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French New Wave
"Only the French would house a cinema inside a palace," observes Matthew, a twenty-year-old American movie buff hanging out in Paris in 1968. He’s speaking, of course, of Henri Langlois’ Cinemateque Francaise, the national film archive which was a center of activity for directors of the French New Wave. Matthew (Michael Pitt) is in the thick of things when demonstrators take to the streets to protest Langlois’ ouster by the Minister of Culture, Andre Malraux. And, in the weeks that follow, those demonstrations expand to a broader battle between the students of Paris and the French government as a result of which the government was forced to make concessions–including the reinstatement of Langlois.
It is against that background that director Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango In Paris, The Last Emperor) sets The Dreamers, at once a memory trip to a bygone time, an homage to the history of film and the audiences who love them, and the intimate story of three young people crossing the threshold between post-puberty adolescence and adult passion.
Matthew befriends a pair of twins, Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel), who, when their parents go out of town, invite Matthew to move from his seedy hotel into the family apartment. The history being made in the streets largely fades away before the biology that percolates to a seething boil in this rambling old flat in St. Germaine. The twins, unselfconscious about their bodies, sleep together nude and play games of forfeit with voyeuristic fervor.
At one point Matthew raises the question with Isabelle as to the precise nature of her physical relationship with Theo, to which she protests emotionally that he has "never been inside of her." That she and Theo have stopped short of penetration, though, is what allows Isabelle to be in denial of the emotionally incestuous relationship in which they are entwined. Matthew gets drawn into a menage and he and Isabelle, paying Theo off in a game of forfeits, proceed with an apparently mutual deflowering on the kitchen floor.
But while all three characters suffer through pains of realization as they act out their attractions, insecurities, and jealousies, none develops on screen in sufficient depth, or, for that matter, into sufficiently credible adulthood for their experiences to generate any significant meaning.
Matthew is the least believable of the three. Presumably from a family with sufficient resources to send him off to Paris, he wears clothes several sizes too small, giving him the look of a country bumpkin in the sophisticated city. Gilbert Adair’s screenplay, based on his novel, The Holy Innocents, slips all too frequently into banality, with young Pitt getting stuck with many of the wince-inducing lines: "Deep down, I knew things couldn’t go on as before" and "We felt we were drifting out to sea, leaving the world behind us."
As written, Matthew’s character is offered as both intelligent and utterly naive. Pitt’s reading of the lines is unpersuasive on the prior count; neither his speech nor his expression give any sense that the thoughts are coming from inside his head. And the degree of naivete with which the script imbues Matthew seems nothing less than preposterous in a twenty-year old, urban Californian in 1968. France, after all, was not the only country to experience the ’60s. Green and Garrel are better with their lines and together do convey an almost telepathic connection between them.
The student upheavals going on outside their windows, when shown, look stagy and artificial, but Bertolucci has let the exterior events become mere background anyway. The remaining device he uses throughout the film is to have his characters talk about movies (Chaplin vs. Keaton), play act movies (Queen Christina), practically breathe movies; they’re a group of cinewonks if ever there was one. Scenes ranging from Sam Fuller B-action footage to Dietrich in an ape costume in von Sternberg’s Blond Venus are intercut with The Dreamers‘ action which sometimes has the young trio mimicking the action of the old movie. Cinematic allusions, both verbal and visual, are tossed around as if in the hope that some of their quality might somehow rub off on the ever-less-interesting movie at hand. It’s fun, but it doesn’t rescue the film and for the majority of younger audiences lured in by the shamelessly exploitive publicity for The Dreamers, all that film history won’t have much resonance. The cinewonks will have a ball.