Full-frontal nudity is something we haven't seen much of in mainstream movies since the seventies, when director Bernardo Bertolucci was shocking the world with "Last Tango in Paris." He returns to his roots, so to speak, in 2003's "The Dreamers."
The new film attempts to combine politics, cinema, and sex in a journey of self-discovery for three young people in late sixties' Paris. That it appears to find Bertolucci trapped in a time warp seems almost beside the point. His trying to make a comment on the way people behaved back then and how events of the day influenced people's lives is almost secondary to our fascination with the gorgeous people involved.
More often than not, Bertolucci's pictures ("Last Tango," "1900," "The Last Emperor," "Sheltering Sky," "Stealing Beauty") have a subtext, but it's the characters that are more interesting than anything they might symbolize. So it is with "The Dreamers." Ostensibly, the film is about how the rebellious youths of the late sixties' cultural revolution eventually assimilated into regular, consumer-oriented society. More important, it's about knowing who we are and where we're going. And most important of all, it's about beautiful people with their clothes off. OK. Now you know where I stand.
The setting for this bit of sociopolitical erotica is Paris, 1968, where a young twenty-year-old American, Matthew, has come to study French. But he's also a cinemaphile, an avid film buff, and spends most of his free time at the Cinematheque Francaise. "Only the French," he tells us, "would house a cinema inside a palace." It was a time when people were taking film seriously as an art form, and Matthew is always "the one sitting closest to the screen," having an insatiable appetite for motion pictures. He will soon come to have an insatiable appetite for other things when he meets Theo and Isabelle, a brother and sister of about Matthew's age with a love for film almost as compulsive as his own. Their mutual love of film draws them together, and before long they invite Matthew to live in their apartment while their parents are away for a month.
There, Matthew discovers more than he bargained for. Like the unusual relationship of the brother and sister, who claim to be twins even though they don't look much alike. For one thing, they bath and sleep together nude; but just that, bath and sleep only. And they enjoy playing intimate games with Matthew, finally introducing him to one that requires that he make love to Isabelle, where he discovers that the seemingly worldly young lady is not so experienced after all. Their initial sexual awakening becomes a coming of age for both of them. From then on, the two spend most of their waking hours making love, with Theo a semi-bystander. And so it goes until the end of the film and the parents' return, when the three young people finally become involved, ironically one way or another, in something other than themselves.
Oh, I haven't mentioned much about the war in the streets, have I. It's probably because after introducing it, Bertolucci practically forgets about it himself. In 1968 Henri Langlois, founder of the Paris Cinematheque Francaise, was driven out of office by city officials, which set off a series of riots in Paris that eventually developed into a wholesale revolt against the country's government. But once our film's young people discover the joys of sex, they forget about everything else--revolutions, movies, communism, the Vietnam War, whatever. Bertolucci uses the young people's sexual awakening as a symbol of the revolutions around and within them, but mainly it's just sex.
Matthew is played by Michael Pitt, an actor who resembles a youthful Leonardo DiCaprio, a dewy-eyed novitiate with dark blond hair and a shy, naive smile. Unfortunately, Pitt has all the screen presence of a Swedish turnip, and beyond his sweet good looks is rather a washout. Maybe that's all he's supposed to be. More to the point is Eva Green as Isabelle. She's a knockout looker and a commanding actress. When she's around, the viewer cannot help but stay tuned to the story, whether she's in or out of her clothes. Ms. Green conveys a wealth of sensuality and a childlike innocence at the same time. And Louis Garrel plays Theo, the brother, a dark-eyed, sultry type with a likeness to silent screen stars. Yet we find that he, too, is far more unsophisticated than he looks and acts.
Fox is making the film available in two forms, it's original, uncut NC-17 theatrical version and an R-rated version for the Blockbuster crowd. Fox's press notes tell us that the NC-17 version "marked the first time in six years that the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) signatory has released a film with this rating." For the review they sent me the NC-17 edition, which presumably contains more nudity and sex than the R-rated one. I don't know. There is nothing obscene about the picture, to be sure, the nudity quite beautiful and the sex discreetly filmed.
