The Dreamers Review
Set in Paris during the student riots of May 1968, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers is a rite of passage movie, a coming of age movie in every respect. It follows a young man who finds himself in a strange place, a foreign land and charts a sexual awakening and an awareness of social issues that is indelibly affected by a turbulent period of the sixties characterised by Vietnam and the events then unfolding in France. The Dreamers however is a film that has nothing more to offer than three young movie-buffs sprawling around naked in an apartment for the better part of two hours – which sounds great, but in reality it’s a banal and tedious experience. Considering the pedigree of the director, the autobiographical input of screenwriter Gilbert Adair and the 1960’s Paris setting, the opportunity is there to make a film that says something interesting about a generation who grew up during this time, but The Dreamers finds itself unable to escape out of its voyeuristic fascination with three naked bodies to make any wider or more interesting points about the people of the time.
Matthew (Michael Pitt) is an American student at university in Paris in 1968. A film buff, he spends a lot of time at the Cinémathèque Française, which is about to become the centre of a turbulent period of unrest in the French capital. There he meets Isabelle and Theo (Eva Green and Louis Garrel), a brother and sister who also share a love of classic films. Invited to stay at their apartment while their parents are away on holiday, Matthew finds that they are twins and share an intimacy that strikes the young American as unusual. He soon finds himself part of a strange romantic triangle, playing movie-quiz games for sexual forfeits. The three young people become wrapped up in each other, naked and uninhibited they drink wine, smoke endlessly and intellectualise about the world, barely aware of the real events happening outside on the streets of Paris.
The choice of subject and the balance of the film is odd, wasting the opportunities offered by an interesting period of Paris in the sixties by turning its focus almost exclusively on the sexual awakening of three rather uninteresting characters who are blithely ignorant of the political climate and the social upheaval happening on the streets. For Theo, Isabelle and Matthew, the dismissal of Henri Langlois and the closing of the Cinémathèque Française means nothing more than them not being able to go to see the cool movies they programme there. The film isn’t even successful as a fond tribute to the nouvelle vague, as its influence of these films on the characters is merely a form of escapism, like any other film. The characters feel they are being wild and bohemian by acting-out scenes from À Bout de Souffle and Bande à part, but by racing through the Louvre and re-creating one of the film’s scenes, they are not expressing any individuality, just a desire to be like a movie character. The relatively inexperienced young actors are moreover thoroughly unconvincing, but that is perhaps a deliberate choice to give the film a further sense of innocence and naivety and some may find it effective.
Bertolucci’s film suffers from the same solipsistic self-conscious referentialism as the characters. In its secondhand appropriation of scenes from much better films it merely re-creates and imitates (coldly, calculatedly and without any soul) rather than inspiring or creating anything new, fresh or original. Everything about the film feels fake, from the fetishistic period details of cars, household objects and carefully chosen and displayed posters to the name-dropping of Godard, Les Cahiers du Cinéma and the ultra-cool Doors and Jimi Hendrix songs on the soundtrack, the film strives too hard for authenticity. In a strange way however, The Dreamers studious and self-conscious attempts to appear cool accurately reflects the characters’ politically naïvety and unawareness of any real feeling that doesn’t relate to a movie. And maybe that’s point of the film – to turn the camera inward and wrap itself up in the same cocoon from reality as its characters to show that, for all their coolness and delusions of sophistication, they are innocents with no real knowledge of the workings of the outside world. It would be appropriate at least, but it certainly doesn’t make for a good or an interesting film. Bertolucci’s preoccupation with movies and three naked youths in a room while a more interesting story is going on outside, strikes me as similarly self-absorbed, imbalanced and juvenile.
The R-rated version reviewed here is pretty much worthless, since it is not the director’s cut. I’m not sure what scenes have been cut by Fox for this version (totalling three minutes) or even what the point was in creating an R-rated version. If you have an aversion to excessive nudity and sex scenes, you are not going to like the R-rated cut any more than the NC-17 version, since there is already a lot of unnecessarily graphic full-frontal male and female nudity in this version. I would very much doubt that any further explicitness, nudity and sex scenes would improve the film significantly, but if you are going to watch The Dreamers, you should see the 115 minute NC-17 uncut, director approved version rather than this R-rated cut of the film.
