> Volume 6 > Number 10


Bernardo Bertolucci

Michael Pitt
Eva Green
Louis Garrel
Anna Chancellor
Robin Renucci

Release: 6 Feb. 04

The Dreamers


Paris, May 1968 -- Radicalism is alive and well, and the sleeping bourgeoisie hasn’t noticed the barbarians at the gate. They storm these residential Bastilles to reduce the elite and underline the suffering they noted in Vietnam and on the college campuses. Today, none of this is memorialized, and yet it’s likely the only example other than the Night of the Long Knives and, to a lesser extent, the Chicago Democratic National Convention riots, of an outbreak of revolution on the streets of a Western democracy making a dent in the political status quo.

But it ultimately failed. Sure, Charles de Gaulle soon left power, nonetheless the silent majority had helped strengthen his party’s hold on the National Assembly, and some of the interests of demonstrators -- most importantly, reform within the capitalistic educational system, improvements that would reach its peak in the presidency of rebellion opportunist François Mitterand -- were barely expanded upon. Even if the demonstrations that still occur around France today are common and numerous, the silent majority, now lead by Jacques Chirac, isn’t so silent anymore. One is just as likely to see a demonstration in the Place du Châtelet as to spot a sticker stating “Stop le grève” (“Stop the Strike” -- not aimed at any particular strike, just which ever one is going on at that time).

Yet, however much rebellion occurred in 1968, there were the movies. Chabrol, Truffaut, Godard, Varda, Marker, Rivette, Resnais -- all were making films at the time, and the Cinémathèque Française, just before the ousting of founder/director Henri Langlois by the government, was ensuring that classics from France, Germany, and Hollywood were still playing.

The movie choices, which were at the time as good as it gets, would almost be enough to make a cineaste forget what’s happening outside. Throw in sex, as Gilbert Adair did in his 1988 novel The Holy Innocents: A Romance, and one can understand how the horny 1968 moviegoers who are central to the novel are oblivious to their contemporaries trying to end the de Gaulle government.

Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, adapting Adair’s novel, is completely intoxicated by the sex and the movies, which were the crux of Adair’s work but not at such a porn/graphic degree, to the point that it fails to really hit a resounding nerve with its articulation of a society of dreamers incapable of comprehending their generation’s calling. While it is certainly a literate example of a filmmaker relating his own devotion to his art’s history, its self-import becomes overbearing by the film’s sixth hint at an orgiastic triangle, a homosexual tryst, or an incestuous romance. Serious and bombastic, The Dreamers fails to express the joy that Jonathan Demme brought to The Truth About Charlie, another film under the influence of cinéma français.

What Bertolucci does get is a turgid experiment in sexuality unmatched by the director since his divisive Last Tango in Paris. Unlike that film, though, there is a sense of eroticism at work -- this isn't as much about real sex, but about beautiful people having idealized, kinky sex. It’s high-end porn with a historical conscience.

Maybe I’m alone in my own personal excursions to Europe as a youth, but the way filmmakers like Bertolucci here and Richard Linklater in Before Sunrise comes with a pretense that never fully allows the characters and stories they tell -- often articulate, interesting, and worthy of my time -- to flourish beyond there mere libidos. I could be marginalizing films that reflect more than I can comprehend, but I find it all so unbelievable and, in the case of The Dreamers, so squirm-worthy (bathing in one character’s menstrual cycle) that these films come off as well-meaning but misdirected theses on youth with ideals that cannot be fully articulated in this form.

Bertolucci is an amazingly talented filmmaker, and never does the film look bad (even when he becomes his most annoyingly obtuse -- like depositing scenes from Mouchette and Breathless into the theatrics -- the mishaps are respectable), but he doesn’t seem fully confident in what he’s trying to say here. I took from the film a clear portrayal of dreamers whose womb-like lifestyle in a Paris apartment during the riots, but not the reverence for the movies or the politics or the dreams that make these people tick. The name dropping of ‘60s filmmakers, novelists, philosophers, and musicians are nice to hear, but have the same ostentatious self-satisfaction of Denys Arcand’s pseudo-intellectual scripts.

And yet, despite my recognition that this is a film that means far more than it succeeds in expressing, I find myself excited by its willingness to walk into something as unknown to most Americans as the 1968 student riots and commenting on it at levels most American filmmakers (short of Haskell Wexler) would even give to our 1968 Chicago riots. To some extent, the film’s American hero Matthew (Pitt) is a great comment on the American in Paris mentality where we all try to be as suave, seductive, beautiful, intelligent, and rebellious as our Gallic friends. That he comprehends his own shortcomings (and the shortcomings of his amies) is reflective of the way America did a mere whimper of a revolution in 1968, but didn’t destroy a city in the process. The Parisians are the dreamers on the verge of waking up and overacting; we are the dreamers who may, for better or worse, never stir. Non, nous ne regrettons rien

©2004, David Perry,, 5 March 2004