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February 2004
The Dreamers: An Interview with Bernardo Bertolucci

By Wilson Morales

The Dreamers: An Interview with Bernardo Bertolucci

Once you have been in "the game" for some years and have gained the respect from just about everyone who matters whether it's critics or film goers, then there's no limit to your filmmaking skills. Take for example, the famed director Bernardo Bertolucci. He directed Marlon Brando in "Last Tango in Paris", directed "The Last Emperor", which won 9 Oscar including Best Director and Best Picture, and directed Thandie Newton in "Besieged", a film in which I truly admired. His latest project is the controversial film, "The Dreamers", which has been given an NC-17 rating and will be only the 3rd motion picture in released by a major studio, Fox Searchlight. Most recently, Mr. Bertolucci spoke to blackfilm.com about his film and his reasons for so much nudity.

Why Michael Pitt in the lead role of Matthew?

Bertolucci: I thought he was good as the provincial, innocent, nave, American boy; just parachuted in Paris in 68. I got to him after I'd been in this country, Los Angeles and New York, to do casting sessions. I saw him with two or three other kids. I liked him, but then in London, just before I decided anything, I saw him on stage and then it was clear, Jake would have been so tortured about showing his body. It became clear almost immediately, after a few days. I know he was one of these very meticulous actors who want to know everything, want explanations, so every time there was a scene a bit sexy, I could see myself trying to explain. It was impossible. I don't blame him. I would have reacted the same way. I cannot be naked in front of the camera. I understand Jake, then I thought about this kid with big lips in new York. Then I saw Michael Pitt in Bully, which was very good.

Had you started shooting with Jake?

Bertolucci: No, it was months before.

And the rest of the cast?

Bertolucci: Louis Garrell was found the first day, the first session of casting in Paris. The girl a bit longer, I saw dozens.

Did you tell Jake about your problems?

Bertolucci: Yes, he agreed with me.

Do you think that's common with American actors? They worry about nudity?

Bertolucci: Hmm, I don't know. I don't think of it specifically as American actors. I remember when I wanted to do Last Tango in Paris. Jean Leaud almost declined. He says I cannot be naked, I can't, I can't. He wasn't American. He was French.

What attracted you to this story in particular?

Bertolucci: When I read it, I had a feeling it was like Cocteau's L'Enfant Terribles in 68. So these two elements for me was very exciting, this complicated relationship between the three of them, and before shooting I read Cocteau, there is a line Cocteau says about L'Enfant Terribles, With this play, I want to make light the gravity and life the lightness. Something I remember during the film was to be light and very intense. When people tell me about the relationships, eroticism in Last Tango, I see dark and tragic. Because it was a very destructive character, Marlon's. If I think of sexuality in The Dreamers, I think of light, very joyous.

Did you connect that with 68 or in contrast?

Bertolucci: I connect that very much with 68. Sex was considered revolutionary. Sex was together, in sync with politics, music, cinema, everything was conjugated together. You could mix up everything. It was a great privilege to be able to live in that moment. What the kids today are missing is not their fault, the chance to be a part of big ambitious dreams, to want to change the world.

Where there any limitations of NC-17?

Bertolucci: At the beginning I thought Searchlight did not want to go out with an NC-17 becauseof the limitations. But then they explained that NC-17 is not like having an X. Apart fromvery few places, no exhibitors have problems with NC-17. Grown-ups have the right tosee movies for grown-ups. Very recently I'd heard that the movie couldn't be shown inthis country in its integrity. It sounded too strange, if the only country in the world themovie is to be cut is in the United States, and probably Iran. Then, also, I was happybecause I think (releasing it NC-17) is a good precedent for other companies like Searchlight. They'll now be encouraged to release movies that maybe wouldn't be released here.

Why the turnaround, the support of the work from Searchlight?

Bertolucci: I think, at the end, there was more than just respect for my work. The media wouldhave been attacking them because the United States would be the only country wherepeople could not see this film.

There is a certain levity the characters achieve in the apartment while the streets are tumultuous. How did you get the three actors to be so playful in the setting, while being so exposed, so naked at the same time? Was there any situations where they weren't gelling because of the nude scenes?

Bertolucci: I don't know. What I can tell you is what I wanted to do. While the three kids are exploring each other in the apartment, outside is preparing for something. We see one night the kids running, red flags, the police chasing them. Theo, the brother, goes to the university and someone insults him, they cannot count on him, where are you, you've disappeared. And then when there is the explosion in the streets, history is calling them, in fact it's saving them from the apartment.

So they understand the situation at that point?

Bertolucci: Yes, they are private and collected, individual and public. They are very much mixed up. Their values are different.

Is there a connection with the protests today? Do you see kids today revitalizing that sensibility?

Bertolucci: It's a big minority. Every time there is a G-8, you can see the kids getting together, no globalization. Seattle, in fact in Genoa in 2001, the police were very violent. The last shot of the film is the police charging. I kind of thought of Genoa. These groups are very interesting, because they are very different and are minorities. In some ways they are connected to the 68 kind of dreams. Even if now, the values are different. It's much more today about finding a kind of balance of the wealth in the world. Then it was something else, but there are young people dreaming all over the world.

But today kids don't connect with movies in the same way?

