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Nik Huggins

Published February 6th, 2004 | by Nik Huggins

The Dreamers Review

Classification: 18 Director: Bernardo Bertolucci Rating: 3.5/5

The cinema of Bernardo Bertolucci has provided the meat of many a heated film debate since his emergence in the 1970’s. Those with a soft spot for European cinema have always maintained that his work, even at it’s most grandiloquent, deserves to be included in the pantheon of post-war classics. Those with sympathies more firmly lodged on the west coast of America have used the dreaded P word (amongst others) to describe the Italian’s output. Wherever your loyalties lie it’s impossible to ignore the buzz his films still command. He is one of only a handful of international directors whose name on the poster is the key selling point for the film, regardless of who’s starring in it, or what it’s about.

Therefore it seems appropriate that the directors’ latest movie, The Dreamers, an adaptation of Gilbert Adair’s novel The Holy Innocents and his first in five years, should make use of cinephilia as the foundation for the physical and intellectual ménage a trois that develops at the heart of the film. It seems that the venerated director has turned the camera lens inwards, in one of his most high-spirited and idealistic movies to date. The film delves back into Paris 1968; that watershed for youth culture, which left an indelible mark in the minds of writers, artists, and filmmakers for a generation.

Bertolucci foregrounds a deeply introspective story against an accurate historical context, even going to the extent of using archive footage to authenticate the films’ opening scene. Michael Pitt (the understudy who stepped in after Jake Gyllenhaal bulked at the nudity required by the role) is Matthew, the young American transfixed by the old world charms of sixties Paris. He has made a pilgrimage to seek out the heady combination of culture and conflict that is spreading throughout the student community of Paris, and he finds it on the steps of the city’s foremost art cinema. Like the innocent being led astray, Matthew soon finds himself embroiled in the decadent lifestyle of Theo (the epitome of Gallic virility Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (captivating newcomer Eva Vincent), politically astute siblings who make the education of Matthew their pet project.

Pitt’s Ivy League charms provide a stark counterpoint to Theo and Isabelle’s streetwise European outlook, providing the agitation that fuels the narrative along with the passion in their relationship. When Theo and Isabelle’s parents leave the city for a seaside break, the kids run riot. Bertolucci injects an adolescent energy into the central portion of the film, and you can tell the director is having a lot of fun. As the three leads embark on a fantastical journey of discovery and self-indulgence they close themselves off from the outside world and turn their parents’ high-ceilinged Parisien apartment into a refuge for copious amounts of sex, socio-political musings and arguments over their favourite actors, musicians and film directors.

The intimate little social trysts are interspersed with archive film footage, which spices up the viewing experience for any film lover. Admittedly it’s sad, but spotting quick snippets from films such as Breathless and Band A Parte provides an added distraction to cling onto when the story begins to wane in its ability to hold your attention. The smouldering passion that ignites the central love triangle, with it’s heated arguments and graphic lovemaking, burns brightly for a brief moment and then blows itself out. The three seem to lose interest in each other as they continue to goad and cajole. I guess after masturbating over a poster of Marlene Dietrich in front of your twin sister and sharing an elaborate meal comprised of burnt food and bin scraps all in the same summer holiday life can start to appear a bit samey. The film’s inevitably riotous climax feels like an overextended effort to make the relationship end with a bang, in reality it becomes slightly tedious long before any Molotov cocktails are hurled into the crowd.

The Dreamers is a cornucopia of explicit actions and ideas that has restored Bertolucci’s ability to make something stylish and evocative and reiterated his inability to maintain a powerful emotional centre. The film is littered, like the floor of an adolescents bedroom, with every piece of sixties paraphernalia conceivable (Susan Sontag, Mao, Bob Dylan they’re all namedropped somewhere) and at times it feels like an old man’s stroll down memory lane. Rolling in and out of high art, high drama and high farce with relative ease, I was pleasantly surprised by the films’ frivolity and vigour (made all the more lively with direct film references) and equally incensed by the disassociation I felt for the characters. I was never really enthralled by the idealistic love on show and by the time we reach the would-be tragic resolution the film lacked the resources to re-ignite any sense of empathy. Superficial, lavish and vaguely distracting, The Dreamers is worth looking at, but don’t expect to be moved to do anything more.

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