Drama / Films

The Dreamers

Some forty years ago, director Bernardo Bertolucci made Last Tango in Paris, a taunt and claustrophobic movie focusing on the obsessive and heavily sexualised relationship of its leads, Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider. It was a great controversy in the early 70s, but became something of a critical benchmark, leading to Bertolucci shot up as one of new cinema’s most daring and innovative directors. The Dreamers can in some ways be seen as a spiritual successor to Last Tango in Paris; Bertolucci’s 2003 movie serves as a worthy follow-up, building on the humid sexuality of Tango but working in an added colourful and naive sense of optimism. Like Eyes Wide Shut and Y Tu Mamá También (which with The Dreamers makes a fitting companion piece), Bertolucci’s movie stands as one of cinema’s most charged and tense sex odysseys. It’s an exciting movie from an old hand, one which feels fresh, and one worth looking at in detail.the dreamersAdapted by Gilbert Adair from his novel The Holy Innocents and set in the late 60s, The Dreamers opens with Mathew (Michael Pitt) a young American exchange student studying in Paris. Initially lonely, Mathew’s love of movies and constant cinema attendance aligns him with brother and sister duo Théo and Isabelle (Louise Garrel and Eva Green) The two siblings take Mathew under their wing, inviting him to stay with their in their run-down Pariasn town house whilst their parents (Anna Chancellor and Robin Renucci) drop out of town. It quickly becomes clear to Mathew that Théo and Isabelle’s relationship runs closer than your average brother and sister (they sleep naked spooning each other for one) and sexual tensions begin to fry as Mathew loses himself into their world. The three begin a complex power-play and three way semi-homosexual and incest heavy love affair, the non-reality of which is threatened by the increasingly violent street riots, as Paris falls to riots in the summer of 1968.dreamers4In some ways The Dreamers stands as a love letter to New wave and classical cinema – it was around the time that The Dreamers is set that cinema began to take on its own real life and started to be taken seriously as an art form, on the same page as literature or theatre. There was a confidence and innovation within the New Wave – particularly in Europe – but also still a sense of exclusivity; cinema was not accessible to everyone as it is now and had to be actively sought out. Like music in the 70s, having any more than a casual interest required a huge amount of commitment and in a world pre-DVD and re-releases, the cinema was the temple, and you had to earn your place. Early in the movie, the characters talk about sitting as close to the screen as possible, in order to absorb the movie first, whilst it’s pure – a ridiculous but oddly sweet notion, and one which sums up the movie.dreamers7Throughout, the characters speak with earnest enthusiasm which could be seen as nonsensical and over the top, but Bertolucci treats these moments with utter respect and it’s hard not to buy into the naive charm, coated in the gloss of early cinema. Bertolucci fills The Dreamers with references, nods and in-jokes – the characters play games in which they guess scenes being acted out – and there’s a naive and simple charm to these moments, a real optimism in the birth of the art form, which makes The Dreamers enchanting and endearing. The scene in which our trio re-enact – and beat – the Louvre run from Bande à part is a great example of this; life imitating art within art.dreamers3But this element brings a sense of non-reality for our characters which is almost dangerous. It’s clear that Isabelle in particular uses the movie screen as a means to shield her own personality from the world, and by pretending, constantly acting, she is free to escape herself and whatever demons lurk inside. She is notoriously difficult to pin down because of this; appearing, at the start as a vixen from a film-noir, Mathew is surprised to later learn that she is a virgin, and her relationship with Theo is disturbing at best. Incestuous just to the point of having actual sex, the sibling’s movie related games quickly spiral into dark territory – an early forfeit sees Théo having to masturbate in front of everyone, to a poster of Marlene Dietrich – which initially disturbs Mathew until he becomes involved himself, starting a fractured relationship with Isabelle which is haunted by her brother, who remains doggedly tied to her. The sense of escapism and role-playing within the pair has its causes, hinted by Bertolucci subtly as a history of parental sexual abuse, and Mathew, the good American, Henry James in gothic sensual Europe, teeters on the edge, close to let himself fall with the pair but in the end, restrained by his quintessential Americanness, a fight for ideals and love which doesn’t gell with the erupting violence on the streets.dreamers2The riots of Paris serve as a strong political backdrop and remain a ticking presence throughout the movie, and whilst they certainly ground The Dreamers in its historical context, they shouldn’t always be taken literally. The fairly heavy-handed brick through the window at the movie’s close combines with the return of the parents and the dreadful terror of reality – for a blissful, naive and hopeful film, in which the characters spend most of their time naked in Eden, drunk and discussing Hendrix and Chaplin, it ends on a harsh note, in which it becomes clear that the movie escapism can only last so long before the real-world comes smashing through your door. It’s a cold note to end on, Bertolucci suggesting both a need to grow up and move on – expressed in Mathew – and the failure of not being able to do so, expressed in Isabelle.dreamers8The movie theme runs further as Theo describes cinema as voyeurism, which is mirrored of course by Bertolucci the director, who films this discussion with his characters naked in a bath. This is cinematic voyeurism taken to its extreme and the young, extremely attractive cast spend a large portion of the movie naked. The sex scenes are both dangerous, sensual and filled with ennui. Hints of homosexuality add to the tension and in terms of the threesome on display, it’s very hard to guess where the movie is going to go. For a long time, we exist in the bubble of the house, which the camera almost never leaves. The phone is left to ring. Expensive and now empty bottles of wine pile up on the tables. There’s a decadence to the non-reality which is wonderful, for a time, and the film has an oneiric quality, which is backed up by the beautiful and humid cinematography and Bertolucci’s swirling, confident use of camera and frame. The brilliant soundtrack – The Doors, Hendrix, The Grateful Dead – roots the movie in its 60s setting and music is crucial to the film, the two siblings using it at points to torture one another in power plays.dreamers1As with in Y Tu Mamá También, the three cast members form an unusual and unsteady trio, and all cast members give strong performances. Michael Pitt brings a sweet and earnest charm and plays into ambigiouty – there’s an idealism within his character which is constantly threatened and he is very convincing as a young genius in love. He’s the heart. Garrel is his counter. Physical, dark and broody, heavily sexualised and hot, in certain shots he’s a dead ringer for a young Brando, and he represents the more unpleasant elements of the plot, the return of reality. Isabelle is somewhere in between and Eva Green gives a marvelous performance, somewhat sexy, but childish and broken, she does a lot without saying much and hints at a world of backstory. The three have fantastic chemistry and keep the energy up; the sexual tension is needle sharp throughout.dreamers6The Dreamers is a fascinating little movie, and a worthy follow-up to Last Tango in Paris. Both optimistic and dark, childish and sexual, it’s a look into how cinema shapes us and influences the world around us; how it can blur reality but never quite provide adquete escape from it. A powerful and subtly dense movie.



4 thoughts on “The Dreamers

  1. Wonderful analysis! This is one of my favourite films. It’s so rich with themes and, as you say, links in with cinematic developments to create that enticing atmosphere of unrealness. I often return to this one and it always reminds me why I love cinema. The writing, the performances, that tense, humid mood, it’s cinema at its best!

    • Thank you! I’ve been meaning to watch it for years and only got round to it the other day – it’s great with a wonderful atmosphere and there’s a lot going on. The more I think about it the more I like it and I’ll definitely watch it again soon. Glad you enjoyed the analysis

  2. I have only seen this one and I could not get into this at all. I like Eva Green but even seeing her naked could not make me enjoy this. I love that it was set during the new wave and it made me more interested in the movies they show in this, rather then this movie itself. I may have to check it out again at some point

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