They Lost It At The Movies

Three the easy way: Louis Garrell, Eva Green, and Michael Pitt in 'The Dreamers'
Fox Searchlight

Would that every cinephile were 20 years old in Paris in the spring of '68. While this born movie lover was still nursing from the boob tube, la révolution was shooting off the screen of the Cinémathèque Française and provoking the minister of culture to fire curator Henri Langlois for radical exhibitionism. As if the kids didn't have enough to keep their passions running high, Parisian cops actually beat the student protesters with billy clubs. (These days, we cinéastes have only the verbal abuse of the establishment--and, worse, its neglect--to send us reeling.) If Sam Fuller's Cinémathèque fave Shock Corridor imagined the inmates taking over the asylum, the early "events of May," 1968, found the audience in the theater becoming actors in the streets. The whole world--Vietnam included--was their shock corridor.

But not every Parisian movie lover agreed to take it outside. Opening with a heated montage of reenactments and newsreel footage set at the gates of the Cinémathèque, where one alluring filmgoer pretends to have chained herself, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers follows a trio of '60s cinéastes who prefer to play house with their clothes off while Paris burns. Isabelle (Eva Green), the one who acts as if she's cuffed to le cinéma, is even more alarmingly attached to her twin brother Théo (Louis Garrell). Still, this red beret-sporting free spirit does manage to attract Matthew (Michael Pitt), the preppy American whom the siblings have spotted at every Nicholas Ray screening. Dinner with Maman and Papa leads the fresh-faced newcomer to move in with Théo and Isabelle while their folks are away on vacation. Plenty of good wine raises the stakes of their movie-trivia contest from public masturbation for the loser to a private peepshow for the winner. L'amour fou it is.

Despite the movie's well-earned NC-17, Bertolucci's own ménage à trois favors cinephilia over the related pleasures of politics and sex. In other words, the threesome's delight in replaying scenes from Band of Outsiders and Jules and Jim is shared by the director, for whom the art of making love to the French New Wave is nothing new. (Could Bertolucci's 30-year-old Last Tango in Paris be anything but Breathless for heavy breathers, complete with climactic big bang?) And yet what The Dreamers really has on its mind is the ignorant bliss of youth. Never mind the New Wave: Bertolucci is no doubt hoping his lead actor's likeness to Leo will raise Titanic in the minds of contemporary kids. (Pitt's face is like a fistful of Silly Putty waiting to be formed.) More than that, though, The Dreamers recalls almost too well how it feels not to have a care in the world beyond the bedroom and the screening room. Before the revolution comes crashing in near the end, Bertolucci's young lovers--whose freak flag is a huge poster of La Chinoise hung over the mattress--have scarcely noticed that there's a riot going on.

Some critics of The Dreamers have seemed to mistake the naïveté of the characters for that of the filmmaker, who's simply being true to the experience of privileged youth, and to the social and political agoraphobia that so often comes with movie love at any age. Perhaps the poignancy of the film depends on one's willingness to identify with a dirty old man and his recollection of a time when indulging sinful pleasures, even at the expense of larger concerns, was at least something of a collective endeavor. If this sort of culture exists at all any more, I like to think that it lies somewhere along the stretch of sidewalk between the U of M dorms and the Oak Street Cinema, where young lovers catch little glimpses of The Girl Can't Help It from the back row amid more pressing matters. But, like Bertolucci, I'm probably dreaming.

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