Bertolucci's 'The Dreamers' shocks, but also succeeds

by Rebecca Leffler | 3/29/04 5:00am

If Janet Jackson's nipple wasn't enough for you, then perhaps a NC-17 night of porn 'n' popcorn would be suitable. But before you get too excited (and I mean that in the most PG possible way), be warned -- while penises, vaginas and buttocks are ubiquitous in Bernardo Bertolucci's latest film, "The Dreamers," hard-core porn is not. Though the film has generated controversy over its explicit nude scenes, "The Dreamers" is a scintillating, aesthetically powerful film that takes us back to a time before Hollywood caught the commercialized blockbuster-oriented virus plaguing it today. To put this in perspective, "The Dreamers" is "Dangerous Liaisons" meets "An American in Paris" -- a crueler "Cruel Intentions," if you will.

"The Dreamers" is Bertolucci's tale of an American cinephile in Paris circa 1968 who becomes entangled in the incestuous bemusements of two Parisian siblings. The film stars Michael Pitt (whom many of you may remember from his love affair with Jen on "Dawson's Creek" in 1998) as Matthew, an American student and hard-core movie buff attending school in Paris who spends hours watching films at the Cinematheque Francaise. It is there that he meets Theo and his twin sister Isabella. When their parents go on vacation for a month, he moves into their apartment. As New Wave directors revolutionize film and young protestors rebel against the government, Matthew grows closer to his new friends and soon finds himself entangled in their web of sexually exploitative games.

Matthew's naivet juxtaposed with Theo and Isabella's incestuous precocity provides a stunning contrast and manifests Bertolucci's subtle humor. At one point, Theo and Matthew argue over who is funnier, Chaplin or Keaton. Theo mentions Jerry Lewis and Matthew tells him, "Don't even get me started on Jerry Lewis."

Like his New Wave predecessors, Bertolucci experiments with the art of montage, combining a mlange of film clips from the golden age of cinema and shots of present day "reality." This line between reality and cinematic verisimilitude is thin and the characters themselves often times have trouble distinguishing between the characters they have absorbed from the big screen and their own personas.

For Theo and Isabella -- and consequently, for Matthew -- the movies are not a means of escape from reality, but rather their only connection to it. In one scene, Theo, Isabella and Matthew race through the Louvre as they try to recreate the famous scene from Godard's "Bande Part." The juxtaposition of footage from Godard's film with shots of our incestuous trio places the spectator in much the same role as Theo and Isabella; the spectator becomes completely immersed in the action on the screen.

Our protagonists seem to be perpetually naked and always smoking; no need to worry, they're just French. At one point, Matthew says to his new friend, "You're a strange one, Theo." That is quite the understatement. In fact, Theo may even be more sane than his sister who, when Theo cannot name the film she is describing, dares her brother to masturbate against a wall while she looks on. This game of "name the film or pay the forfeit" is Theo and Isabella's primary source of amusement throughout the film. Yet even as he is fascinated by Theo and Isabelle's bizarre games, Matthew wants to free them from the exclusive world in which they have entrapped themselves.

Theo sums up Bertolucci's latest cinematic masterpiece when he says, "I read in Cahiers du Cinma that a filmmaker is like a peeping tom. You spy and feel disgusted and feel guilty but you cannot look away. Making films is a crime and filmmakers are like criminals."

In "The Dreamers," Bertolucci is our very own peeping tom, allotting the spectator a look at the strange sexual escapades of young film enthusiasts in 1968 Paris, but keeping the spectator at a distance. Similarly, Matthew is a peeping tom who, at the end of the film, walks away from his two friends as the spectator does in a movie theater.

Don't see "The Dreamers" with your grandmother or your professor or your kid brother, but see it. Or pay the forfeit.

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