Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers is a beautiful, effusive mess of cinema. Though it suffers from preciousness, it is also precious in its affirmation of Bertolucci's visual mastery, contemplative themes, and unapologetic NC-17-rated sexuality. The Dreamers opens only days after America's infamous glimpse of Janet Jackson's breast; if you've had enough of the psychotic fundamentalist hysteria that followed, Bertolucci offers you liberation.
Bertolucci's mise en scène recreates Paris in the spring of '68. The inciting event: the ousting of Henri Langlois from the Cinémathèque Francaise. The inevitable finale: riotous students clashing with police in the streets. Between these bookends, Bertolucci and screenwriter Gilbert Adair--adapting his novel The Holy Innocents--play out an allegory of youthful indiscretion characterized by sticky situations (literally—at various times, blood, semen, eggs, toothpaste, and jam serve as the director's condiments).
Michael Pitt (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) plays Matthew, an American in Paris who worships at the Cinémathèque Francaise (Matthew tellingly remarks, "Only the French would put their film museum in a palace"). In the film's first scenes, we see cinema as he does, from the front row. Proving that ignorance is bliss, Matthew wants nothing between him and the screen, so that he might be the privileged first to receive the images as the film unspools. The film screen is a key image: a screen can be a protection from reality, a safe stage on which to play out our dreams; so too are the characters screens onto which we can project ourselves (unfortunately, the theme becomes needlessly explicit in a conversation about film as voyeurism).
As for Pitt, his blank gaze and eager lips promise that sex will, biblically, precede understanding. Matthew meets his match in Isabelle (Eva Green), who he finds apparently chained to the gates of the Cinémathèque. In fact, hers is an artful dodge--she's not locked up at all. Isabelle represents, then (if only to Matthew), freedom of spirit, and perhaps her political commitment is less than meets Matthew's eye. Isabelle introduces Matthew to her brother Theo (Louis Garrel), and before they know it, all three are sharing an apartment which belongs to the siblings' parents. There, in lieu of the clockwork distraction offered by the Cinémathèque, the youngsters act out a ménage à trois distinguished by film commentary and sexual gamesmanship.
The siblings, who have matching teardrop scars on their shoulders, claim to be siamese twins (Isabelle says they're joined at the brain), and their insular, co-dependent relationship has more than a whiff of incest about it as they tease Matthew into conducting their sexual electricity (She: "Theo and I are contagious." He: "You mustn't catch us"). Their initially innocuous game of "Name the Film" develops a sinister proviso: "...or pay the forfeit." In vintage Bertolucci fashion, the forfeit always involves a sex act, and though the siblings' cruel demands on one another yield to affectionate relations between Matthew and Eva, the resulting course of courtship faces undue emotional intensity in the presence of the coldly jealous Theo.
The film indulges Bertolucci's nostalgia for cinema and untried sexuality, both of which offer titillation. The director inserts film clips as projections of memory and reflections on the character's situations (most memorably, Isabelle reenacts Garbo's tactile walk through a bedroom from Queen Christina), and the young trio reenacts favorite film moments, like the emblematic anti-establishment race through the Louvre in Godard's Bande à part. As for the sex, the insatiable film "buffs" regularly parade full-frontal flesh (and why not?), and the most memorable coupling announces, in cheekily overstated visual terms, the charge of sexual abandon as a rite of passage.
For all this, Bertolucci ruminates on an issue increasingly relevant in a media-crazed culture: the choice between living within the world or without it. The parents (listed in the credits only as "The Mother" and "The Father") insist upon involvement, but theirs reeks of bourgeois submission. The youngsters prefer the "purity" of standing outside the world, preferably by the dreamy escape of cinema or the all-consuming totality of sex: free thought and free love. Conformity won't do, perhaps not even conformity to the revolution, since violence is its own kind of submissive failure. Almost against Bertolucci's young-at-heart will, the film moves inexorably to the demanding choice outside the confines of the Parisian flat.
Though it's a mistake to interpret the characters in literal terms, the dubiousness of their emotional reality does become tiresome by the last act. By his climax, a creatively exhausted Bertolucci seems to have painted himself into a corner, so he spells out his central conflict in thuddingly obvious terms capped by a hackneyed application of "Non, je ne regrette rien." Nevertheless, it's a small price to pay for mostly masterful filmmaking exemplified in painterly visuals. Bertolucci lovingly observes the naive privileges of youth and reminds us in his very process that freedom is ageless. The Dreamers is a glorious paean to life, love, cinema, and a life spent in love with cinema.