JWR Articles: Film/DVD - The Dreamers (Director: Bernardo Bertolucci) - December 29, 2004
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The Dreamers

3.5 3.5
115 min.

Beautiful dreamers protest little

1968 was a tumultuous year: the Vietnam War raged, 60 Minutes aired for the first time, pot and protest seized both the minds and imaginations of youth everywhere. Free love—anything goes—was clearing away sexual taboos even as Canada’s Pierre Trudeau took office as prime minister, having famously declared when justice minister that “There is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.”

Perhaps so, but Bernardo Bertolucci’s storytelling expertise, aided immeasurably by Fabio Cianchetti’s savvy camera, spends much of The Dreamers’ nearly two-hour span in the bedrooms and boudoirs of its three characters. From visual and sexual points of view, the result is a voyeur’s delight and hedonist’s primer. But from a call to arms or discourse on the rights and wrongs of activists and pacifists, the film comes across morally lite—empty as the pilloried authoritarians who barely cover their lust-for-power with the thin threads of peace and democracy for all.

American student and film aficionado Matthew (Michael Pitt) comes to Paris to learn, find true friends and skip the draft. He is befriended by fellow movie devotees (and Siamese twins) Isabelle (Eva Green, who soars as the insatiable seductress) and Théo (Louis Garrel). They invite him over for dinner to meet their parents (Anna Chancellor and Robin Renucci). During the cheese and wine finish, Matthew reveals himself to be the equal of the poet-father’s intellect; the two share such declarations as “Inspiration is like a baby. You can’t choose its moment of arrival.” “Why [does] cosmic harmony have many shapes and sizes,” and finally—in a classic set-to between father, “A petition is a poem,” and son. “So why won’t you sign ours?,”—writer Gilbert Adair lays the seeds for a well-balanced script (think La Bohème with the deadly disease replaced by debilitating desire), changing the world and falling in love.

Sadly, those twin goals are never fully harvested. Flesh dominates, while the societal debate serves more as a set-up to the next tryst rather than intellectually charged pronouncements.

Conveniently, the parents are about to depart for a month in the country. Matthew accepts the invitation of his new pals and abandons his squalid hotel room (but still bring along his charming habit of peeing in the sink) in favour of the sumptuous digs of the successful man of letters.

As Matthew settles in, he revels in debating Théo about the comedic genius of Keaton vs. Chaplin even as he slips a photo of the feminine twin into his boxers. For her part, Isabelle reads, well, Isabelle! Then, following a bonding sequence in which the trio successfully beat the 9:45, dash through the Louvre (a feat they’ve recalled from a picture that sounds like “Bonaparte,” but is actually Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part), the house guest turns into family—accepted as “one of us.”

No better time to cue up Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately” to help celebrate. (Indeed, the wide-ranging tracks—including Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun” and the siblings’ favourite: Albert Lasry’s “La Mer”—are reason enough to take in the show.) But, be careful what you wish for.

The newest member is soon watching Théo, literally, beat off his “forfeit” when unable to answer Isabelle’s trivial cinema-pursuit question correctly. From this point on, it’s clear that Bertolucci is not going to fluff over the sexual activities. Garrel, already comfortable with full exposure, delivers a mesmerizing masturbation sequence that features realistic skin-smacking sounds, totally believable grunts and—after release onto the photo of a truly leading lady—the tantalizingly “she wouldn’t dare do that,” when the game master wipes his seed off the sticky pic. It’s a hot sequence that nudges the boundary of taste, but still manages to come off more as art than porn.

When it’s his turn to “forfeit” Pitt, likewise, doesn’t shirk from the task of deflowering Isabelle on the kitchen floor, while Théo—tellingly—fries eggs. The coup de grâce in this sequence is the tasty treat of virginal blood shared with obvious relish by the heady fornicators.

Elsewhere, Pitt has mused that in doing these kind of scenes (where, like his unabashed colleagues, nothing, except the full intent of his buff anatomy is left to speculation), he has nothing to fear. Bertolucci and editor Jacopo Quadri have the gift of keeping the proceedings erotically ablaze, while never going beyond the limit of truthful sensuality that, happily, is acceptable in the twenty-first century. What a pleasure to have all three revealed from top to bottom rather than the more usual full-frontal women and butt-at-best or an exceptional limp flash from the men, that reduce so many other “erotic” films to unbalanced depiction of male/female union.

What follows are the usual ecstasies and jealousies that any three-way relationship must endure. A highlight is the dinner from hell, salvaged by the gallant Théo flopping down to the outdoor garbage, wearing only a bourgeois waistcoat, followed up by Matthew’s expert three-way splitting of the reclaimed banana—Freud would have approved. The turning point comes when Matthew refuses to have his co-lovers shave his manhood, morphing him into the child they’ll never have.

Soon the protesters are back in the streets. Matthew’s pacifism is first put to ridicule then to a no-win test. Clearly, he has no desire to appear in the revolutionary movie unfolding in the avenues below where “everyone is an extra.”

Unfortunately, many contrived plot points force the film to wither away rather than capture and combine the mood of those times with present-day mores. JWR

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Director - Bernardo Bertolucci
Screenwriter - Gilbert Adair
Cinematography - Fabio Cianchetti
Production Design - Jean Rabasse
Editor - Jacopo Quadri
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Reader's Forum
December 28, 2004

I can't believe you actually considered The Dreamers a better film than Hotel Rwanda.

And I can't believe you fault Rusesabagina for accepting a life in Belgium free from the visual triggers of the horrors he endured and, more importantly, free from those who may still be angry at his actions.  He certainly endured far more than the average Canadian or American city resident who flees to the suburbs the moment his first child is born.  Or even those historical American citizens who fled Detroit, the Bronx, Watts, Chicago, Cleveland and many other cities starting in the late 60s. 

As for continuity, your examples were minor enough I didn't even notice them, let alone find them distracting.

One thing I can agree with you on though, that very little, if anything, has truly changed since 1994.  Rwanda seems to be making strides toward a tenable peace but other countries are still having similar events ravage their populations.  It's truly unfortunate. - Eric M. (Chicago)


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