Synopsis: From Academy Award winning director Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor, 1987), comes an erotic tale of three young film lovers brought together by their passion for movies-and each other.
When Isabelle and Theo (Eva Green, Louis Garrel) invite Matthew (Michael Pitt) to stay with them, what begins as a casual friendship ripens into a sensual voyage of discovery and desire in which nothing is off limits and anything is possible. Featuring an engaging, seductive cast, The Dreamers is an unforgettable tale of sexual awakening that will “make you fall in love or lust.” (Chicago Tribune)
The Dreamers 8.0
eyelights: Eva Green. the various film clips to enhance the scenes. the evocative soundtrack.
eyesores: Michael Pitt’s delivery.
“Listen to me, Theo. Before you can change the world you must realize that you, yourself, are part of it. You can’t stand outside looking in.”
‘The Dreamers’ is a 2003 Bernardo Bertolucci film based on Gilbert Adair’s novel ‘The Holy Innocents’. It recounts the experiences of Matthew, an American student who is befriended by a brother and sister and taken in as one of their own for a few weeks during the 1968 student riots in Paris.
A somewhat sexually-explicit film, it was rated NC-17 upon its release in North America – the first to be branded as such in 7 years. Despite this notoriety, it did reasonably well at the box office and even received positive reviews from notable critics, including Roger Ebert.
Aside for its prurient nature, the film is notable for its focus on the cinema and music of the time as well as for its socio-political debates. The late ’60s was a period of tremendous change and Bertolucci infuses the film with a fondness for it by inserting footage of his favourite films and notable music from that era.
The exchanges are quite enjoyable, even if some of them could be considered vacuous: Keaton vs Chaplin, Clapton vs Hendrix, for instance (at that age, of course, nothing feels meaningless). But there are plenty of more substantive discussions, particularly when Theo is involved.
Although the whole family is politically-minded, Theo is the most inflamed of the lot; he is constantly debating socialist ideals, and getting into arguments with his father over differing opinions. Whether it be Vietnam, class struggles or even Maoism, he is always first to be roused for a verbal joust.
And yet, he is predominantly passive in his activism: while his fellow students are taking to the streets and a social movement is bowling over the establishment, he remains indoors, removed from the action; he seems content to smoke his cigarettes, drink wine and discuss ideas without acting on them.
His sister, Isabelle, is not nearly as politically-inclined, but she appears to be more committed (case-in-point: Matt is first introduced to her in the early stages of the student protest, while she is chained to the gate of the Cinémathèque Française, the catalyst for France’s 1968 student protests).
As incarnated by Eva Green (in her screen debut), she is self-aware, intelligent, playful, yet vulnerable. She is by far the biggest draw of the picture, and it’s a star-making performance (well before her incredible turn as Vesper in ‘Casino Royale’). Eva Green steals everything single scene that she’s in.
And boy was/is she lovely. When I first saw ‘The Dreamers’, I couldn’t believe my eyes: here was a natural beauty comfortable in her own skin, with her sexuality, who had brains and could actually act on top of that. It’s a really rare combination and I wasn’t surprised one bit when she began to show up everywhere.
Louis Garrel, who plays Theo is also quite good (although not nearly as stellar), however, Michael Pitt truly bogs things down as Matthew. Although he doesn’t actually deliver a terrible performance, per se, he has a delivery that I can only describe as Novocained; his mouth seems numb, ineffectual.
It appears that he wasn’t the first choice for the part: Leonardo DiCaprio was originally slated to play Matthew, except that his commitment to ‘The Aviator’ forced him to drop out. It’s a real shame because Leo would have gobbled that part up and would have made for a delicious pair with Green.
Be that as it may, the trio still works, it’s merely lopsided. Pitt plays Matthew a little innocently and self-conscious, which is very appropriate: away from home, with no allies to speak of, it’s only natural that Matthew would be timid in the face of the Isabelle and Theo’s extremely direct approach.
They work on him, though, and it doesn’t take long before he becomes their temporary plaything (because that’s exactly what it is: the siblings’ bond is so tight that there isn’t room for a third person, no matter how much they pretend to let him in). Within days he’s having adventures with them, many of which are sexual.
‘The Dreamers’ is pretty bold in its sexuality, particularly for 2003: not only is Theo clearly bisexual, but there’s a fair bit of full-frontal male nudity. Although this is becoming more common, even a decade ago this would have been a rare thing indeed – especially coming from a director of the caliber of Bertolucci.
The film’s only true transgression is in the siblings’ dynamic, which is very likely incestuous (although this is never explicitly explored). Everything else is pretty standard; only the amount of nudity might stagger the viewer. Even the book’s homosexual component has been toned down nearly completely.
If anything, ‘The Dreamers’ is a sensual and intellectual feast. It’s not particularly explicit, nor is it especially erotic (aside for Green’s short striptease at one point. Yum.). If anything, the sex is not intended to be arousing: it’s part of their story, of a youthful exploration that include the body, mind and soul.
Really, what ‘The Dreamers’ is is a nostalgic look back at a specific period in time, a particular place, a particular state of mind, through the eyes of the very youth who helped spawn this social upheaval – one that would resonate for decades after (French society would be impacted tremendously by these riots).
There’s evidently a lot of affection poured into ‘The Dreamers’ by Bertolucci. Although he wasn’t the same age as the protagonists were in 1968 you can feel that he is reliving a part of his youth through this picture. Even the way the camera embraces the Parisian streets and architecture shows his love of that time and place.
There’s also an a sense of wonder and excitement with all the scenes of student protests: they’re a constant presence throughout the film, a force to be reckoned with. One could even say that Bertolucci cherishes them – he goes so far as to end the picture with the sight of riot police to the tune of Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien”.
If one can accept the various boundary issues between the characters (I found it difficult the first couple of times), then ‘The Dreamers’ is well worth watching. It doesn’t always merge its various elements together smoothly, but it offers far more substance than most films of its ilk. It’s smart, sexy, intense, light, and a feast for the senses.
Lovers of cinema, the late ’60s and/or sex could hardly dream of a better motion picture.
Post scriptum: Completely in line with the values espoused in the picture, ‘The Dreamers’ was the very first carbon neutral production – indigenous trees were planted to offset its impact on the environment. I don’t know how many there were afterwards, but this is a superb initiative and there should be more of them.
Date of viewing: July 1, 2014