In 1972, director Bernardo Bertolucci caused a stir with his film, Last Tango in Paris, starring a young Marlon Brando. Amidst controversy, it broke new ground in how sex could be depicted in a movie while still achieving commercial success. Over thirty years later, the times have changed, but Bertolucci is exploring similar themes with British author Gilbert Adair, adapting his own 1988 novel, “The Holy Innocents”. Although The Dreamers also deals with sex and Paris, it looks at the same era with an older, more modern perspective.
It’s 1968 and Paris is a hotbed for revolution as the country is split on the war brewing in Vietnam. A protest about the ousting of the director of a local movie hourse quickly escalates into full-scale riots. Into this setting comes Matthew (Michael Pitt), an American film buff who becomes fast friends with Theo and Isabelle, a twin brother and sister with an unhealthy incestuous relationship. The three friends test each other’s knowledge of films by reenacting scenes from them, but a wrong answer results in having to take a challenge, usually of a sexual nature. Ultimately, Matthew’s inclusion in the duo’s activities threatens to break the bond between them.
At the heart of the film is the relationship between the three characters that reminds one of the creepy love triangle in the 1999 thriller, Cruel Intentions. Although the sexual nature of their relationship is prevalent, they have many philosophical and existential discussions ranging from the war itself to whether Keaton or Chaplin is the better silent actor. Each of the trio are enigmatic in their own way, but while Theo and Isabelle’s motivations are somewhat apparent, Matthew is harder to figure out. He is obviously bothered by the intimacy in Theo and Isabelle’s relationship, but like the viewer, he feels the need to stay long enough to uncover their mystery.
The Dreamers is much more than an erotic drama, as Bertolucci and Adair use the film to explore a setting with which they’re both familiar, having lived as foreigners in Paris during that time period. The film’s greatest achievement is recapturing the tension of that era, both out on the streets of Paris as well as in the twins’ labyrinth-like apartment. More importantly, Bertolucci gets a chance to examine and share his love for film and how it affected the youth of that era. Film buffs should enjoy The Dreamers‘ use of films from the French New Wave, with actual clips cut into the story along with brilliant reenactments by the three main characters.
Despite Bertolucci’s best intentions, the movie never fully achieves its potential, since the relationship between the three is hard for the casual viewer to fully understand or accept. The film’s narrative and dialogue also has problems. One must assume that Adair took much of it verbatim from his novel, but it doesn’t work nearly as well when acted out by a young cast that seems to have been chosen more for their looks.
After a stint on “Dawson’s Creek”, the good-looking Michael Pitt made his mark as a brooding rock star in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, before teaming with Ryan Gosling, another hot young actor, in Sandra Bullock’s 2002 thriller, Murder by Numbers. So far, Pitt still hasn’t met his full potential, and The Dreamers doesn’t change that. Pitt just isn’t a strong enough actor to realize Adair’s leading character with any credibility. Unlike the young Brando who got an Oscar nomination for Last Tango in Paris, Pitt’s determination to maintain his Leonardo DiCaprio impersonation throughout the movie distracts one from empathizing with him, despite the intriguing transformation his character undergoes.
On the other hand, Eva Green is absolutely mesmerizing in her big screen debut. Her riveting beauty catches the eye whenever she’s on the screen, although her performance ranges from the precocious to the downright annoying as her character is a bit of a whack job. Still, she has a couple moments of pure emotion that makes it clear she is an actress worth watching, especially if she starts playing more normal roles.
Halfway through the film, as the graphic sex scenes begin to take over, things start to go downhill. A lot of the movie’s controversy has risen from the decision by Bertolucci and Fox Searchlight to release The Dreamers with an NC-17 rating, rather than editing it down for an R. This might be a mistake, as the sex scenes, while important, are difficult to watch, and they could have easily been trimmed down to allow a wider audience. Bertolucci’s desire to show close-ups of genitalia will greatly hinder the movie’s commercial success, and like too many other movies, this means that the sex scenes will overshadow the actual story. Although it’s played down, there is a definite homoerotic slant to the relationship between Matthew and Theo, which might make some uncomfortable as well. There are some amusing moments, but much of the laughter from the movie is caused from discomfort.
Despite the problems, the entire film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti, and the scenes in the twins’ apartment, a great interior set that helps to define their characters, look great. Bertolucci turns Paris into the fourth central character, with memorable sequences at the enormous Cinematheque Francaise movie palace and inside the Louvre, which hark back to vintage films from Goddard and Fellini. Never in the movie, do you not believe that you’re viewing Paris as it was in the late 60’s, which is helped by the perfect soundtrack of well-picked classic tunes from Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, The Doors, and Bob Dylan.
The promise of a first-hand experience exploring youth and rebellion during a pivotal era in European history makes The Dreamers interesting, but it is a flawed movie, hampered by pretentious writing and awkward character interaction. While it’s still a stronger movie than Last Tango in Paris, the flaws tend to get glossed over by attempts to distract with sex and nudity. Bertolucci’s love for the city and of film is able to shine through, but whenLost in Translation, Sofia Coppola’s travelogue of Japan, is able to stir up similar emotions without any sex or nudity, one quickly realizes how out of date Bertolucci’s sensibilities have become.
The Dreamers opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.