Yes, that was interesting because I was there. You remember that in 68, everything started with the cinemateque. It was the first time that the police became so violent. They were just students, film buffs, Paris intellectuals. Everything started there, then spread around, Rome, Germany, Berkeley, Columbia. All the ambitions and the thoughts were very connected with cinema. It was like a projection of illusions that have a cinematic value.

Some people say that the 60's were somewhat selfish. People took the sex, the drugs, the rock and roll, and left the idealism and the politics.

Bertolucci: I don't think that freedom, to want to be free, I think in that very moment, politics was a big part of that. What is remaining from 68? I think people, the relationships between people are very different after 68. Life before 68 was a number of authoritarian figures. Then they disappeared. And the relationship between men and women, 68 triggered something, women's liberation movement. People who say 68 was a failure are very unfair, a historical mistake. 68 was a revolution, not in political terms, but change that was terribly important.

Do you find that when you come across actors you want to cast, is there a resistance? Do they say how much of my clothes do I have to take off?

Bertolucci: Never happened to me. Not all of my movies have parts where characters have to be naked. It is so strange, because I realize reading the reviews that are coming out in this country, somebody has taken this film as it was the work of a DOM, Dirty Old Man. I really never thought I could be considered this. They ask me do I really have the need to show a naked body. And I wonder if Picasso was asked questions like this when he was painting a thousand naked bodies. Did they ask Reubens why he was painting naked women?

But the sexuality is very provocative, was it your intention to provoke some of the idealism that existed in the 60's?

Bertolucci: I am surprised that to show a naked body, which to me is the most natural and innocent thing, still provokes some kind of puritanical reaction. There is a kind of taboo about the NC-17 because the last film was shown ten years ago. Why, because they feel that many [film] exhibitors wouldn't show the film? Magazines or papers wouldn't show the ads? It's not true, [Fox] Searchlight told me they had no problems. Why should it be a problem to show a movie that is shown everywhere around the world in the same way? Everywhere is opening as it is. Why should it be a problem in this country? What makes the body of Michael Pitt so obscene? I don't understand it.

What about the incest?

Bertolucci: Again, where is the incest? How can you talk about incest between twins? They've been together in the womb for nine months. That was very strong incest. After they came out, they went on playing. Michael Pitt tells them you'll never grow up if you don't stop playing like children. It's not an incest, twins are very unusual. Eva Green has a twin sister.

Really? Did she talk to you about using that experience?

Bertolucci: Yes, she told me a bit. Louis Garrel is the son of Phillip Garrel, a director I admired very much in 68. Eva Green is the daughter of a (unintelligible), a very famous French actress. She has a twin sister.

You wouldn't masturbate in front of your brother?

Bertolucci: Yes, but I'm talking about the special relationship of the twins. Remember it's a forfeit, it was a kind of punishment.

Was naivete a point you were trying to address?

Bertolucci: Yes, of course, there was a clash between the American boy, provincial, nave, and the two kinds of Paris decadent children, where the family was rich and intellectual. Then you see, in fact, they're pretending to be so smart. The girl is a virgin. Everything was a kind of sarcasm, her being the dominant, it was all a construction. After the moment she becomes a woman, she is cooler, more relaxed. The actress shows it well I think.

The scene where she brings Matthew into her room for the first time, it's a side of her we haven't seen. She's play acting cool. When she hears that special song, between her and her brother, being played by the woman he's with, I think that speaks volumes to how immature they really are. Up to that point they are playing a game, would you agree with that?

Bertolucci: When she hears the brother?

Yes, when she takes Matthew into her room, the private sanctum, what she really is. Then hears the song in the next room and goes ballistic, throwing Matthew out.

Bertolucci: Yes, she is shocked and she can't help it. She loses control, bangs the door. I think it's a very melodramatic moment, the music, a real moment of melodrama. And as you say, they are not playing anymore, she finds it unacceptable.

And my follow up question, the scene in the tent, the little play tent that they build, when she finds out her parents have seen them. What she does, is that the mark of a child or someone that's being an adult, shameful?

Bertolucci: She announced it before, Michael's character asks her what she would do if her parents found out what she and her brother were doing. She says they don't have to know and he insists. And she says she would kill herself. If you remember, I think that in some way she is more committed to her brother and her brother is more free.

Do any of these characters remind you of yourself in the late 60's?

Bertolucci: No, remember when I said in the beginning of the film that Eva was dominant. In fact, you know how there are all these clips in black and white? There were clips we couldn't use because we couldn't clear the rights. One of them was from a Bettie Davis film, and Eva, like the others, hadn't seen any of these movies. In the first part of the film, she tries to have that dominance, but then the Bettie Davis is not in the final version.

Did you have problems getting the rights to the clips or the Hendrix material?

Bertolucci: I couldn't use Hey Joe. In the scene in the bathtub, we had to describe where these songs where going, they said no way. That is Michael Pitt singing. Almost every American actor is now a musician, many of them, so he said can I try and finally I did it. He's singing Hey Joe because of the estate.

How does this film fit in your overall catalog of films?

Bertolucci: My only goal is to have no goals. I have no goals. The goal, every time, is that film, that very moment. I don't know what I've done so far. I can't look at my movies. I spend some time with [Pedro] Almodovar. We where talking about how difficult it is to watch our old movies, because they look so bad. They are people that are taking me in a serious way, but I'm not serious about myself.

The Dreamers Opens February 6, 2004


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