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167
  March 4
2004
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Set to Sail on Songwriting Chops: The Decemberists’ Colin Maloy Talks About his Band’s Haunting Pop and its New, 18-Minute Prog-Rock Song
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A Dance By Any Other Name?

Lab’s ‘Hard Heart’ Hits Hard

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Stiller and Wilson Meet Starsky and Hutch:
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Paris in the Springtime:
Bertolucci Returns to Form with ‘The Dreamers’
 
 
 
 

 theReel
 
Paris in the Springtime
Bertolucci Returns to Form with ‘The Dreamers’
 
by Jeremy Mathews

“The Dreamers”
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Screenplay by Gilbert Adair, based on his novel, The Holy Innocents
Produced by Jeremy Thomas
Starring Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrel, Robin Renucci and Anna Chancellor
Rated NC-17 for honesty

(out of four)

Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” opens with a descending detail shot of the Eiffel Tower, with the bars and light of the monument to modernism moving in ways that the standard Paris long shot has never shown. The shot ends with Michael Pitt’s character, Matthew, crossing the Seine to the palace that houses the Cinémateque Français. It’s 1968, at a lost time when people believed fully in the power of the cinema, when French New Wave filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard were changing the face of films, when crowds of young people went to see whatever old and new films were playing and sat near the screen to let it all wash over them. The sequence will bring tears to any true lover of film.

Matthew is certainly a true film lover. He’s in Paris to study, but spends most of his time in the front row of the Cinémateque, regardless of what’s showing.

Bertolucci has captured a time when passion for innovation drove everything— film, music, sex, politics. For a moment anything seemed possible, including actions that weren’t good ideas. The three main characters of “The Dreamers,” however, don’t really spend much of their time with politics, although some subscribe to certain ideals. They spend their time in sex and thought in the bubble of a large apartment when the projection lights are off.

The spring of ’68 year marked a time of great unrest. The government ousted Henri Langlois, the founder of the Cinémateque and icon of French cinema history. The resulting student demonstrations for Langlois eventually, in May, turned into riots with an aim to take down the government.

But Matthew isn’t thinking about that when he joins the first protest after he goes to see a movie and finds the theater closed. Nor is “The Dreamers” concerned with historical events in more than a peripheral perspective. It’s about the young people who embody the promising feeling of the time.

At the protest, Matthew meets a stunning girl chained to the door of the theater— or at least she has chains around her wrists and her hands behind her back, but is completely free despite any signs of confinement. Her name is Isabelle, and the young Eva Green, in her first film, plays her with the same vibrant enthusiasm that Matthew finds in the films he watches.

She introduces him to her brother, Theo (Louis Garrel) and the two treat him to a sample of their lives. Matthew writes his mother that he made his first Parisian friends. They accept him as he displays equal knowledge of cinema in their quiz games, in which they visually or verbally recreate classic moments from cinema. Bertolucci uses clips of these black-and-white films as bursting memories of celluloid to accent the scenes, such as when Isabelle tells the story of her birth as the story of Jean Seberg’s first scene in Godard’s “Breathless” and Theo takes advantage of the shadow of a cross to recreate the death scene from “Scarface.”

As the ultimate sign of acceptance, the siblings ask him to complete the set of three characters and run through the Louvre to recreate the scene from Godard’s “A Band of Outsiders.” Cinephiles will also notice a host of other homages not overtly brought to attention with brief clips.

Matthew is thrilled with his new friends, but Bertolucci suggests moments of separation from the two as they run through a café behind muted glass while Matthew walks on the outside, then they close the door to their place without letting him in. It’s just a joke, though, and they soon have him live in their spacious apartment while their parents, a famous French poet and his English wife (Robin Renucci and Anna Chancellor) are out of town. In the following time, Matthew bonds with the pair, but finds some of their actions questionable.

It’s not very hard to pick up on the sexual tension between Theo and Isabelle, and soon Matthew doesn’t need to pick up on anything. Missing a cinematic quiz results in punishment via sexual experimentation and the characters go through humiliation and confused pleasure. These graphic scenes earned the film an “NC-17” rating (the MPAA doesn’t share Bertolucci’s belief that “an orgasm is better than a bomb”), and Fox Searchlight wisely chose not to edit the film’s U.S. release, an act that would have taken the time and meaning away from the mature adults who want to see a Bertolucci film.

“The Dreamers” has received mixed reactions, with some claiming that the sex scenes don’t have the spirit that Bertolucci’s other films have shown. In truth, the scenes are creating a different kind of emotion. Matthew’s lust and love for his new friends, as well as some mood-altering substances, drive his increasing involvement in the escapades, but he’s also aware that many of the incestuous connotations of the relationship are wrong. He throws himself into the relationship with the experimental fervor of the time and is reluctant to leave his only friends, since things would be best if he could help them work their way out of the situation.

Bertolucci made the film to remember a time and place very important to him. The film will bring today’s young adults a nostalgia for a time they never experienced. Things are nowhere near perfect, but the dream of a new future exists, and above all, people talk about film, music and art like it matters. A debate between Matthew and Theo about who’s better, Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin (our hero knows it’s Keaton, of course) may seem insignificant, but it exemplifies the time when art meant something and people believed in its power as much as the power of government, even if it’s now obvious that cinema won’t change the world.

Communism takes away the individualism that Theo cherishes in art, and would be the equivalent of a film with nothing but extras, Matthew tells Theo. Theo fails to reach this same conclusion, yet the three dreamers don’t participate in the commotion outside of their apartment. When they wake up to the outside world, however, they’ll have to decide where they stand and Matthew will have to decide how much he wants to be part of it.
jeremy@red-mag.com

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