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February 2004

By Julian Roman
The Dreamers
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Directed by: Bernardo Bertolucci
Producer: Jeremy Thomas
Screenwriter: Gilbert Adair, based on his novel
Director of Photography: Fabio Cianchetti
Cast: Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrel, Robin Renucci, & Anna Chancellor

Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers is a stick of film dynamite, a lurid sex odyssey that blows up the screen then drips off it. I was mesmerized by this film. It is a daring, brilliant film experience worthy of the NC-17 rating and a shot across the bow of world cinema. I can only spit out words of praise because here is something radically different and utterly genius at the same time. While most filmmakers stoke controversy as another publicity tool, Bertolucci's tale of pseudo-intellectual youth gone wild will have audiences reeling for hours afterwards. It leaves you filled with thought, disgust, admiration, and lust. Eva Green is a smoldering gem of a woman. Bertolucci uses her body without fear. Every part of her sexuality is explored on film like a diver looking for buried treasure. Unfortunately we get the same graphic interplay from Michael Pitt and Louis Garrel, but physical equanimity in this film is all about the story. The characters are immature idealists romping around like naughty children. But here's the best part, despite the sex, revolution, and ideology, The Dreamers is essentially an homage to the classic films of the black and white era. It is Bertolucci's and Gilbert Adair's (the screenwriter and novelist) love poem to the movies they treasured in their youth. I was not expecting this as the theme and pleasantly surprised. The characters play sexual guessing games about movies they admire. If you can't guess the film, then it's time to do a dare. The phenomenal part is that Bertolucci splices in the actual footage from the films they charade. It's marvelously done, one of the most creative things I've seen and the mark of a master filmmaker.

It is the summer of 1968 and Paris is on the verge of turmoil. Henri Langlois, the director of the Cinematheque Francaise, is fired by the French government for his choice in films. The Cinematheque Francaise was a legendary movie theater set in a palace. Cinemaphiles, mostly young students, flocked to the theater to embrace its diverse films. Matthew (Michael Pitt) is a dedicated patron of the theater. He is an American student studying in France for a year. He has no friends and spends all of his time watching movies. Matthew always sees Theo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green) at the theater. They are the cool French kids that he admires from afar. The closing down of the theater by the government kicks off a litany of escalating protest. Matthew finally meets Theo and Isabelle, who he finds out are twins. They spend a night partying. Theo and Isabelle are hardcore film buffs. They're very impressed by Matthew's film knowledge. They live in a fantasy world of movie pretend and Matthew fits right in. Isabelle and Theo's casual flirting begins to intrigue Matthew. They're halves to the same person, inseparable from each other. He finds it pretty strange, but is captivated by Isabelle's beauty. They invite Matthew to have dinner with their parents. Their father (Robin Renucci) is a famous writer, disaffected by his son's yearning for revolution. Their mother (Anna Chancellor) is a housewife, beautiful and yearning, but a coddler to her children. The scene where they have dinner is superb. Father is on a tirade about the pretentiousness of youth and the so-called revolution. Theo thinks he's a fascist who has lost his gift as a writer. Matthew, who's kind of zoning out, is charged with ignoring the conversation by Father. He's playing with a lighter and caught off guard by the attack. What he comes up with, the reason why he wasn't paying attention, is so crazy that it works. His comeback takes every one, especially Isabelle, by surprise. You can see it in her eyes. Matthew is an interesting guy and she's taken by him. It turns out that their parents are going on a long trip. The twins will have the apartment to themselves. Mother insists that Matthew spend the night before they leave. He gets up to use the bathroom in a hilariously disgusting scene. He catches a peek of Theo and Isabelle sleeping naked together in Theo's room. What's going on here? He has no clue what he's getting himself into.

Mother and Father leave the next day, stocking the fridge and leaving checks for the bills. Theo and Isabelle immediately start ratcheting up their play. Mommy and Daddy are gone, it's time to party. They invite Matthew to stay and he warily obliges. The twins are peculiar, but he cannot leave Isabelle. What happens next is the stuff of hour-long film discussion panels. The trio descends into a world of sex and depravity. They play mind games, constantly trying to outdo each other. It starts off innocently as guessing movie titles, but becomes increasingly sexual. There are scenes in this move that will have you shaking your head in disbelief. I'm going to really explore this theme, but I want to talk about what Bertolucci is doing first.

While the trio cavorts together in the apartment, the world is exploding outside. Paris is descending into chaos. What started as an uprising about the Cinematheque has turned into a street war, the young idealists versus the establishment. The great irony is that for all the talk of revolution, Isabelle and Theo are spending their time fooling around with Matthew in the apartment. They have no concept about what they're talking about. They like the idea of rebelling, but are just immature children that are in love with movies. That is what they're really about, each other and movies. Hence the title The Dreamers, the characters are in a world of their own while the real world passes them by. They are young, confused, looking to belong and believe at a time when society was in flux. This is why Matthew's character and viewpoint is so important. He's confused also, but is not immune to reality. Experience has benefited him. He's totally enamored by Isabelle and Theo, but is not blind like they are. Matthew becomes used to their frivolity. He and Isabelle have something together. He wants them to stop behaving like dirty children and do some growing up. Isabelle is his great love and he wants a real relationship, dating, dinner, the works. This realization is a sledgehammer to the twins. Are they dirty kids, freaks and monsters, immature? Here is where the childlike innocence, not sexual innocence is really shattered; in an apartment stuck in the middle of a French revolution.