But the nudity and sex are neither here nor there. Bertolucci's intentions are clearly to make the eroticism represent something else, which rather detracts from the merits of the romance. For instance, there is a clichéd scene at the beginning where Theo gets mad at his father, a famous poet, for having turned away from the insubordination and questioning attitude of his youth and settled into middle-aged conformity, a condition we see Theo has fallen into himself. Theo is content to spout words about cultural rebellion, but it's sexual rebellion he's most interested in. The question is, so what?
Then, too, for all these youngsters' talk about their devotion to film, once the parents go away they never leave the apartment and never look at another movie. For them, film per se is almost forgotten except in references to snippets of famous old movie dialogue and in hackneyed arguments about whether Keaton or Chaplin was the funnier filmmaker. The brother and sister even tell us they never watch TV, they're so much above the petty bourgeois, but they never seem to realize they could actually catch a film on television once in a while.
Bertolucci wants to present us with a big, profoundly thematic picture, but the whole thing comes off too consciously artsy for that, and his grand philosophies by now seem old hat, a rehash of stale sixties pretensions. These young people keep discovering ideas that the rest of the adult world learned long before; e.g., that your own parents are never as good as other people's parents, but your grandparents are the best in the world.
To kick home his retro designs, Bertolucci introduces the film with typically sixties opening credits and then goes on to use a good deal of sixties and seventies background music by the Grateful Dead, the Doors, Jimmy Hendrix, etc.; plus numerous intercut clips of classic films like "Queen Christina" with Greta Garbo, "Blonde Venus" with Marlene Dietrich, "Top Hat" with Fred and Ginger, "Scarface" with Paul Muni, "City Lights" with Chaplin. He even goes so far as to suggest that the trio of youngsters may be akin to something out of Tod Browning's "Freaks." But none of it helps. The trio's journey of self discovery seems shallow and uninspired compared to the sheer perfection of the film's photography and the physical attractiveness of the three leads.
As the film goes on, it is the simple joy of passion and sex that sets it apart. As first love blossoms, the film draws one into its private world. It takes a while for us to get to this juncture, but when we arrive, it's the best part of the show. The cultural revolution reflected in the personal lives of the young people is a distraction. Better to enjoy the movie for the beauty and delight of its love story alone.
Fox transferred this film to disc in something probably close to the director and cinematographer's original intentions, although the bit rate used is not as high as the studio engineers most often employ. The screen size is a standard 1.85:1 ratio, anamorphic Panavision (rendered at about 1.75:1 across a normal television), and the image produced is generally crisp and clear. It is not entirely clean, however, evidencing some minor grain, which renders the overall picture somewhat gritty at times. Definition and detail are good, but facial tones and shadows are occasionally a bit on the dark side.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 makes itself hidden most of the time, reproducing some good front channel sound but not doing much with the back channels. But that's to be expected. I mean, most of the film involves three people in an apartment together. There's not a lot of opportunity for helicopter flyovers or car crashes. Nevertheless, the surround speakers do come to life in musical ambiance, periodic distant voices, a little rain shower, and some final street scenes.
There are a few extras of interest. I listened to maybe a third of the audio commentary with director Bernardo Bertolucci, writer Gilbert Adair, and producer Jeremy Thomas and found it intermittently informative. There's a fifty-two minute documentary, "Bertolucci Makes the Dreamers," that takes us behind the scenes and affords even more insight into what the filmmaker was attempting to do in his movie. Then there's a fourteen-minute featurette, "Outside the Window: Events in France, May, 1968," that provides some historical overview on the story's place and time. Lastly, there are twenty-eight scene selections; a music video with star Michael Pitt, "Hey Joe," a cover of the old Jimmy Hendrix classic; a widescreen theatrical trailer for this film and another Fox release; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English and Spanish subtitles.
With three such attractive young leads taking their clothes off and jumping in and out of bed, it's hard not to take your eyes off "The Dreamers." But, ultimately, the viewer has to decide if the film is really about anything more than voyeurism for the sake of voyeurism, and here the movie rather falls short, except to proclaim the obvious, that film itself is a voyeuristic art form. Upon examination, the movie's pretensions to grand ideas is less than meets the eye. Still, what does meet the eye can hardly be discounted. Let's say it's not a film for everyone, and its NC-17 is well deserved.