In The Dreamers (Fox Searchlight), Bernardo Bertolucci has a tantalizing subject for his sensuous camera style and psycho-erotic sensibility: In just the first two minutes you get passionate cine-mania, a violent political demonstration, and a whiff of sadomasochistic sex. The young American narrator, Matthew (Michael Pitt), has come to Paris in the spring of 1968 to watch movies at the Cinematheque with what he calls a “Freemasonry” of film lovers: He wants to sit smack up close to the screen, he says, so he can receive the images while they’re fresh and new—so that their power doesn’t dissipate as they pass from row to row. That sounds pretty woo-woo, but Bertolucci’s shots feel so vivid that you might be sitting in that metaphoric front row, too. Even when he mixes in images from other films, of Jean-Luc Godard, Josef von Sternberg, Charlie Chaplin, and others, Bertolucci makes them part of his characters’ inner lives, so they’re almost as real (or maybe more real) than the world outside. And as you drink them in, Bertolucci probes the locus of the dream world and the real world in a way that reaches back to the early days of the French New Wave.
The Dreamers is based on a novel called The Holy Innocents by the sometime film critic Gilbert Adair, who adapted it for the screen—and who has, unprecedentedly, rewritten it into a book called The Dreamers. (The actors from this movie must have nudged his original dreams out of the picture.) The title characters are Matthew’s fellow movie lovers Theo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green)—a dark, sultry, intense couple who Matthew meets during a violent demonstration after the government fires the outspoken director of the Cinematheque, Henri Langlois. (She turns Matthew on by pretending to be handcuffed to the gates of the Cinematheque.)
It turns out that Theo and Isabelle are not boyfriend and girlfriend but brother and sister, the children of a well-off French poet (Robert Renucci) and his English wife (Anna Chancellor) who are rather indulgent (in that ‘60s-liberal way) when it comes to their kids’ eccentricities/perversions. When the parents head off to their summer place, they leave the youngsters alone in the dark, rambling, book-lined townhouse, which has long corridors like the castle of Cocteau’s Beast. Outside, the streets of Paris erupt in bigger and more violent protests. Inside, these borderline incestuous siblings admit Matthew into their freaky psychosexual playpen (complete with interpolations from Tod Browning’s Freaks), where he explores the connection (or lack thereof) between uninhibited sex and existential freedom (a recurring Bertolucci motif).
The director, his cinematographer, Fabio Cianchetti, and designer, Jean Rabasse, push this stuff as far as they dare into dreamlike territory—but tell that to the MPAA. Much of the media talk about The Dreamers has focused on its NC-17 rating, and while there’s no hardcore action, the squirm factor is off the charts. This is one of those movies where the lovers show how unihibited they are by eating the sleep out of each other’s eyes and getting smeary with various secretions. Theo and Isabelle are constantly giving each other pop film quizzes: For example, the penalty for Theo getting it wrong is having to masturbate in public to a poster of Marlene Dietrich. And then there’s the scene in which the three lie naked in bathwater turning red with Isabelle’s menstrual blood: That must be a motion picture first. The bisexuality in the novel (Matthew and Theo get it on) is here only a tease, but the hetero stuff is explosive: Green’s Isabelle strikes one deliriously self-infatuated femme-fatale pose after another, and she’s so voluptuously beautiful that it’s no wonder Matthew goes along for the ride.
How you take all this depends, I suppose, on your proclivities: I found it alternately a huge turn-on and kinda gross, and I’m pleased to say that Matthew does, too, especially when the siblings punish him for not guessing the source of some movie quotation by trying to snip off all his pubic hair. He comes to see his beloved Theo and Isabelle as on the infantile end of the spectrum, Ericksonially speaking. More important, Matthew hears in Theo’s Maoist recitations a childish egocentricity on the political spectrum. This is where Bertolucci, the old Communist, might surprise you. When Theo says that Mao’s Cultural Revolution is like a glorious movie in which people carry books instead of guns, Matthew points out that it’s not books, it’s one little red book, and that everyone is dressed identically and sings the same songs. Everyone in that glorious movie, he maintains, is an extra.
Now, Matthew sounds a bit smug to me. I don’t have a problem with his renunciation of Maoism and revolutionary violence. But I think it’s the 60ish filmmakers talking with 20/20 hindsight, not the anti-Vietnam-War American trying to sort it all out in the middle of this tumultuous moment. Bertolucci and Gilbert Adair seem to have left out a few psychological transitions, and the lines they’ve left in go thud. It doesn’t help that Pitt is miscast. He has a great, wide-open Leo DiCaprio-like face, but he doesn’t give off feverish intellectual vibes: He’s an inarticulate stoner type. Garrel isn’t much more appealing. (Green is mouthwatering and then some.)
It’s fascinating to see Bertolucci on the verge of denouncing the counterculture that, a third of a century ago, liberated him as an artist: In the end he seems to suggest that certain movie-fed ‘60s radicals took to the street with more Godard than good sense. (The same idea is echoed in TheBarbarian Invasions, another “We Were Godardists Once … and Young” movie.) With its lyrical interpolation of old film clips, The Dreamers celebrates movie love, then goes on to show you the perils of a medium that can’t help but favor masturbatory fantasy over political reality. It doesn’t entirely gel, but few directors could explore the collision of the ego and the outside world with such sympathy or purpose. It’s possible that the NC-17 has never been used to such PG-13 ends.