies and shocking sexuality, but there needs to be a non-masturbatory context for it to be anything other than soft-core erotica, which is pretty much what The Dreamers is. Midway through, I was so dispirited that I couldn’t summon up the energy to laugh at things that should have been campy howlers, as when Matthew and Isabelle copulate on the kitchen floor, smearing the blood from her freshly ruptured hymen on each other’s faces while Theo fries eggs a few steps away. And let’s not get started on the moment when Isabelle orders Theo to spooge all over a picture of Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel.
In Before the Revolution, the tragedy of its hero (and Bertolucci surrogate) was that he was nostalgic for the present–he loved his bourgeois life too much to annihilate it in the service of the class struggle. The tragedy of The Dreamers is that, for Bertolucci, time stopped in 1968 and he can’t get over his nostalgia for it.