One of the faces belongs to Matthew (Michael Pitt), a college student from San Diego soaking in the Parisian air and movie-buff thrills of the famous Cinémathèque Française. The year is 1968, and the nation-shaking turmoil (fueled in no small part by outraged cinephiles) that would lead to police clashes, barricades in the streets, and the closing of the Cannes Film Festival is brewing. To Matthew, however, the possibility of a revolution is much less important than an afternoon screening of Samuel Fuller's punch-in-the-gut masterpiece Shock Corridor. He meets Isabelle (Eva Green), first seen chained to the Cinémathèque gates, droopy cigarette dangling insouciantly from her lips, and her brother Theo (Louis Garrel) during a heated protesters' rally. A little bonding over Nicholas Ray titles and a narrow escape from a police skirmish and the trio has become inseparable. The siblings invite Matthew to stay over at their apartment while their affluent parents are out of town -- they lock themselves in, quiz each other on scenes from their favorite films, share bathtubs and, bit by bit, push their sexual limits.
The Dreamers is irresistible. To a cinephile like myself, it is a love letter: It revels in throwaway poetry, free-floating sensuality and the rapturous, almost ceremonial act of watching a movie. In an era of cynical, jaded filmmaking, Bertolucci (who, as a young man, experienced the May 1968 confrontations firsthand) has created the most youthful of his movies, channeling the rollicking rebelliousness of the French Nouvelle Vague as its thrust. If Besieged, the director's previous feature, was a piece of chamber music, The Dreamers is all rebel rock and chanson romantique, as much Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix as Edith Piaf, Charles Trenet and Martial Solal.
More than music, however, it's cinema that runs in the characters' veins. Isabelle tells Matthew, "I entered this world on the Champs Elysees in 1959, and my first words were: New York Herald Tribune!" Cut to a clip of Jean Seberg hawking the paper in the opening scene of Jean-Luc Godard's epoch-marking Breathless. The film is studded with glimpses from the glories of film -- gangsters in their death throes in the original Scarface, Marlene Dietrich emerging from within a gorilla suit in Blonde Venus, the elating Karina-Brasseur-Frey dash through the Louvre in Band of Outsiders. These youngsters are so besotted by privileged movie moments that they embrace them as part of their very existence. To see the characters pour their souls into a discussion on whether Chaplin was greater than Keaton is to be reminded of how much more seriously cinema was taken as an art in the 1960s. Most people nowadays don't care enough about film to turn off their cell phones inside theaters, let alone link it to the possibility of cultural change.
Still, danger lurks in looking back. Nostalgia can be among the most facilely self-indulgent of emotions, and the movie could have easily turned its source, Gilbert Adair's 1988 novel, into a pastelly, those-were-the-days rehash -- a sentimentalized past seen from a safe distance. Luckily, Bertolucci (now 63) is the rare artist who, entering a mellower, more reflective part of his career, can luxuriate in the ardor and immediacy of the moment even as he pinpoints its historical importance. One of the film's most touching moments is barely a few seconds long: a cut from 1968 footage of 24-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud, Truffaut's cinematic alter ego and an outspoken political militant, to the same Léaud, aged nearly 60, still rallying the crowds. No Forrest Gump trickery here -- for Bertolucci, the fight still goes on.
It will be a shame if the beauty of The Dreamers gets eclipsed by hammering over its adults-only NC-17 rating. It has been more than thirty years since Bertolucci had tongues clicking over the rough, emotionally bruising sex in Last Tango in Paris, and that was during a time when society matrons could blithely skip lunch hour to catch a screening of Deep Throat. If anything, we as a society are far more prissily puritanical in this day and age -- how are people who were shocked, shocked, when a breast popped out on TV going to react when they see the movie's unblushing use of pubic hair and erect penises? Every critic likes to play libertine by defending the artist's right to include sex in their work, but the truth is sex on the screen is one of the hardest things to get right. Bertolucci not only gets it right, he is the most sexually expressive living director (more even than Pedro Almodóvar), and the trysts of Tango, The Conformist, and The Sheltering Sky remain quite unrivalled even next to Hollywood's libidinous repertoire. More than that, sensuality is built right into his filmmaking, into his unparalleled sense of flow and his voluptuous, caressing camera movements.
The sensuality of The Dreamers, with its uninhibited eroticizing of lips, limbs and torsos guaranteed to make the prudes uncomfortable, is by no means gratuitous. To Bertolucci, sex can be a political and emotional action as much as a physical one, and here it is inseparable from the protagonists' voraciousness for new ideas and experiences. The theme of youth, with its suppleness and yet-unformed potential, has always fascinated the filmmaker -- one of his previous films, Stealing Beauty, was dismissed by most critics as a trifle, but to my mind it is one of the few films to analyze a generation's (my generation) pursuit of identity through its pursuit of pleasure.
Bertolucci's canny sense of film history is reflected not only in the lustrous clips that pepper The Dreamers, but in the casting. Each actor is used to evoke different cinematic movements -- Pitt starts out as a corn-fed DiCaprio clone and modulates into a Jean Marais profile, his American pragmatism clashing with European romanticism; Green is an exquisite throwback to the impulsive New Wave sirens of Anna Karina and Jeanne Moreau, and, like Dominique Sanda, Maria Schneider and Liv Tyler before her, a mysterious Bertolucci heroine; and Garrel, with his liquid moodiness, is a link to the rebellious pug-heroes of Pier Paolo Pasolini and Marco Bellocchio. All three are delightful, but the film never watches their enthusiastic romping uncritically. Isabelle and Theo see themselves as rebels, but their ways of opposing society (through their incestuous closeness, their shunning of their poet father's values) creates its own complacency. Cut off from the outside world, their movie-trivia-cum-sex-games rituals are a basically superficial revolt against their gilded bourgeois cage, since their awareness of the importance of the events taking place just outside their window is nil. They may have a poster of Godard's La Chinoise plastered on their wall, but they have not yet began to grasp its radical political meaning.
The film, then, is about the awakening of these Dreamers -- not from their movie-buff dreams, but from their apolitical sleep. Matthew joins in their games, but he also acts as a catalyst through which the siblings start to realize the limitations of their rebelliousness. Their naïveté (spledidly expressed in the luxurious yet slowly decaying apartment where they lock themselves in) is soon melted away, and the outside world literally bursts through their window in the form of a rioter's stone. Art and politics fuse into one, and the revolt that was simply bourgeois play-acting in Isabelle and Theo's games crystallizes as they join the turmoil outside. Matthew, who's as much of a dreamer as his hosts but lacks their passion to go to extremes, can only turn around and disappear into the crowd.
I came out of The Dreamers elated. The fervent youth of 1968 (famously christened "the children of Marx and Coca-Cola"
by Godard) is an entire universe away from today's, yet Bertolucci has magically bridged the two through his love of
cinema. I doubt the picture will find the audience it deserves, though that hardly seems to matter -- it is a reminder of
an increasing rarity, of film as art. Nowadays, that in itself is pretty revolutionary.