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The Dreamers (A PopEntertainment.com Movie Review)

The Dreamers

The Dreamers


Starring Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrel, Robin Renucci, Anna Chancellor, Florian Cadiou, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, Jean-Pierre Léuad and archival footage of Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Anna Karina and Jean Seberg.

Screenplay by Gilbert Adair.

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci.

Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.  115 minutes.  Rated NC-17.

It’s perhaps just bad timing that the latest film by Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Tango In Paris) is coming out just a couple of weeks after the big scandal over Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction.”  Personally, Jackson’s act didn’t offend me, though I was disturbed that an established star felt she had to resort to such a sleazy stunt to try to stay relevant.  The act made the morals police suit up to make sure that sex and nudity be shuffled back into the closet.  They say that the human body has no place in entertainment.

While they are right that it was completely inappropriate for the Super Bowl halftime show, there is a very valid place for erotic images in entertainment.  The hypocritical ratings board freely give R ratings to disturbingly violent films, but any film that dares to frankly explore human sexuality is saddled with the NC-17 rating.

NC-17 has always been a hard sell.  It was supposed to be a rating for intelligent adult fare when it was introduced about fifteen years ago, but except for a few mainstream films like Henry & June, Bent and Bad Lieutenant, the rating was quickly overrun by soft core pornography.  Therefore, major cinemas were skittish about showing them, and some major chains (such as Walmart and Blockbuster) refused to sell the videos.  So now, there are rarely filmmakers brave enough to resist trimming their film to get an R.  The same problem happened with the X rating 20 years before.  Early on in the ratings system, Midnight Cowboy won the Best Picture Oscar as an X-rated film (though looking back it’s hard to believe it was even rated R.)

Bernardo Bertolucci created one of the more respected X-rated films back then with Last Tango, before the X rating became poison.  On his latest film, he considered cutting it slightly for an R rating.  But in the end he stuck by his vision, and had to pay for it with an NC-17.  Honestly, I don’t know what the big deal was.  While there is a decent amount of full-frontal nudity in The Dreamers, it has relatively little sex.  You can see a lot worse late night on Showtime or Cinemax.

The Dreamers is a film of sexual exploration.  Michael Pitt, who stood out in earlier performances in Murder By Numbers and Hedwig & the Angry Inch, plays Matthew, an American exchange student in Paris in 1968.  Often he will skip classes to spend the day at the Cinémathèque Français, a famous palace of film in the City of Lights.  During a protest, he meets Isabelle and Theo, twins who have a strangely flirtatious relationship.  The three spend a few heady days together at the twins’ parent’s huge apartment, smoking pink cigarettes, debating film, music and politics and eventually sharing sexual experimentation as Paris is exploding in protest around them.

The film does have some interesting ideas and superb acting.  It was truly brave to throw commercial caution to the wind and try to make an intelligent adult film.

I just wish I liked it more than I do.

The biggest problem is the characters of siblings Theo and Isabelle.  They consider themselves rebels, but they really have nothing to rebel about.  They have cool, rich, artistic parents who put up with every their every ill-tempered whim.  They are obsessive about film, to the point of constantly acting out scenes from old films as a strange competition.  They spout rhetoric about a people’s revolution that is coming, but they watch it outside their windows rather than participating.  They never have a normal, rational reaction when a dramatic overreaction could do.  The two come off as self-centered brats, with no real care for anyone but themselves.

They invite their new American friend to stay with them, arguing with him about the relative worth of Chaplin vs. Keaton and Clapton vs. Hendrix.  (Though this film is set in 1968, these arguments still give the film a very dated quality.)  Soon they graduate to suggestive and then just frankly sexual dares to which Matthew is the horrified but intrigued witness.  Not that Isabelle and Theo are lovers, in fact they are supposed to be both virgins until Theo dares Isabelle to sleep with Matthew.  But they are only virgins in technicality, they sleep together in the nude, watch each other bathe, flirt with each other and are obviously in love with each other.  And, frankly, not to sound prudish, but the incestuous undertones of their relationship are just a little creepy.

It is too bad, because there is a lot of talent in front of and behind the camera.  Eva Green is wonderful in her thankless role.  She is a surprisingly good actress and has a beautiful and intoxicating mixture of ripe sexuality and shy innocence.  After seeing what she does in this movie, I believe she will soon cross over and become a major film star like fellow Europeans Monica Bellucci or Penelope Cruz.  Michael Pitt is also strong in the role, portraying the only one of the trio with some grasp of reality.  As Theo, Louis Garrel’s job is much more problematic.  He is fine with what he is given, but his character is such a pretentious, jealous, know-it-all that it leaves a sour taste, even if that is what he was told to create.

In the end, though, even though I do respect many parts of the movie, Theo and Isabelle are just too disturbed to allow me to recommend this.  The Dreamers isn’t going to resuscitate the moribund NC-17 rating.  But I’m glad they at least tried.  (2/04)

Alex Diamond

Copyright ©2004   PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved. Posted: February 14, 2004.

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