Rites of Spring

Bernardo Bertolucci revisits young love with The Dreamers

Mar 3, 2004 at 4:00 am
It is so very nice when a movie completely outstrips the expectations conjured by its trailer, as is the case with The Dreamers. At first blush, this tale of three passionate youths caught up in the late '60s Parisian countercultural revolution looked downright trite. Never mind that esteemed veteran director Bernardo Bertolucci was in charge -- from all available clues, it appeared that we were in for nothing but a cheesy ménage-à-trois romp targeted at the idiotic Britney 'n' Justin generation, easily dismissed as Last Wanko in Paris. Ah well, at least it wouldn't involve Keanu as Siddhartha. A seat was dutifully taken.

Sometimes it's nice to be wrong. The Dreamers is a real humdinger, at once an intimate romance, a glimpse into a rather unconventional friendship and a beautifully focused celebration of cinema itself. We'll address the capricious and abundant nudity and sexuality in a bit, as these elements are typically Bertoluccian, organic to the story and not to be taken out of context, especially by frenzied finger-waggers. This movie is not for them anyway.

What we have here is a love story, played out via homages to classic movies, frank playfulness and good ol' ardor. These elements quickly conspire to unite Southern Californian transplant Matthew (Michael Pitt, Murder by Numbers) with new French friends Theo (Louis Garrel, Ceci est mon corps) and Isabelle (Eva Green, a fast-rising star making her unforgettable feature debut). Their common ground is established at the Cinematheque Française ("Only the French," exultingly proclaims Matthew in voice-over, "only the French would house a cinema in a palace!") and soon they're clicking. While it's never clear why Matthew, a student, is crashing in a crappy hotel, soon enough the initially mysterious Theo and Isabelle invite him for dinner, and a prolonged stay in their home ensues. When their left-of-center parents (Anna Chancellor and Florian Cadiou, both splendid) depart for a month's holiday, the relentlessly surprising siblings quickly weave seemingly staid Matthew into their weird, wild world.

While it's potentially nauseating to experience yet another dusty Boomer blathering about how frickin' great the '60s were (man), Bertolucci breathes fresh air into the concept. He's so good he can wring life from the breaking of a few eggs -- a visual metaphor as rudimentary as they come. It's the spring of 1968 outside, the Cinematheque's Henry Langlois is being sacked after contributing inestimably to the French New Wave, and political riots are breaking out all over the place. All significant wide-shots, indeed, but much as in the recent Kent State-era drama The Year That Trembled, the power and poetry lie in the close-ups. Like his beloved geeks who insist on sitting in the front row, Bertolucci wants us to receive his characters as directly as possible, and very fluidly we are there. It's probably the finest revisiting of the era since the utterly wonderful Withnail & I.

Credit is also due to screenwriter and former London Independent film critic Gilbert Adair (here adapting his 1988 novel The Holy Innocents) for crafting scenes that challenge both the audience and the actors. At first, all is merely jovial, as the trio emulate scenes from their favorite films (notably Bande à part and Freaks) and rock out to the Dead-at-27 Club: Janis and Jimi and Jim. But soon Matthew finds himself a catalyst for metamorphosis in his friends' perversely symbiotic relationship -- with unpredictable results. The film doesn't come right out and say it, but he's the product of American puritanism unleashed in bohemia, and when all three are sharing a bath together and literally steeping in Isabelle's monthly bill, the connotation is clear: These kids crave each other on a primal level.

The movie is fun, too. Particularly amusing are the pop-culture tiffs between Matthew and Theo, wherein it becomes obvious -- via praising Chaplin as superior to Keaton or taking on the impossible task of defending Eric Clapton's existence -- that the French lad has no idea what he's talking about. As an engaging stranger-in-a-strange-land film, The Dreamers also perches head and shoulders above cute but absurdly overrated sketches such as Lost in Translation or L'Auberge espagnole. And unlike those attempts, it doesn't feel constipated or implausible in its sexual dimension.

Speaking of which, yes, the film is as horny as all get out. Unabashedly honest about youthful sexuality, it depicts just about everything in fairly graphic detail, except for the mutual schlong-slurping the trailer seems to imply. Its candor is very refreshing. Fox Searchlight distributes some terrific films (Waking Life and thirteen, to name but two), but when its president Peter Rice recently pre-defended The Dreamers as "an audacious and original film for intelligent critics and discerning adult audiences," it sounded immensely patronizing and off-putting. Again: Wrong! The movie is just the dose of relatable mainstream art the U.S. cinema desperately requires. It also serves the bastards at the MPAA right for slapping an R rating on a perfect family film like I Capture the Castle last year, for only a couple of enjoyable but innocuous boob-shots. Take this, you silly, silly prudes. Vive le NC-17!