Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Bertolucci's film-- The Dreamers
When Young Was Sexy and Paris Simmered
By A. O. SCOTT
HEAR this is the work of a promising young filmmaker," a fellow critic said to me just before a screening of "The Dreamers." He was joking, of course, since the director of "The Dreamers," which opens today in New York and Los Angeles, is the 63-year-old Bernardo Bertolucci, who has long since fulfilled his youthful promise. But like most jokes, my colleague's remark contained a kernel of insight. Just as the younger Bertolucci, who made "Before the Revolution" while still in his early 20's, often seemed wise beyond his years, so does Bertolucci the old master plunge into his art with a reckless, confident ardor that might easily be taken for precociousness.
Fittingly enough, one of the themes of "The Dreamers," adapted by Gilbert Adair from his novel "The Holy Innocents," is the passion and folly of youth — not just youth as a universal aspect of the human condition, but youth in Paris in the spring of 1968, one of those enchanted historical dawns when, to quote Wordsworth, "to be young was very heaven."
Mr. Adair's story, of an American exchange student who falls under the spell first of the Cinémathèque Française and then of two of the cinephiles he meets there, is well suited to Mr. Bertolucci's chief preoccupations. The director, a devotee of Stendhal's "Charterhouse of Parma" (which inspired "Before the Revolution"), has long been fascinated by the unwitting or reluctant participation of flawed, passive individuals in grand political and social dramas, from Italian Fascism ("The Conformist," "1900") to Chinese Communism ("The Last Emperor"). He has also frequently — sometimes simultaneously — investigated the unsettling consequences of sexual intimacy, most famously in "Last Tango in Paris," and also in "Luna," "Stealing Beauty" and "Besieged."
"The Dreamers," which is disarmingly sweet and completely enchanting, fuses sexual discovery with political tumult by means of a heady, heedless romanticism that nearly obscures the film's patient, skeptical intelligence. The three main characters, 20-year-olds besotted by sex, movies, ideas and each other, express themselves with an unguarded sincerity that would be easy to patronize or to mock.
In his voice-over narration, Matthew (Michael Pitt), a sweet-faced American who reads Susan Sontag and writes letters home to his mother, describes how the true aficionados in the cinematheque sit in the front row, so they can be the first to receive the images coming off the screen. This is a silly notion, of course — especially given that the cinematheque was devoted to showing old movies — but it is also a beguiling one.
Many of the other ideas expressed and enacted in "The Dreamers," like the Situationist graffiti on the walls of Paris proclaiming the existence of a beach underneath the sidewalk, have a similar naïve beauty. This makes the film vulnerable to the derision of those for whom sophistication consists in pointing out that there is no such beach, and who will object that Mr. Bertolucci refuses to scold or to satirize the idealism of an earlier generation or to wax pompous about its legacy.
Matthew and his new friends, Theo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green), the twin children of a French father and an English mother, exhibit a sometimes awkward seriousness that Mr. Bertolucci treats with tender solicitude. (They also exhibit a great deal more, but we'll get to that in a moment.)
In the course of their long sojourn in the decadent bourgeois squalor of Theo and Isabelle's vast apartment, Matthew and Theo argue furiously about subjects from Jimi Hendrix to Buster Keaton to Chairman Mao, and Mr. Bertolucci revels in their unself-conscious intensity, gazing affectionately at these children who speak solemnly of "cinema," who quote André Bazin with reverence and for whom the movies, far from being an escape from the world, are a means of entry into it.
This idea that living in and through movies is not a solitary neurosis but a mode of communion is made gloriously literal by Mr. Bertolucci's use of archival clips — of Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, of Robert Bresson's "Mouchette" and Samuel Fuller's "Shock Corridor," among many others. These silvery images, along with well-chosen songs by the likes of Hendrix, the Doors and Françoise Hardy, pop into the story like dreams and punctuate the hothouse claustrophobia of that apartment, where most of "The Dreamers" takes place.
Theo and Isabelle, whose relationship is incestuous in all but the most technical sense, also use movie references as the basis for a sex game whose psychological sadism makes Matthew uncomfortable, though after a while he is seduced into playing along. The ensuing triangle is like a soft-core updating of Henry James, with Matthew representing an open-minded, skeptical sensibility exposed to the dark shadows and gothic mysteries of Old Europe. Even as he is fascinated by Theo and Isabelle's kinky fairy-tale world, he wants to free them from it, and from each other, and his liberal spirit balks at the extremity of Theo's political radicalism.
The sex in this movie is, as measured by the display of body parts and the amount of time the actors spend out of their clothes, more explicit than even the most notorious scenes in "Last Tango." (Since Fox Searchlight admirably declined to force Mr. Bertolucci to cut it, "The Dreamers" is being released in the United States with the rarely applied NC-17 rating, the present-day equivalent of "Last Tango's" X.) But the cruelty and despair that haunted the couplings in that Paris apartment 30 years ago are for the most part banished from this one.
There is an almost Edenic quality to the nakedness, which is not to say that the film's treatment of sexuality is altogether innocent. "I read in Cahiers du Cinéma," says Theo, "that a filmmaker is like a peeping Tom." That he delivers this line while soaking in the bathtub with his sister and their American guest only emphasizes the point.
But it is hard to imagine a voyeur more benevolent than Mr. Bertolucci, whose eager scrutiny of the eros of the young is, like Jeremy Irons's in "Stealing Beauty," less a matter of prurience than of an honest, nostalgic appreciation of natural human vitality. And the director, unfailingly generous in his refusal to embarrass his characters, is equally generous in sharing his sensual enthusiasm with the audience.
I don't only mean that the unadorned loveliness of Ms. Green's limbs and Mr. Pitt's torso are pleasing to look at — though I would hardly deny such a thing. Their beauty is enhanced — is discovered — by Mr. Bertolucci's visual technique, which gives his frames the poise and vibrancy of paintings by Ingres or Caravaggio. (Their shadowy, melancholy luster comes from the cinematography of Fabio Cianchetti.) Except, of course, that these pictures move. There is perhaps no living filmmaker who moves his camera with such exquisite, expressive grace. Movie love is not only the subject of "The Dreamers," but also its method.
But there is more to life than sex and movies, much as we might wish it otherwise. There is, for one thing, "the street," where the events of May 1968 are unfolding. The disturbances began, legend has it, with protests against the government's firing of Henri Langlois, the founder and director of the Cinémathèque Française, but their rapid escalation takes place off screen, while Theo, Isabelle and Matthew are lost in their reverie of carnal exploration and emotional sadomasochism.
The reality principle asserts itself in the end, first with the arrival of Theo and Isabelle's distracted parents and then with a cobblestone that crashes through the window, leading the dazed dreamers out in search of the beach they had been promised.
"The Dreamers" is rated NC-17 (No one under 17 admitted) for nudity and explicit sexuality.
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci; written (in English, with some subtitled French) by Gilbert Adair, based on his novel; director of photography, Fabio Cianchetti; edited by Jacopo Quadri; production designer, Jean Rabasse; produced by Jeremy Thomas; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 115 minutes. This film is rated NC-17.
WITH: Michael Pitt (Matthew), Eva Green (Isabelle), Louis Garrel (Theo), Robin Renucci (Father) and Anna Chancellor (Mother).