This cold Seattle eve calls for a fresh re-view of Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, now ten years old, as well as another writer joining the ranks of 10YA. Please welcome Yasi Naraghi, Student of Comparative Literature by day, photographer by night, possessor of the best ringtone e’er I heard.
The Dreamers (2003/2004) dir. Bernardo Bertolucci
Ten years ago, I was 16 and facing another move at the behest of my parents. This time, though, it was an intra-continental instead of an inter-continental move. I would even say I got lucky since we didn’t have to move languages; we were merely moving from one coast to another. A few months after the announcement, we arrived on the west coast and I was allowed a television in my bedroom, which I believe was an offering to my teenage angst.The Dreamers was the first DVD I bought on the west coast. The purchase was prompted partly because, as any self-respecting lost teenage girl, I was obsessed with the French New Wave (my phone’s ringtone, which happens to be the theme song from Les Quatre cent coup still suggests a fondness for the Nouvelle Vague) and partly because I wanted to watch beautiful naked bodies on the screen.
Ever since, The Dreamers has been a visual soundtrack to many of sleepless nights; however, this was my first viewing it in years with undivided attention. As the opening credits roll I am, again, enamored with what Bernardo Bertolucci has done here. The vertical pan of the Eiffel Tower in black and white highlighted by the colors of France – blue, white, and red – imposes the Maoist Godard upon the sentimental Truffaut. The 26-year-old me is already as giddy as the once 16-year-old. This is a film by a cinephile for cinephiles. It is for those individuals that not only enjoy watching films but approach cinema as if their lives depended on it; these people have membership cards to film clubs and can point out the broken seat in a theatre. As a 16-year-old, I knew exactly what Matthew (Michael Pitt) meant when he says, “It was here that I got my education” as he approaches the Cinémathèque française. I, too, received my education from films. When I was younger and appeared more foreign than I do now, I learned how to speak and assimilate from watching American films. When I wanted to resist my situation, I would watch any film that wasn’t in English. There was something very real at stake for me in deciding what film to watch. My moments of conformity and rebellion were both marked by what I read and what I watched. And by the time I was 16, I somehow understood the three leads’ eerie relationship with cinema.
Before I dwell too much on my years as an aggrieved adolescent, I should move on to the content of the film itself. The Dreamers takes place in Paris during the 1968 riots and it begins with the closure and defunding of the Cinémathèque française at behest of André Malraux. Amidst the 1968 footage of a young Jean-Pierre Leaud protesting in favor of Henri Langlois, the founder of the Cinémathèque, and the filmed recreation of an older Leaud recreating his youthful manifesto, Matthew, a young American Studying abroad, meets the ever-so-sexy (oh god, they are so sexy) brother and sister duo, Theo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green).
Deprived of their beloved Cinémathèque and films, Theo and Isabelle invite Matthew to stay with them in their labyrinthine, pretentiously intellectual, capped with a sense of decaying bourgeoisie St. Germaine apartment while their parents are away. The rest of the film is a game of “guess the film,” the forfeiture of which is performed sexually. Matthew, perhaps, spoke too soon when he proclaimed the Cinémathèque as an educational institute. In this apartment, he voyeuristically witnesses the quasi-incestuous relationship between Theo and Isabelle, stands by Isabelle watching Theo masturbate to a magazine cut-out of an actress, and takes Isabelle’s virginity.
Never have I had any problem with the amount of nudity in this film. Or the perversion.
Unfortunately though, the one thing that mildly bothered me ten years ago and enrages me now is these beauties’ glaring ignorance of the events surrounding May 1968. If you ignore history and its pesky details and only watch this film, you would think the riots of May 1968 occurred because Parisian cinephiles were denied their imported films. This is not to say that the arts are ineffective in causing an uprising but is only to say that the defunding of the Cinémathèque constitutes a small portion of what occurred in ’68. In 1968, there were general strikes joining factory workers with students against de Gaulle’s regime. Certainly these characters who speak of themselves as avant-garde revolutionaries should have an inkling of what is going on outside of their apartment. But no, they are absolutely pathetic in their convictions. I would like to think that this is part of Bertolucci’s greater cinematic objective. After all, he is responsible for Last Tango in Paris (1972) and The Conformist(1970), two films fraught with repulsive characters who still manage to solicit an empathetic response from the viewer. (The Conformist is so praiseworthy that it is one of four films included on my reading lists for my PhD exams; I am pretty sure I’m only including this fact because I am taking my exams in one month.) I would like to think that Bertolucci is making a point about isolation and hamartia. That he has locked Matthew, Theo, and Isabelle in this apartment to show that they will miss the mark if they continue looking through such a narrow lens. He does release them, eventually, when a brick breaks through a window interrupting Isabelle’s homicidal/suicidal measure. And this time around, I noticed something about Isabelle and Theo, in particular, that I haven’t before. They exhibit mimetic behavior that betrays their intellectual facades; in this sense, they are akin to children trying to orientate themselves within their environment by observing and repeating the behavior of others. They, for example, repeatedly call the police “fascists,” echoing the voice of the crowd. Imitating scenes from films in their apartment, even with its sinister undertones, is a charming game until it reveals their incapacity to act genuinely in the world.
The sibilings’ reintroduction – and to a degree, their redemption – to the world outside of their apartment is to unquestionably join the rioters in violence as Matthew begs them otherwise. Although I would politically agree with their decision to join in the riots, their last action is characterized by a certain passivity, as if they are moving with the crowd for the sake of moving and nothing more. Isabelle and Theo may be provocative but there is little originality in their transgressions.
- As a 16-year-old whose taste of the perverse was still in its stages of denial, I experienced a slight revulsion watching all the bodily fluids and waste – spit, piss, puss, cum, and the sleep in the eye. But this time around, I appreciate Bertolucci’s visual obsession with the body’s production of waste. There is something very tactile and innocent in the way our three protagonists interact with each other’s as well as their own excretions.
- There are scenes in which Matthew is deliberately feminized. At first I was very excited for this since Bertolucci has a track record for astutely representing sexual and gender ambiguity and/or fluidity. Sadly, Matthew’s feminization does not yield any thought provoking, sexy, exciting, or any interesting result. Tant pis.
- In an attempt to break Isabelle’s “unhealthy” attachment to Theo, Matthew takes her on a date. When Isabelle wants to sit at the front row of the movie theatre (a privileged row at the Cinémathèque for the “insatiable” cinephiles), he takes her to the back row explaining that the front is for those “without a date.” The immediate scene is of them noticing the barricades built by May ’68 rioters suggesting that it is only when they have distanced themselves from the screen that they have the capacity to look at the world around them.
- Regarding the above point, I always thought that Matthew took Isabelle on a date because he is one of those boys who are incapable of having a sexual relationship free of a relationship.
- The Dreamers will always be one of those films in which I find comfort but only if it is playing in the background as I putter around my apartment. This time around, as I attentively watched this film for the purpose of re-viewing it, I realized my sustained infatuation was (and will have to be) due to a fleeting concentration. This is quite an exquisite film to see if this seeing is merely the apprehension of images. It is also scored beautifully, with Jimi Hendrix’s visceral guitar riffs, ultimately, creeping up on the sweet and naïve chords of the theme to Les 400 coups. I, however, no longer have the patience for Isabelle, Theo, and Matthew as ideologues. They exasperate any sense of ideological integrity, which I find amusing since integrity is not a requirement of ideology. There is no other way of explaining my annoyance with these characters but to say that I have grown older curmudgeonly.