SPECIAL FEATURE: DVD Review: The Dreamers

Film: The Dreamers
Release date: 11th October 2004
Certificate: 18
Running time: 110 mins
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Starring: Michael Pitt, Louis Garrel, Eva Green, Robin Renucci, Anna Chancellor
Genre: Drama/Romance
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Format: DVD
Country: France/Italy/UK

This is an English-language release.

“I was one of the insatiables. The ones you'd always find sitting closest to the screen. Why do we sit so close? Maybe it was because we wanted to receive the images first.” (Michael Pitt as Matthew)

The Dreamers follows the relationship of three cinephiles – the French/English twins Theo and Isabelle, and an American student named Matthew – as they find their temple, the Cinémathèque Française, destroyed, and exile themselves into their parent-free apartment for a few weeks of insular hedonism, as the events of May 1968 rage around the Paris outside their windows…

The Dreamers was criticised on its release by those bemoaning Bernardo Bertolucci’s preoccupation with sex, cinema and teenage kicks, as opposed to the political events of May ’68, which they argued would have made for a more substantial film. But the point is that these four disparate concerns were what fused to the reaction of those radical times. After all, it was the complete lack of social activity for a young post-war generation that found the initial revolts kick off at the Nanterre university campus. In this sense, Bertolucci, working from a clever script by Gilbert Adair (adapted from his novel), captures the heart of the matter, beginning his movie with the closure of Henri Langlois’ film institute (a pivotal event in the protests), and then honing in on the sexual politics of this first generation born without memory of World War II - a generation inspired by the freedoms apparent in the US pop culture that paints their walls with posters, and their floors with the records of Janis, Hendrix and the Doors.

That most of the action takes place within this apartment built of Coca-Cola and cinema gives insight into the often forgotten – or revised – intentions of the initial youth revolt, where getting a handjob was as important as Mao’s red book (read ‘Power And Protest’ by J. Suri). And with the conclusion that finds the riots – literally – smashing through their window, the film ultimately offers a critique of the insular nature of the motivations that originally drove the rebellion – which was as much against adults and their traditions, as it was against capitalism. As Theo rants, all mock theatrical, about his parents, or parents in general: “They should all be arrested, put on trial, confess their crimes, sent to the country for self-criticism and re-education!”

The symbiotic relationship between Theo, Isabelle and Matthew, an experiment soon encroaching upon each of their comfort zones, recalls that of Jules et Jim (et Catherine), which finds betrayal and calculation cutting at a familial (if not incestuous) level. And amongst these subtle, or at least thematic, nods to the cinema of the New Wave, and the films that inspired them, Bertolucci intercuts the action with actual clips from the classic movies that had driven him as a filmmaker, and these three restless kids into increasingly outlandish play-games - re-creating scenes from their favourite flicks, we find the three beating the record run through the Louvre depicted in Godard’s Bande A Part, and consolidating their friendship with the chant from Freaks.

In a sense, it’s surprising that while Nicholas Ray is cited in the dialogue, Bertolucci didn’t outright cut to a scene from Rebel Without A Cause, considering the American kid at the centre of this story is a foreigner’s vision of West Coast boyhood torn out of a reel of film. Michael Pitt is as physical in his approach to the character of Matthew as James Dean was to Stark, though less in an outward writhing of angst but instead in his feline slinking, often from mattress to carpet, a voyeur in a house of open doors and unfurled bed covers.

A young, pre-Bond, Eva Green is as subtly intense as ever, at turns presenting Isabelle as a bonafide starlet – smoking cigarettes in a misty cinema, feigning a chaining to its front gates when we first meet her – at other times a seductress of prohibited deeds, and, ultimately, as a child lost in games she can no longer differentiate from reality. “I was acting, Matthew,” she says, the words unfolding languidly, exposing herself more at that moment than any amount of lingering offered by the camera over her naked body. Louis Garrel meanwhile presents Theo with the man-child beauty that has become something of his trademark, his outrageously good looks never subduing the violence of his acts. Theo is played with a remarkable knowingness that is concealed behind his every action.

And as implied by the beauty of the three leads, and the circumstances of the narrative, the film steams with the tantalising ambiguity of the relationship between the twins – whether they have actually ever engaged in sexual acts, beyond mutual masturbation, is left undisclosed – and the innocence of Matthew first corrupted, then corrupting. But to class this merely as eroticism would be a disservice. As argued earlier, the sexual urgency is as much a call of arms against the (then) established morality as a petrol bomb flung at a cop.

A confusion of sex, politics, cinema and youth; and each of these concerns has something to say about the other. Chances are you too will get a kick out of the hip rendering of film geeks as wild, sexual and young at heart. JGZ

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