The film is admirably transferred with barely a mark on the print. Colours are warm, there is a natural level of grain and an appropriate level of softness. Thankfully the need hasn’t been felt to subject the print to unnecessary edge-enhancement or any other digital manipulation of the image. The transfer is also pretty stable, with barely a flicker of macro-blocking. The overall impression though is of a transfer that serves the film wonderfully.
The volume levels are fairly low, but the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is similarly warm and complementary to the image transfer. There is the slight hint of background hiss, but it’s a naturalistic soundtrack and perfectly clear and accurate at all times. The surround mix is appropriate and effective – mainly front and centre based for dialogue, making excellent and full use of the surrounds for the 60’s soundtrack and the Paris riot scenes.
The majority of the film’s dialogue is in English, but the DVD defaults to partial English subtitles for the occasional French phrase – even if ‘No Subtitles’ are selected from the menu. They are however optional and can be manually switched-off. Full Hard of Hearing subtitles are also provided in English, as well a Spanish subtitle track. I can’t figure out the purpose of a French subtitle track included on the disc which seems to translate only random English words and phrases.
The film’s commentary is provided by director Bernardo Bertolucci, writer Gilbert Adair and producer Jeremy Thomas. The commentaries appear to have been recorded separately and edited together, but Bertolucci features through the majority of the commentary and is most closely related to what is happening on the screen. There are some interesting comments on how the film and characters developed and changed between the script and the film and Bertolucci makes cites Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles and Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel as references more influential than the nouvelle vague films. Overall though it’s not a terribly interesting or informative commentary.
Bertolucci Makes The Dreamers (52:24)
This hour-long BBC documentary by David Thompson which constitutes the ‘making of’ for the film, is in many ways more interesting than the feature film itself – striking a better balance between the historical significance of the period, the characters involved and the making of the film itself. It is a bit long though and gets bogged down in the mechanics of filmmaking that we have seen in every other ‘making of’ documentary.
Outside The Window: Events in France, May 1968 (14:25)
Facts, figures and dates – using archive footage, clips from the film and Godardian intertitles – illustrate the sequence of events that escalated to the May 1968 riots in Paris. An interesting feature, but again if the historical background is relevant, why isn’t it featured more in the film?
Michael Pitt Music Video – Hey Joe (3:41)
Michael Pitt recorded his own version of the Jimi Hendrix classic for use in the film, as there were problems with obtaining permission to use the original. The video, presented in anamorphic 1.85:1, is filmed in a recording studio with clips from the film inserted.
Trailers are included for The Dreamers (2:23) and Garden State, letterboxed 1.85:1.
It’s hard to figure out just what Bertolucci’s is trying to achieve in The Dreamers and even the title doesn’t help. The French title for the film, Les Innocents and indeed the title of Adair’s original novel The Holy Innocents are perhaps more meaningful. The three characters who are the focus of the film set in Paris 1968 aren’t dreamers in the sense of aspirants for social change, they are dreamers in the sense of sleeping or daydreaming through movies while the real world is happening outside. Bertolucci is of course free to chose whatever he wants as the subject of his film, but the disproportionate attention given to the sexual awakening of three characters and the films of the nouvelle vague over the historical events happening outside is a strange and perverse choice and makes for a very dull and imbalanced film. It fares particularly badly when compared to Philip Kaufman’s similar treatment of sexual politics in The Unbearable Lightness of Being or indeed Bertolucci’s own 1970 masterpiece The Conformist. The Region 1 DVD however is a superb example of how to package a film, with a beautiful and appropriate transfer and some interesting extra features. The low overall score however reflects the fact that this particular R-rated version is cut, rendering this edition of the DVD almost worthless, particularly when the full NC-17 rated version is also available.