A film review by Craig J. Koban
2004, NC-17, 115 mins.
Matthew: Michael Pitt / Isabelle: Eva Green / Theo: Louis Garrel / Father: Robin Renucci / Mother: Anna Chancellor / Patrick: Florian Cadiou
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci / Written by Gilbert Adair, based on his novel
If anything, Bernado Bertolucci’s THE DREAMERS proves one of the largest hypocrisies of modern cinema that I’ve always maintained:
Sexuality is always seen as a more dangerous threat than violence and bloodshed.
Consider the sexual frankness of THE DREAMERS, which received the dreaded
NC-17 by the MPAA, largely because of its nudity and sexuality (the latter which only
occupies a modest chunk of the film). Then
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, which featured endless scenes of sadistic
and relentless torture, and it received an R.
THE DREAMERS only goes to prove one thing: Nudity and frank eroticism is
considered more threatening than horrific gore.
It’s a shame the film was rated
NC-17, and it’s further troublesome because the film never received a wide
distribution (many theatres refuse to carry NC-17 rated films and that stubborn
empire known as Blockbuster Video refuses to carry NC-17 films as well).
Bertolucci is to be admired, though, for standing his ground and not
capitulating by trimming his film down to the more accessible R.
Yet, the rating is beside the point, because THE DREAMERS was never a
multiplex, big-budget, and bloated film for the masses.
And c’mon, Bertolucci was never a populist filmmaker (see
LAST TANGO IN
PARIS, another controversial and erotically charged art house film).
If anything, the film is small intrinsic character drama that seduces you
in with its dialogue, politics, and earthly and frank discussions about life and
all things strangely erotic. Even
more important (and refreshing) is that the young main characters are children
of the cinema, and seem to have real tastes in art when some modern adolescents
don't seem to.
The film is set in Paris (an old
staple of Bertolucci’s) and introduces us to the young Matthew (Michael Pitt,
in a star making performance). Matthew
is an American student that spends what seems like his collective time absorbing
everything that is the cinema (sounds familiar) at the Cinematheque Francaise.
This was a high point in the artistic history of modern cinema, where New
Wave directors where breaking the conventions and rules inside the darkened
cinemas while protestors outside battled to revolutionize the government. The setting and period is integral to the film and to the
motivations and philosophies of its characters. Matthew is supposed to spend his time studying in
school, but he prefers the education that's always at his grasps in the
theatres. He’s brash, naïve,
opinionated, and intelligent, if not a bit reserved.
is at this exciting and important time that Matthew comes head to head with two
other French people - Isabelle (Eva Green) and her twin brother, Theo (Louis
Garrel). They too are children of
the cinema, and spend more time talking vicariously through films then they do
through any other means. Their
similar interests allow them to hit it off naturally, and the film is fantastic
in allowing them to have real and frank conversations about things that matter
to them. Their dialogue is not that contrived gutter speech that is
necessary to advance the plot to its mundane and inevitable conclusion.
The three youth are spirited, mentally liberated, thought provoking,
bold, and politically savvy. There’s
wonderfully quaint moments where they randomly quiz each other on films by
re-enacting scenes, or gleefully argue about the great cinematic artists.
I especially loved the scene where Matthew and Theo argue over whose
better – Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.
Matthew (and myself) vote for Keaton.
Theo and Isabelle become rather fond of their new American friend and invite him
over for dinner at their parent’s lush Parisian apartment.
Matthew, being ever so gracious, gladly agrees.
They is a great moment in the film at the dinner table where they all sit
down for an after dinner cigarette to engage in meaningful dialogues about
pressing social matters. At one point the father thinks that Matthew is not listening.
He responds by saying how amazing it is that the lighter he holds has the
same dimensions as many things around him at the dining room.
This allows him to conclude that there is some eerie cohesiveness in the
cosmos that has allowed for this. Clearly,
he was not listening to the ramblings of the father…as with every other
“dreamer”, Mathew’s mind was elsewhere.
The parents decide to leave town and
go on vacation and leave the three teens alone to watch the apartment. It is here where the film radically shifts over
as Matthew is pulled into Theo and Isabelle’s mind games.
