Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Bertolucci’s The Dreamers

This week, The Jade Sphinx will be looking at movies that have fallen through the cracks and we start with Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, released in 2003.

The Dreamers created something of a scandal upon its release for its frank and open depiction of teenage sexuality, garnering an NC-17 rating.  (It is amazing to note that the public of 2003 was surprised to find out that teenagers actually had sex, but that’s a topic for another post.)  The film is set in Paris in 1968, right at the start of the infamous student riots, and concerns three young people, a Parisian brother and sister, and an American university student.  The trio meet, learn of their mutual love of film, and the siblings invite the American to live with them in their Paris apartment while their parents vacation out of town.

What happens next is a prolonged ménage au trios, both physical and intellectual.  The trio argue about the relative merits of Greta Garbo, leftist politics and art both pop and fine, while becoming bedmates.  Bertolucci shies away from explicitly underscoring the sexual romance between the young American and the French brother, but shows no restraint in the physical attachment between our hero and the sister.

Life in the sprawling apartment is very enclosed and …, well, incestuous.  The outside world is largely forgotten, including the missing parents and the brewing rebellion outside.  When they do reemerge, the question becomes, have they become the people they have crafted within their protective cocoon, or have the changes not been so profound?

The Dreamers is wonderfully cast, particularly Michael Pitt (born 1981) as Matthew, the American film student.  He has a certain narcissism in keeping with one so young and privileged, but he also displays remarkable vulnerability and tenderness.  One could well believe that he is growing, emotionally and intellectually, as the film unrolls.

Equally strong is Eva Green (born 1980) as Isabelle.  This was Green’s breakout film, leading to her role in Casino Royale (2006), the silly and self-important reboot of the James Bond series.  Her Dreamers performance is uniformly excellent, and courageous for its naked intensity.  (No pun intended.)  Louis Garrel (born 1981), already a familiar face on the international film scene, is brooding and mysterious as brother Theo.  His performance is subtle, always hinting that something is going on just beyond his sculpted and placid beauty.  I am surprised that his career has not had a more stellar trajectory.

That Bernardo Bertolucci (born 1941) should make a film frankly addressing sexuality should come as no surprise from the director of Last Tango in Paris (1972).  The Parma-born Bertolucci started his career with intentions of becoming a poet, but quickly focused on cinema in his college years.  Bertolucci is intensely invested in the language of film, and The Dreamers, with its endless talk about movies and what they mean, is a film for cineastes.

Bertolucci’s film is based on the novel The Holy Innocents, by the late Scottish novelist Gilbert Adair (1944-2011).  The novel is more frank about the Matthew-Theo connection, but the film is otherwise a fairly straightforward adaptation.

Why write about The Dreamers nearly nine years after its release?  Your correspondent was dismayed that the film was received with a collective yawn when first released.  The Dreamers is a beautifully photographed film (doing more for Paris than Midnight in Paris could ever hope to achieve) filled with deft and honest performances.  It also managed to capture a fascinating time and historic event with a sure hand – the film never has the ossified feel of many a period piece.  I believe the film was kept at bay simply because teenage sexuality cannot work for American audiences outside of the smirking banality of comedies like Porky’s.  Articulate, worldly young people terrify us. These are teenagers arguing over art, over classic film and over various political questions – all with intensity unique to adolescence, when we are convinced (and probably right) that we know everything.  So, The Dreamers is a film about exploration – mapping that frightening terrain called adulthood, fashioning an identity from art and the world of the mind, and, yes, finding fulfillment in sexual release.  The trio here are standing on the shoulders of those who have come before them, and are alternately terrified and exhilarated by the view.   

But, really, what has stayed with me all these years was the image of dirty feet.  At one point, Green navigates the mess the apartment has become and the bottoms of her feet are black with filth.  And this, really, is what it means to be young.  The three of them have dirty feet while their heads are in the clouds – and I would be hard-pressed to find a better metaphor for adolescence.

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