September 10, 2004
The Dreamers (2003) is Bernardo Bertolucci’s unapologetic love letter to being young and to the cinema. The movie yearns for a simpler time when it was exciting to be young and full of energy and idealism during a turbulent period in history. The characters in this movie are ready for anything and ready to absorb everything. The Dreamers is a heady mix of sex, politics and cinema.
Matthew (Pitt) is a 20-year old American studying French in Paris during the exciting spring of 1968. He is a self-described film buff who falls in love with cinema after he watches Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963) at the Cinematheque Francais. He is one of “the insatiables” who sits close to the screen so that he can be one of the first to absorb a film’s imagery as it unspools. It is a tumultuous time with massive student unrest that is only acerbated when the government shuts down the Cinematheque—the most important movie theatre in the city. At a protest outside the theatre Matthew meets Isabelle (Green) and Theo (Garrel), a brother and sister that are also intense cinephiles.
The clean-cut, wide-eyed Matthew is attracted to Isabelle and Theo’s jaded bohemian lifestyle. He is soon sucked into their world and they become fast friends (a la Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim). They walk the city streets at night talking excitedly about movies and quoting dialogue from their favourites. As they reference specific films (i.e. Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de souffle), Bertolucci inserts actual samples from the movies into the narrative. He continues this practice throughout the movie, most effectively when Matthew and Theo passionately argue about who was better, Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin.
Isabelle and Theo invite Matthew to stay at their house and after their parents leave for a vacation, they show him just how bohemian they really are. Isabelle and Theo are uninhibited and this makes Matthew uncomfortable. He is a voyeur who likes to watch; he is not an active participant. This soon changes when the sexy Isabelle initiates a variation of the truth or dare game. Someone quotes and faithfully reenacts a scene from a movie and the other person has to guess it correctly or they have to perform some kind of sexual act in front of the other two. Pretty soon they all become more than friends and start experimenting sexually with each other. Isabelle and Matthew begin a passionate love affair and this makes Theo feel jealous and left out.
Bertolucci doesn’t let us forget that he was the one who made the risqué Last Tango in Paris (1972) as he depicts the love affair between these three young people with copious amounts of frank nudity—full frontal of both the male and female form. The director never colours these scenes in a salacious way but rather matter-of-factly, like the rest of the elements in the movie.
These kids live in a fantasy world with no practical or common sense. They are spoiled brats who are self-absorbed and naively believe that philosophy and political manifestos can change the world. However, that won’t put food on the table or pay for the phone. It is only when the outside world, as symbolized by the student protests that occasionally come crashing into their lives, are the characters forced to confront reality.
Bertolucci does a good job of re-creating what an exciting time it must have been to be in Paris in ‘68. The French New Wave filmmakers were at the height of their powers, producing exciting new movies. Rock ‘n’ roll music was also being transformed into something exhilarating and new, and Bertolucci includes great period tracks from the likes of Bob Dylan, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix. It was also a heady time politically and socially. The Vietnam war was heating up and the streets were filled with student protests—it felt like a revolution was in progress.
There is an audio commentary by Bertolucci, screenwriter Gilbert Adair and producer Jeremy Thomas. Adair (who also wrote the book that the film is based on), like Matthew, was a young man who had arrived in Paris in 1968 and befriended French cinephiles but makes it clear that it didn’t play out like the events in the movie. Everyone involved did not want the politics of the time period to overshadow the story of the three characters. Bertolucci talks about what he was trying to achieve with the movie while Adair talks at length about the differences between his book and his screenplay (like the exclusion of homoerotic elements). This is an informative track that is edited in such a way so that there are very few lulls.
Also included is an excellent 50-minute documentary by the BBC, entitled “Bertolucci Makes The Dreamers.” It traces the entire filmmaking process and covers various aspects, like casting and production design. There is a good mix of on-the-set footage with Bertolucci in action mixed with newsreel footage of the actual protests from May 1968. This documentary does a great job of putting the film in its proper historical perspective. Best of all, it provides fascinating insight into Bertolucci’s creative process.
“Inside the Window: Events in France, May 1968” is a featurette that examines political and social conditions in France at the time that the movie takes place. It examines the reasons why the students were protesting. This is a really interesting look at the exciting times that the characters in the movie are embroiled in.
There is also a music video for “Hey Joe,” a so-so cover of the classic Jimi Hendrix song by actor Michael Pitt and the Twins of Evil. Bertolucci directed the video, which mixes footage of Pitt recording the song and clips from the movie.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer for The Dreamers and Zach (Scrubs) Braff’s directorial debut, Garden State (2004).
The Dreamers explores all sorts of fascinating ideas, like the notion of an artist not only provoking society but also transforming it. The movie is full of youthful energy and feels like it was made by a young man and not a veteran filmmaker like Bertolucci. Like all of his films, it is beautiful shot with loving attention to period detail. The Dreamers mixes a racy love story (that earned it an NC-17 rating) with political activism and an intense love of cinema.