Although it confronts some of the his most important and persistent subjects and themes, Bernardo Bertolucci's new film, The Dreamers, hints at a certain exhaustion of the imagination. It is as if the director were not merely revisiting but repeating his past.
The film flaunts the rare and dreaded NC-17 rating and is set in Paris in the revolutionary year of 1968. So the movie inevitably recalls one of his most famous motion pictures, the X-rated Last Tango in Paris (1973). This time around, however, among other problems, the script lacks the emotional engagement and mystery of the earlier film.
The backward look at a turbulent time depends upon some mechanical and rather skimpy gestures in the direction of history. Of course, no actor of the power and presence of Marlon Brando dominates the action.
Narrated in a clumsy voiceover by the protagonist, an American student named Matthew (Michael Pitt), the picture sets the personal story of the relationship between Matthew and a pair of French twins, Théo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green), against the background of the demonstrations that closed down Paris in May, 1968.
A cinephile, as he says, Matthew attends the screenings of mostly American movies at the famous Paris Cinémathèque. He meets the twins there during a protest against the government's firing of the legendary curator, Henri Langlois. When the protest shuts down the archive and theater, the twins invite Matthew to stay with them in their parents' posh apartment, where they soon create their own enclosed world of politics, film, and sex.
The trio spends its time drinking good wine, eating bad food, and debating subjects like the relative merits of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, or the latest inspired twaddle from some critic at the famous journal Cahiers du Cinéma. They play film games, acting out scenes from old movies that the other players must recognize or pay the penalty of some sexual or quasi-sexual act, which eventually leads to Matthew and Isabelle making love.
Théo's own semi-incestuous bond with his sister complicates and corrupts the relationship between Matthew and Isabelle. Their ménage a trois ultimately, almost fortuitously, collapses in the protests, marches, and riots that unite students and workers against the government and paralyze the city.
In their actions and words, the characters of The Dreamers exhibit some of Bertolucci's persistent concerns, especially the connections among sex, politics, and cinema. These spoiled children of the bourgeoisie muddle their brains with movies, Maoism, and marijuana while arguing about the sins of capitalism, the legitimacy of violent protest, and of course, the American war in Vietnam.
Compared with the decadent languor of the twins, Matthew seems simple and wholesome, yet another descendant of those innumerable innocent Americans in fiction and film who encounter the weary, vitiated culture of the Old World.
When the twins act out scenes from old movies, the director often blends the original work with the contemporary version. Théo impersonates a dying gangster in Scarface and Isabelle repeats the words of Jean Seberg selling newspapers in Breathless. When she duplicates the gestures of Greta Garbo in a famous moment from Queen Christina, she briefly inhabits the character and even inspires Matthew to respond in the person of John Gilbert.
The alternation between old film and new film, most energetic in a duplication of a race through the Louvre from Band of Outsiders, represents a kind of homage to the glorious past and momentarily enlivens the general dullness of The Dreamers. It also underlines the extraordinary fact that the biggest and most violent public demonstrations in Europe in that revolutionary year grew out of devotion to the cinema: only in France.
Bertolucci's bold refusal to trim his work from a rating of NC-17 to a more acceptable R deserves some credit, but otherwise hardly commends the movie. It may show a considerable amount of nudity, including some rather explicit shots of both female and male genitalia (probably the basis for the rating), but it really never generates any real eroticism. It is somehow full of sex without being at all sexy.
Some of the blame for the anaphrodisiac nature of the film must belong to the principal players. Clothed or unclothed, Eva Green and Louis Garrel are certainly handsome young people, but their listless manner and dull delivery rob them of anything like personality or presence on screen. Oddly, even the close-ups of his genitals cannot obliterate Michael Pitt's aura of vapid androgyny. He looks and sounds horribly like a poor man's Leonardo DiCaprio.
The odd casting, the inadequate performances, the essential inanity of the script, sadly, remind us that the director of The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris also made Little Buddha and Stealing Beauty.
The Dreamers, starring Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrel, Robin Renucci, Anna Chancellor; screenplay by Gilbert Adair, based on his novel, The Holy Innocents; directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. The Little.
You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:20 a.m., rerun on Saturdays at 8:50 a.m.