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Saturday, May 21, 2016

21st Century Essentials: The Dreamers (2003)

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Starring: Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrel
Country: United Kingdom/France/Italy

Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers is a fever dream of intertwined passions. It is (famously) about sex, but it is also about art (specifically, intensely, vocally about film) and about politics, and about the heady set of circumstances in which all three collide. Tinged with nostalgia and regret, unfolding alternately with impish delight and crushing anguish, and always with a hazy restlessness, The Dreamers is a visually striking piece of work and, one might argue, a deceptively simple one. You watch it for the first time and it feels like it just washes over you, a collection of engaging and sometimes lurid images, but you find afterwards that it stays alive within you and visiting it again, be it immediately or years later, it reveals more depths than you might have originally given it credit for.

The year is 1968 and Matthew (Michael Pitt), an American college student, has come to Paris to study and, it is implied, to avoid the Vietnam draft. He quickly becomes absorbed in the city's obsessive film community where he meets Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel), twins who love movies as much as he does and who, to his surprise, decide to make room for him in the tight-knit group of which they are the only members. When their parents go away on holiday, Theo and Isabelle invite Matthew to move into their family's spacious apartment, where the three spend most of their time talking about movies and the twins introduce Matthew to a favorite game of theirs: one enacts a scene from a film and, if the other cannot guess the title, he or she must perform a task in forfeit, one which is sexual in nature. Despite his initial reluctance, Matthew is drawn in, but the introduction of a third to the relationship inevitably upsets the balance, bringing more heartbreak than happiness.

Although never as embraced or as lauded as Y Tu Mama Tambien, which came out two years earlier, the two films have quite a bit in common on narrative and thematic levels. Both are about a close relationship that becomes tested by the introduction of a third person, and in both cases that test is sexual in nature, the third acting as a substitute, a means for the other two to vicariously explore their attraction to each other. Both films end with a night where all the remaining walls and boundaries come down, and which results in the third being pushed out, though in the case of The Dreamers, the original two are only more firmly bonded in the aftermath instead of being torn apart. Both films also tell two stories, one in the foreground in which the characters are guided by their sexual impulses and one in the background where an important social movement is taking place that the main players only notice in passing (when they notice it at all), so busy are they attending to their carnal desires. In The Dreamers that upheaval is the unrest of May 1968, which saw a wave of student protests and worker strikes that brought the French economy to a halt and would end with then-President Charles De Gaulle dissolving the National Assembly and calling for new elections. Here again, The Dreamers takes a different turn from Y Tu Mama... as, instead of missing all the changes around them, the characters end up right in the thick of the fray, one deciding he doesn't belong there and disappearing into the crowd, the other two gleefully joining the revolution.

Politics play out in the background of the characters' lives but are nevertheless key to understanding them in the fullness of their being. Aside from the fact that the transgressive nature of the complicated relationship speaks to the movement's efforts to redefine cultural/moral norms (consider two of the movement's slogans: "It is forbidden to forbid," and "Enjoy without hindrance," principles the triad has been living by), the action in the street literally invades the cloistered intimacy that the characters have retreated into in the form of a brick thrown through a window, "waking" them up to the revolution and transforming their personal story from one of illicit, increasingly tragic, romance into one of political activism. At the same time, however, the change isn't as monumental as it first appears and is even rather superficial. Theo and Isabelle join the revolution, but there's no real indication that they really care about the cause (it has, after all, been building up around them for some time with them barely casting a second glance back it over their shoulders), and when Theo tosses a molotov cocktail at the police, it's a moment so cinematic in nature and affect that even though, unlike other scenes, it is not twinned with an intercut scene from another film, it is as much play acting as anything else has been, a reenactment of some scene watched rapturously from a darkened theater. Similarly, the act that precedes the three going to the streets, in which Isabelle realizes that her parents have discovered what's going on and decides to kill herself, Theo, and Matthew, plays in a similar way in hindsight. She's playing out a scene from a tragedy and then, when the brick comes through the window, she sees the possibility of a different scene from a different movie and suddenly everything changes. To the end, Theo and Isabelle remain dreamers, using the films they've seen as their personal foundations and then turning the moments from their lives into scenes they can perform for each other.

Bertolucci brings this all together without using a heavy hand, drawing these elements in gently and in a way that doesn't disrupt the aura of sensuality that gives the film its center. The Dreamers is a film that seduces because it's told from the perspective of one who is seduced, Matthew, the guileless American who is, at first, just happy to have made real French friends and whose prudishness makes a stark contrast to the unselfconscious openness of Theo and Isabelle. All three characters are well-drawn and well-played (though Pitt's voiceover, which opens the film, is rather flat and lacking in the passion that will drive everything that follows), characterized by a volatile mixture of innocence and impulsiveness that would make them seem almost childlike, were it not for the very adult things they get up to. Constructed with care, and no small amount of affection on the part of the filmmaker, The Dreamers is a rich and wonderful film that ought to be watched, and then watched again.

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