Paris, 1968. Police close the Cinematheque Francais and cinephiles fly into a tizzy. And when their parents go away on business, incestuous twins Theo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green) decide not to riot in the streets but stay inside and explore the body politic with their new disaffected American friend, Matthew (Michael Pitt).
Bernardo Bertolucci’s wicked The Dreamers is largely about perception. When Matthew breaks Isabelle’s hymen and rubs the blood all over their faces, he’s surprised to discover that she’s a virgin, and when blood is spilt during a group bathing session, it’s a while before Isabelle tells everyone that they’re dealing with her menstrual cycle and not an ordinary razor cut.
There are two films at work here: a love-struck but tedious ode to cinephilia and a fascinating exploration of sex as a form of political resistance—or, more accurately, political non-action. The twins reenact scenes from canonical films of the era (Shock Corridor, Freaks, Breathless, and so on) and freely regurgitate wisdoms informed by the writers of Cahiers du Cinéma. Their game of charades threatens the loser with sexual punishment—Theo fails to guess that Marlene Dietrich dances in a gorilla suit in Blonde Venus and, naturally, has to whack-off to a picture of the Blue Angel—but the constant back and forth between real life and everyone’s filmic point of reference lacks spontaneity and quickly grows tiresome.
Maybe the film’s dialectic is overly familiar, but The Dreamers is seemingly designed for anyone who spends more time debating the merits of Keaton over Chaplin on message boards than they do having sex. Bertolucci’s characters love movies, and all they do is talk about their fixation, but they remain oblivious to the politics of the cinematic image—their power to incite revolt. One could ask: What’s the point of the film’s children of Marx and Coca-Cola engaging Band of Outsiders and Freaks (or listening to Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix) if they don’t understand the Cinemarxist potential of the politicized pop culture of the era?
But that, of course, is more or less the point of the film; not unlike their fixation on sex, these characters use movies to drown out the world outside. Bertolucci’s allusions and aesthetic pairings are forced, not unlike his thesis, but there’s no denying the subversive power of the film’s final images. Bertolucci intends Theo and Isabelle as insular, bourgeois brats, and he plays their separation anxiety (they’re Siamese twins, separated at the shoulder) for cosmic-sexual gravitas. And, mercifully, when a random act of fate interrupts a would-be suicide, the twins confront the power of cinema and, in the end, learn to fight back.
A sexy, appropriately film-like presentation of The Dreamers on this uncut, NC-17 DVD edition, which preserves the film’s theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in anamorphic video. Edge haloes are nonexistent, black are rock solid (check out the Venus De Milo scene for proof), and detail is remarkable. Colors are equally impressive but skin tones are a little inconsistent throughout, but that’s a minor quibble. If possible, the Dolby Digital surround track is more impressive: Michael Pitt’s voiceover is crisp and full-bodied and surrounds are lush and expansive. Every explosion and rainfall packs an ethereal wallop.
Hardcore fans of The Dreamers are sure to go crazy for the commentary track by Bernardo Bertolucci, writer Gilbert Adair, and producer Jeremy Thomas. Both Adair and Thomas discuss the problems they faced in bringing the novel to the screen (not wanting the politics to overwhelm the story), but it’s Bertolucci’s comments that are truly insightful, from his dreamy, sophisticated ruminations on memory to the relationship between contemporary audiences and cinematic representations of the past that truly resonate. That’s followed by two awesome featurettes: the BBC-produced “Bertolucci Makes The Dreamers,” which allows the director to discuss the film’s themes of “arrested development” and the politics of sex and cinema from the time period, and “Outside the Window: Events in France, May, 1968,” which describes the political climate in the late 60s. If the latter is not as insightful as the former, it shouldn’t be missed for the Godard-like intertitles employed throughout its 14-minute running time.
One can only dream that every DVD contained commentary tracks and featurettes as insightful as the ones included here.
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