The sex scenes in this film are unbelievable, quite explicit and shocking. The NC-17 rating is earned in this film. But guess what, not every film is made for children. There are some movies that are meant for adults only and this is one of them. Bravo to Fox for releasing the film uncut. It's a marketing ploy meant to draw out the arthouse crowd, but it delivers the film as it was meant to be seen. That's what matters the most and I can dig it. Back to the sex, it's uncompromising and dirty, but necessary. The trio is exploring sexuality. Let me temper that, there is no homosexual or incestual sex. The twins are basically kids playing hardcore doctor. Matthew and Isabelle are lovers that pound each other senseless all over the apartment. It feels good and it's such a naughty thing to get it on in Daddy's office. It's like taking the car for a joyride or stealing some ice cream after bedtime. They're getting away with something. That's the place of sex in the story, pure and simple. People who denounce this film because of the sex are jackasses and should be ignored. That being said, the movie obliterates film limits. It goes beyond anything I've seen recently. I'm talking Clockwork Orange shock value here. Last year's Italian garbage-fest Invincible, with Monica Bellucci, has nothing on The Dreamers. I'm not a reviewer that writes spoilers, but I have to reveal something so people know how hardcore the sex scenes in this film are. The first time Isabelle and Matthew make love, she starts to bleed. She was a virgin, much to his surprise. Theo rubs his hands between her legs and they come up bloody. Matthew does the same thing and is at first mortified, but then overcome by lust. He grabs her and starts to kiss her. The bloody hand smearing all over their faces and bodies; this is not a film for children at all, leave the kids at home for this one.

Eva Green's portrayal of Isabelle is sensational. The film worships every nook and cranny of her voluptuous body. She is Venus, Aphrodite, every adjective for beauty and sexuality I can think of. Bertolucci shows us what a woman like this can do to men. I'm sure they exist in the real world, but God knows I haven't met any of them. Isabelle is play-acting cool. We discover that she's just a girl, but much more than what we expect. Her sexuality is not a weapon or a charge. She wants to feel pleasure and love. She's aware of her physical presence, but not ashamed or abusive of it. Her love is for Matthew and Theo. One of my favorite things about The Dreamers is the slow revealing of who Isabelle really is. Just when you think you understand her, Bertolucci shows a different side. I'm so impressed by Eva Green's performance. She has the most to give up in the film and hangs it out there for the world to see. It's inspiring to see an actress so dedicated to her role.

Michael Pitt is the star of the movie and should be familiar to many. He's made quite a few films, Bully, Murder By Numbers, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He's sort of cultivated a cult status and is ensuring it by making this movie. I'm not ready to extol his virtues as a great actor, but the guy has a creepy, magnetic screen presence. He's perfectly cast as Matthew. There's just something about him that radiates weirdness on screen. He does good work and is willing to bare all for the cause. I'm not into male nudity, but would run around naked all day to shoot his scenes with Eva Green. How can you do the things he does with her and not go absolutely crazy? That's a legitimate question that I'd love to ask him. This movie can qualify as pornographic, but it's not porn. They're acting, filming a serious movie with people all around them. How can you simulate ravenous sex on the kitchen floor with Eva Green, hear cut, then go have lunch? I cannot fathom it, but would give it a shot any day of the week.

The level of filmmaking on display here is so great it's absurd. We are seeing the masters at work. There are no weak points at all. Bertolucci's direction is unreal. The man is an artist and deserving of every accolade that he gets. Gilbert Adair's screenplay is so well written, I'm ashamed to call myself a writer. The man has writing skill. The observations of the characters and the honesty of their interaction is so engaging. These are Adair's words painted magically on film by Bertolucci. It's such a rare thing to see a writer and director collaborate so well. The Dreamers is a shining beacon in modern film. Other directors and writers will look at this movie and know what the real deal is. It'll force them to do better and that benefits everybody. I've got to heap mountains of praise on the soundtrack. It's all sixties Hendrix, crunchy adrenaline guitar riffs that move the story like a needle plunging into skin. I don't know who did the soundtrack, but they're no joke. The musical accompaniment is awesome and so right for the movie.

I am still thinking about this film hours later. It's the middle of the night and I can replay every frame in my mind. I think it's that good. The curve of Eva Green's breasts, the dreamlike color of the print, the pulsing music, it's all swimming in my skull. I guess the thing I like the most is the creative aspect. As I said before, the film is really just an homage to old movies. Sure it's about a time and place, but it brings a knowledge of the movies that Bertolucci loves to a whole new audience. I'm very good when it comes to films and trivia, but am pretty sketchy with the films from before 1940. I've seen some famous ones, but none that appear in The Dreamers. I won't run out to rent any of those movies, but I totally appreciate the learning that Bertolucci throws our way. He's a legendary director and it's important to see what motivated him. I've purposely left out my interpretation of Theo, Louis Garrel's character. It's not that he's less important, in fact he's the lynchpin of the story. I just feel like some parts of a film shouldn't be talked about or given away. He's deceptively complex in the film and should spur some interesting conversation. Go see this movie and experience something different. It's a wonder to behold and a visceral film experience. Don't forget your ID when you go, because they're going to card you at the door. NC-17, the rarest animal in pop cinema, is delivered like a freight train. The Dreamers is not to be missed.