Ode to Joy 

Bernardo Bertolucci on The Dreamers

by Steven Lankenau


The Dreamers

dir. Bertolucci

Opens Fri Feb 20

Various Theaters

When a film is slapped with an NC-17 rating, you can basically assume it's all about sex. The Dreamers, Bernardo Bertolucci's new film, is both, of course--but anyone going into it expecting a serious raunchfest will be sorely disappointed. Dirtier stuff shows up every year in indie films that aren't required to tote an MPAA rating (that curse only falls upon big studio films). However, it turns out The Dreamers is about something far more transgressive than the quasi-incestuous threesome around which it finds its shape. The Dreamers is a film about hope.

It begins when Matthew, an American cinemaphile living in Paris (played by Michael Pitt, showing talent far beyond expectations after his vacant pretty-boy in Hedwig and the Angry Inch) meets twins Theo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green) on the day of the historic 1968 protests outside Paris's Cinematheque Française. The trio winds up living in the twins' ridiculous library-as-labyrinth apartment while their parents are away, using movies as a way to connect, seduce, and ridicule one another. As such, the film is Bertolucci's homage to cinema: Isabelle flirts with Matthew by imitating Greta Garbo in Queen Cleopatra; they run gleefully through the Louvre, recreating a favorite scene from Godard's Bande à Part, before breaking into a chant from 1932's Freaks.

As the protests outside the Cinematheque slowly inspire large-scale riots which barely avoid becoming a revolution, it's clear this erotic chamber piece is also an homage to the political environment of 1968. The Vietnam War is being fought, the sexual revolution underway, Stonewall is just a sparkle in a drag queen's gown, and these youths know that change is in everything they see, without knowing what is changing or what it will become. Without any semblance of condescension, the masterful Bertolucci treats the excess and doe-eyed wonder with palpable tenderness. Matthew and Theo debate Buster Keaton versus Charlie Chaplin and discuss Maoism and Jimi Hendrix as if these were all topics of equal importance.

Perhaps it's because he lived it. At a press roundtable in New York, Bertolucci effused, "In '68, [we were] fascinated by the fact that it was possible to mix up politics with cinema with sex with rock 'n roll with philosophy, all shaken together. We went to sleep at night knowing that we weren't going to wake up in 'tomorrow' but that we would wake up in 'the future.'"

Despite the director's nostalgic bent, the film is sexy. The trio's desire is played out honestly and openly, and it's refreshing to see sex that doesn't always look comfortable--and bodies that haven't been waxed or pumped with silicon. Their menage à trois is a shifting kaleidoscope of emotions, and the possible incestuous nature of Theo and Isabelle appears naíve rather than grotesque (though a few key scenes between them are equally repellant and beautiful). To an audience raised on downloaded amateur porn, it is easy to forget that Isabelle's striptease is revelatory for Matthew, or that his initial modesty doesn't represent a character flaw. (Though fault can be found with Michael Pitt, who displays out-of-character self-consciousness in several scenes. Thank you America for your puritanical double standards and raising us all as exhibitionist prudes).

The erotic dynamic between Matthew and Theo also demonstrates a change in thinking between 1968 and today. Many argued that the ending of 2001's Y Tu Mama Tambien was a natural conclusion to the sexual tension between two attractive male friends. But The Dreamers presents this tension far more realistically, especially for 1968, when none of the members of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy were even alive.

The sexual dynamics and confined Parisian set draw inevitable comparisons to Bertolucci's masterpiece, Last Tango in Paris, though there are many obvious differences (besides the butter). "I remember articles about eros and death in Last Tango in Paris," says Bertolucci. "Here [in The Dreamers, we find]: eros and joie de vivre. There's much more happiness in discovering things. Here, the kids are opening a new book; I think Marlon Brando [in Last Tango] was closing one."

Comparisons can also be drawn between Eva Green and Tango's Maria Schneider: Bertolucci's ability to draw such natural performances from untapped talent is truly remarkable. Besides her obvious physical beauty (read: large breasts), it is clear that Green was cast for her beguiling French mixture of power and helplessness--traits which make her the film's most compelling character. But unlike the explorations of power dynamic Tango, Green frames The Dreamers as a complex reaction to a time of revolution.

"I hope that this film can wake up [today's] youth, a youth which is resigned to life a bit flat, a bit bland, without great hope," says Bertolucci. "I wanted to communicate with the young generation of today that there was another young generation not so long ago [that was] very different from them. [We were] very idealistic."

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