For director Bernardo Bertolucci, the sensual coexists with the
political. His films explore themes of the actual politics of sex
(Besieged, Last Tango in Paris) or the sex in politics (1900,
The Last Emperor). So it may seem inevitable that he would be
attracted to Scottish author Gilbert Adair's novel The Holy Innocents
which serves as the basis for The Dreamers.
Both Adair and Bertolucci were enamored of the French
Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) in the mid- to late 1960s. The novel and
film are set in the pivotal year of 1968, a time of social upheaval and
unrest. The main character is Matthew (Michael Pitt), who tells the
audience in voiceover: "The first time I laid eyes on the Cinémathèque
Française, I thought -- only the French. Only the French would house
a cinema in a palace."
Thus the viewer is initiated into Matthew's rarefied world as a
cineaste as he attends screenings at the Cinémathèque. When the
French government attempted to close it down, there was rioting in
the streets. Bertolucci recreates this action nicely and it serves as the
backdrop for a "meet cute" between Matthew and the very odd twins
Isabelle (Eva Green) and Théo (Louis Garrel). The brother and sister
invite the young American back to their home where their British
mother (Anna Chancelor) and French philosopher father (Robin Rennuci)
are preparing to embark on a vacation. Matthew basically moves in
with the twins and therein begins the tale.
The threesome debate, arguing over whether Chaplin is better
than Keaton and debate the merits of director Nicholas Ray, talk politics,
and playing film games. The latter allows Bertolucci to intercut scenes
from films as diverse as Blonde Venus (1932), Queen Christina (1933),
and Bande à part (1964). These film games soon take on a more
sinister tenor as Isabelle and Théo add an element of sexuality to
them. When her brother fails to identify correctly Isabelle's imitation
of Dietrich, she forces him to masturbate in front of a poster of the
movie queen, in full view of herself and an embarrassed Matthew.
When Matthew fails to answer correctly, Théo orders him to have
sex with Isabelle on the kitchen floor, and then he proceeds to make
an omelet while the couple writhes around.
As in Last Tango in Paris and Besieged, Bertolucci contains
most of the action to an apartment in the French capital. Although,
there are hints of homoeroticism between Matthew and Théo (and
in the novel it was very explicit), the director chose to omit that
aspect from his film. Therefore, the psycho-sexual drama between
the game-playing siblings is muted. (It also doesn't help that despite
insinuations of incest, the audience is told that Isabelle was a virgin.)
Eva Green looks lovely but she hasn't yet developed as an actress to
fully project the admixture of temptress and control. Louis Garrel fares
much better, and indeed, gives perhaps the best performance of the
three leads. American Michael Pitt struggles a bit with his role, but
ultimately grows in conviction as he questions the morality of what
As with all of Bertolucci's output, The Dreamers is beautiful
looking, with special kudos to cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti
and production designer Jean Rabasse. There is indeed a dreamlike
quality to the tale, a tone that is literally shattered by breaking glass
as the student riots of 1968 intrude on the lives of the threesome.
It is a moment that works nicely and sets up the inevitable ending.
MPAA Rating: NC-17 for explicit sexual content.
Running time: 115 mins.
Viewed at the Fox Screening Room
© 2008 by C.E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.