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 consider 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. 

It 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. 

Eventually, 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.

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