Here, the environment of the apartment becomes a crucial fourth character
in the film, a strange and erotic world that allows the characters to give into
their fantasies, even if they are a bit, shall we say, questionable.
It’s by no coincidence that Bertolucci has most of the film set here.
Like his great LAST TANGO IN PARIS, THE DREAMERS is set in this
claustrophobic world to act as a foil to the corruption that the characters see
in the outside world. It is in the
confines of the apartment where they feel liberated to do anything and speak on
any matter, no matter how intimate or daring.
The film is very strange, and presents
to us some very unique and troubled youth.
Matthew is the conservative force in the narrative as Isabelle and Theo
are the liberated and sexually frank. The
film has patience to allow Matthew to become immersed into their strange, erotic
world. Things he witnesses seem odd
to him (and the audience, indeed). He
glimpses at them one night sleeping naked together.
He also watches them participate in an offbeat sexual movie quiz game
where Theo loses and Matthew is amazed at what Theo does for his loss.
But Matthew loses control later, and after he fails in the same game
later on in the film, his penalty is to sleep with Isabelle, thus opening up his
sexual awakening. He may not altogether agree with the goings-on of his new
friends, but he slowly grows to accept it until, eventually, he realizes that
what he is doing is wrong and the film tailspins towards his conclusion.
Bertolucci paints the screen with
wonderful visuals, and the film absolutely drips with atmosphere.
Since the film is about film fanatics, I love the way Bertolucci shoots
scenes with the characters with minor, yet not-so-subtle hints at famous scenes
from other classic films. Oftentimes,
he’ll cut away from the main action and juxtapose that with the corresponding
scene from the classic film he is trying to emulate.
The result is fresh and visually daring, especially the scene where the
three run through a gallery. Bertolucci
and his superb cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti notice everything and capture
the period and time terrifically. The
film is of the sixties and feels perfectly in place with that time, and it
definitely evokes that period. Often,
Bertolucci utilizes old newsreel footage and intercuts it seamlessly.
The footage which includes Jean-Pierre Leaud, Francois Truffaut, and
Godard (to name a few) also effectively helps set the mood of the time.
The three leads give great
performances, if not some of the most brave ones in recent memory.
With the material being so obviously explicit in its sexuality, the
actors take risks that, ironically, Brando also did with LAST TANGO.
Pitt brings the right aura of common sense, naivety and shyness to the
part and Green – a startlingly beautiful woman – has a fiery and seductive
edge to her. The film has been
appropriately rated NC-17, but it is not pornography, nor is it primarily about
sex. Like LAST TANGO,
it’s about isolation and cocooning yourself both physically and mentally from
the outside world. The characters
become so tightly wound in the apartment that, in a great moment of realization,
Matthew looks to Isabelle and tells her that she is lost in her dreams and
thoughts and should get out more.
If the film does have a weakness then
it would be in its final ten minutes, where the people rioting in the streets
below interrupt a final act of desperation on the part of Isabelle. A brick is thrown into the apartment and interrupts the three
and their “world”, and they subsequently leave the confines of the apartment
to take part in the rioting. What
happens then, not to spoil, seems rushed and forced.
The screenplay had the patience to develop these characters, but did not
have the time to provide an adequate conclusion.
Yet, THE DREAMERS remains a strong vision. It’s a film with a strong philosophy and is about self-exposure and personal liberation. The film’s rating could ignorantly imply that its rigidly hard-core, but this film is not pornographic in the literal definitions. It has sexual content and strong content at that, but its not really the subject matter of the piece, it just accentuates the film’s sense of period and time. The sixties were a time of sexual experimentation and exploration, and what Bertolucci does here is to use it as part of his canvas to investigate the lives of these troubled characters. Roger Ebert wrote that the film “is like a classic argument for an A rating, between the R and NC-17, which would identify movies intended for adults but not actually pornographic. What has happened in our society to make us embrace violence and shy away from sexuality?” As a serious adult period piece, THE DREAMERS works, and it’s a shame that distributors can’t overlook some of its content and see if for what an accomplished work it is.