The Dreamers(Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003)
To participate in fiction, be it written or filmed, is to live in another world. To read a novel or to watch a movie is like entering a portal to a new universe; one that looks like ours in some ways, but is constructed to meet the specific needs of the artist or the audience. When we enter these worlds often enough, they can begin to take on a reality of their own, and sometimes they can be a dangerously active part of the actual world that we live in. We see our own lives filtered through the images we’ve seen or the words we’ve read. We begin to relate our own existence to what we know of this other world. Taken too far, we can begin to live our lives as if they were part of the fictional universe; a fantasy to be floated through and bemused by. Our own lives become a perpetual dream from which we must sooner or later wake.
The people in Bernardo Bertolucci’s uneven but overlooked film The Dreamers live in this ethereal state, and the consequences are absolutely disturbing. Their fantasy world is a Molotov cocktail of cinematic images, political platitudes, and self-absorbed isolation. They are only content when they are wrapped firmly in the reassuring sweetness of their movie dream. Through screen images they privilege themselves to keep the real world at bay, and as a result they lose sight of what constitutes healthy behavior.
Despite Bertolucci’s status as a world-renown director, with such classic titles as Last Tango in Paris and The Conformist to his name, The Dreamers flew well under the radar when it was released in 2003, due in part to the NC-17 rating that it received. Unless you’re turned on by depraved incest, it is not an erotic film. It is, however, very graphic and frank about the no-boundaries sexuality that its characters engage in. Few theatres are willing to screen an NC-17 movie, because few people are willing to attend one. And it’s not uncommon for people to walk out of an NC-17 screening, as if they didn’t have any idea what they were getting into. Most studios avoid the NC-17 like a plague. Most recently, Blue Valentine was under threat to receive it (for a scene that’s similar to the notorious lesbian scene in Black Swan), but avoided it by negotiating with the MPAA. Fox Searchlight decided that if they were going to produce a Bertolucci film, they’d do it his way – no negotiations. So…viewer beware.
Matthew, an American university student, who’s come to France to learn the language, meets a brother and sister at the Cinematheque Francaise during a protest. It is May of 1968, a time of political upheaval and unrest in Paris. They become quick friends based on their mutual love of all things cinematic. Their conversations are parlor games in which they spout lines from their favorite movies and reference them through their actions; they quote Godard and debate the relative merits of Chaplain and Keaton. Cinema, to them, is life, so much so that they act out their every move is acted according to the dramatic principles of the movies. Their gestures and attitudes are as carefully constructed as any actor’s performance, only each move they make is an act of improv and they draw their ideas from whatever they’ve seen on the silver screen. When they walk around a room, they do it like Garbo in Queen Christina; if they want to have fun with their friends, they run through the Louvre like they did in Bande à Part; and when one wants to commit suicide, it’s done with Robert Bresson’s Mouchette in mind.
Though games they play are dangerous, they are a cinephile’s wet dream. Watching The Dreamers can be a bit of a parlor game for the audience as much as it is for the characters. Bertolucci invites us to play along with Theo and Isabelle, as they conjure up sadistic games in which they pantomime scenes from a movie and force each other to guess the film under threat of punishment. When Theo can’t correctly guess Blonde Venus, his sister forces him to masturbate to a picture of Marlene Dietrich; and when Matthew doesn’t guess Scarface (1932) quick enough, Theo forces him to have sex with his sister while he watches. We play along and are grateful that we don’t have to suffer the same awful consequences. Some references aren’t as obvious, and only someone who is well versed in film history would pick all of them up.
If there’s any one film that The Dreamers riffs on the most, it would be Jean-Pierre Melville’s Les Enfants Terribles, which tells a tale of incestuous siblings who live in a make believe world of sadism and demented love. Like the siblings in, Les Enfants Terribles, Theo and Isabelle can’t sustain their bond when a third person enters. Matthew forces them to think outside of their isolated universe; he takes Isabelle on a date, makes love to her without anyone looking, and challenges Theo to imbue his sophomoric political ideologies with some action. Neither brother or sister can handle the emotional rupture. They love Matthew, but he forces them to recognize that their relationship and behavior are not normal at all. Like children, they wonder why Matthew is being so cruel. They want him to enter their dream. The Dreamers is based on a Gilbert Adair novel called The Holy Innocents, and this is what Theo and Isabelle are: people who do not understand the gravity of their actions. They are innocent in their minds, even if they are not innocent in their actions.
Where Bertolucci’s film goes wrong is that it wants it both ways. He wants us to love the world of the movies and to immerse ourselves in the film references, but he’s not willing to admit that movie world might be the root of Theo and Isabelle’s problems. He indicts the fantasy world of Theo and Isabelle by placing the onus on the half-assed Maoism that was popular among the youth in Paris at the time. Theo thinks of his Maoism in filmic terms, likening Mao to the director of a great film called China. For Theo, the idea that movies have entered the real world is ultimate realization of art. The best that Matthew can do to correct Theo is to remind him that Mao’s China is a cast made up entirely of extras. Matthew doesn’t even realize that Theo’s real problem is in thinking about political realities in terms of film conventions in the first place. Mao’s China was not Busby-Berkley movie; it was a real world idea that had real world consequences. This is a fact that even Bertolucci doesn’t seem to recognize, and consequently, he falls into his own trap. Bertolucci might have been more honest to point his criticisms at the very cinephelia he cherishes. The dream world of the movies can control any aspect of life, distorting it and perverting it. The director here is still sleeping his life away.