There are around ninety seconds of pure ecstasy in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers. Isabelle (Eva Green) and her brother Theo (Louis Garrel), two gorgeous young Parisians, decide that American visitor Matthew (Michael Pitt) is the right person with whom to restage, in real life, the mad, unseemly dash through the Louvre immortalised in Jean-Luc Godard's Bande à part (1964).
They duly break the record set in that film. And as Isabelle and Theo turn to embrace Matthew, the chant from Tod Browning's horror classic Freaks (1932) is suddenly seen and heard: "One of us, one of us!" Then, just as suddenly, they are running in the rain back to their apartment, and Bob Dylan's glorious "Queen Jane Approximately" fills the air.
For those ninety seconds, Bertolucci's grasp matches his aim. The glamour of Paris, the subversive energy of youth, the love of film nurtured at the Cinémathèque: it's all there. So why is almost everything else in this movie so awkward, unconvincing and disappointing?
This could have a great arthouse teen movie. However, Bertolucci intends more than a simple celebration of radical, impassioned youth. By pursuing their fantasies and obsessions, his characters hermetically seal themselves off from the historical movement taking shape on the streets in the lead-up to the riots of May 1968. And even when the police tear gas does finally reach their nostrils, Bertolucci refuses to wholeheartedly endorse their revolt – instead, he clumsily places his current Buddhist philosophy of non-violence into Matthew's mouth.
The elements of The Dreamers have been gestating in Bertolucci's mind for forty years. He has long wished to make a movie about May 1968, and considered stretching a sequel to 1900 (1977) to include it. And as far back as 1964 he tried to raise interest in a project, to star Jean-Pierre Léaud, Zouzou and Lou Castel, about a ménage à trois involving a brother and sister and their best friend – a project, in Zouzou's recollection, about "incest and homosexuality".
How delighted Bertolucci must have been to discover, in the late '80s, the novel The Holy Innocents by the British novelist and critic Gilbert Adair. This book blends May '68 with the threesome plot, and adds in another of Bertolucci's pet topics: cinephilia. Moreover, both Bertolucci and Adair were inspired by the same literary source, Jean Cocteau's novel Les Enfants Terribles (filmed in 1949 by Jean-Pierre Melville).
Oddly, the weakest link in The Dreamers turns out to be Adair's recasting of his own material into a screenplay. Contrary to the book, the main action unfurls right in the heart of Paris – making the trio's complete detachment from the escalating events in the streets hard to swallow. And where the book builds to a crucial queer development, the film is extremely coy and evasive on this point.
Much of the dramatic interaction in The Dreamers is half-hearted, piecemeal and inconclusive. Hints of perversity between Isabelle and her poet father go nowhere. A surreal hint that Theo and Isabelle are Siamese twins never generates anything significant. Heated arguments between Matthew and Theo (Keaton vs. Chaplin, Hendrix vs. Clapton, democracy vs. Maoism) are contrived, and hardly manage to sum up the spirit of an era.
Sad to say, the cinephilia comes out worst. Isabelle, especially, is fond of a game where she strikes a pose or quotes an enigmatic line and then cries: "Name the film!" This is a parlour game, not a deep, intellectual love of cinema. And the Parisian film taste that Bertolucci paints in lamentably broad strokes (Godard and Robert Bresson on the one hand, Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray on the other) has little to do with the truly international and highly political avant-garde that swept up cinephiles at the time.
One should not demand a conventional dramatic structure from Bertolucci, but one does expect some deep, poetic logic, some tension, some ball of fire (as André Bazin once called it) to ignite the characters and the pockets of cinematic space between them. I am not one of those who think that Bertolucci lost grip of his 'cinema of poetry' in the '70s when he went international; most of his films since, especially La Luna (1979), The Sheltering Sky (1990), Stealing Beauty (1996) and Besieged (1998) possess an enviable freedom and lyricism that is completely in tune with the cinema of Leos Carax or Wong Kar-wai.
There are scattered moments that will make any Bertolucci fan past or present dream of what this film could have been. The elaborate scene of Isabelle's deflowering is all at once erotic, confronting and droll (Theo cooks up eggs in the background), but all other glimpses of sex are, from the director of Last Tango in Paris (1973), oddly perfunctory. There is some electrifying mise en scène of (often naked) bodies in proximity in the endless, rambling space of this bourgeois apartment, but too many flat, formless interactions.
Bertolucci has always said that his films are "documentaries about the actors". And indeed, the casting in this film is more intriguing than the actual acting. Louis Garrel is the son of France's greatest unknown filmmaker, Philippe Garrel, while Eva Green's parents acted for both Godard and Bresson in the mid '60s.
And then there is the iconic Léaud himself, not only making a fleeting appearance in this story long ago prepared for him, not only recalling his role in Last Tango, but also re-enacting a great moment of his life: delivering an incendiary speech in defence of Henri Langlois and his running of the Cinémathèque, under threat by the oppressive State apparatus.
If only the rest of The Dreamers could have captured that kind of magic.
© Adrian Martin April 2004