The Dreamers Review
Paris. 1968. 19-year old American Matthew (Pitt) is in France for the first time, ostensibly to study French, but in reality falling rapidly in love with the city, its people and - most of all - its 'freemasonry of cinephiles', the devoted band of movie buffs who frequent the famous Cinematheque Francaise. It's here, at a protest against the sacking of the Cinematheque's director, that he meets attractive twins Theo (Garrel) and Isabelle (Green).
Smart, sophisticated and extremely self-assured, they embody everything that Matthew admires about the French. The three spend the rest of the day together, discovering a mutual love of movies and a shared excitement about life in general. The following day he's invited to their rambling apartment for dinner, and meets their bohemian intellectual parents (played by Anna Chancellor and Robin Renucci), both of whom leave the following day on holiday. This leads to an invitation from the twins to stay in the flat, which Matthew eagerly accepts.
Initially delighted by his new found friends, Matthew grows increasingly uneasy as he learns more about their unconventional relationship and is drawn further and further into their bizarre games. Locked in self-imposed seclusion within the apartment, the three talk, drink and Matthew and Isabelle become lovers. As the tumultuous social events taking place outside finally begin to impinge on the three, it becomes clear that each of them will have to make a choice that will change the course of their lives forever.
When I first saw 'The Dreamers' at the cinema I was quite dismissive of it, finding its characters unsympathetic and the nostalgic perspective quite risible. Theo and Isabelle, with their infantile sexual pecadilloes, obsessive vanity and intellectual arrogance, are the embodiment of everything that is most irritating about the French. The rose-tinted view of the period, the carefully staged theatrics of the riot and the cinematic 'quotes' all reinforced the sense that this was a self-indulgent, mythologised exercise in onanism for those who happened to be around Paris in May of 1968.
Well, I'm glad I got to review this disk, because I'm a lot more appreciative of the film's qualities after watching this DVD. Fox has really done the film proud, supplying a breathtaking transfer, a full commentary by Bertolucci, writer Gilbert Adair and Producer Jeremy Thomas and a range of special features that provide valuable background to the political and social upheavals that form such an important part of the film's canvas. That's not to say that much of my first impression of the film isn't still accurate; in the commentary and in the 'making of' documentary on the disk, Adair admits that the film is a somewhat romanticised version of the true events (even describing one of Bertolucci's carefully staged riot scenes as 'footage of mythology') and Bertolucci himself describes Theo and Isabelle as self-conscious, decadent, middle-class, 'pseudo-revolutionaries'. But these elements are still only part of what is a very rich cinematic mix that warrants close examination.
Two things struck me powerfully in this second look at the film. The first was cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti's beautiful and involving camerawork. Having taken the partnership of Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro somewhat for granted (they've worked together on the majority of Bertolucci's films) I was interested to see that the director was choosing to work with Cianchetti again, after their collaboration on his previous film 'Besieged'. In retrospect it makes perfect sense. Like 'Besieged' this is a 'small' film, in that - to boil the film down to its absolute essence - it's dealing with intimate events between a few people in some rooms. The key scenes occur indoors and it's here that Cianchetti's ability to bring us right into the character's lives comes to the fore. This really is a masterclass in how to make the audience feel like an invisible participant in the film's events, rather than an observer. We peek out at Eva and Theo from behind doors, peer at them in post-coital bliss as if lying beside them on the sheets or hover above all three 'Dreamers' in the bathtub. It's a brilliant camera job that never fails to implicate the viewer and keep them engrossed in the story, and it's all the more exceptional for not drawing attention to itself. I'm embarassed to admit that in the cinema I thought the film looked a bit drab. It's only now, having seen it several times on DVD that I can see what a miraculous lighting job Cianchetti's pulled off.
The other stand-out behind the camera is the exceptional work by Production Designer Jean Rabasse. Much of the film is spent in the confines of Theo and Isabelle's rambling apartment and it's a kind of bohemian warren of high-ceilinged rooms and winding, book-lined corridors, reflecting Theo and Isabelle's parents' artistic and intellectual sophistication. The kids' rooms each reflect their individual character: Isabelle, for all her flirtatiousness, is quite inexperienced, a virgin at the start of the film. Her bedroom is like that of an 11-year old convent girl; immaculately neat, a photo of her parents on the dresser, teddy bears on the perfectly made bed. Theo's room is more like a lounge; books, records and magazines spread everywhere, movie posters and political slogans on the walls. Outside the apartment, the mood is continued through immaculate location shooting, preserving the wonderful, candy-coloured sixties feel (as in a scene where Theo and Matthew drink coffee in a groovy cafe). Everything is very much of the time, yet without that 'over-designed' look that can end up looking artificial and thus alienating an audience.
Meanwhile, in front of the camera the beautiful young cast of Eva Green, Michael Pitt and Louis Garrel are uniformly excellent, exhibiting a lack of actorly self-consciousness that brings their characters vibrantly alive. Green deserves special credit for entirely inhabiting a challenging role (she spends a lot of time in the film naked); I was amazed to learn that this was her first screen part, as she's a natural cinema actress who looks completely at ease on camera. It's quite something to ask three young actors to be so at ease with each other that they create an entirely convincing sense of intimacy onscreen, without ever appearing forced or pretentious, but the fact that the cast achieves this is a testament both to their professionalism and vulnerability and the degree of trust engendered by Bertolucci.
'The Dreamers' is about lovers but also lovers of film. Bertolucci inserts clips from Godard's 'Breathless' and 'Bande Apart', Todd Browning's 'Freaks', Greta Garbo in 'Queen Christina' and a number of other seminal movies referenced by the characters, like pinches of spice into the film's visual ingredients. It's an unusual device and not one I'm particularly fond of, as it takes you out of the immediacy and intimacy of the story, introducing an unidentified consciousness that's inserting, out of nowhere, these excerpts of totally different films into what was before simply a visual narrative telling just one story. Better is the soundtrack, which includes plentiful Hendrix plus Dylan, Joplin and the Doors.
This is a gorgeous looking disk from Fox, doing justice to all of Cianchetti's extremely fine cinematography. The wonderful 60s colour palette is exceptionally clear and bright while the dark scenes inside Theo and Isabelle's apartment still contain a lot of depth and detail. Fabulous. I mean really, exceptionally good.
While it's not 'Lord of the Rings' 'The Dreamers' actually has quite a dense sound field, combining constant dialogue, some voice over and frequent songs. All are well balanced and come across clearly.
The Commentary Track contains Bertolucci, writer of the original novel and the film's screenplay Gilbert Adair and producer Jeremy Thomas. Although they haven't been recorded together, and the talk is pretty high-falutin' stuff, this is still an intellectually compelling commentary that provides a lot of meat for fans of the film to chew on.
Adair mentions several stories from the film's production that confirm the unusual amount of say that Bertolucci allowed his young cast to have in how the story developed. For instance, the novel's homoerotic elements - something I thought had been excised from the film in a bid to broaden the film's appeal, especially in the censorius States - was actually let go due to a general lack of enthusiasm for that direction on the part of the cast. Evidently as the actors began to inhabit their characters, the idea just fell by the wayside and both Adair and Bertolucci were happy not to include it. In another example, all three leads refused to film a particular scene as they felt it misrepresented the character of Isabelle; after talking the matter over, Adair and Bertolucci agreed with their interpretation and the scene remained unshot. In other scenes, the dialogue was entirely improvised.
Producer Jeremy Thomas echoes many of Adair's concerns, describing the 60s as a period of innocence and exploration rather than the decadence and indulgence which it's become known for. Thomas also provides some of the more prosaic stories associated with filming, such as the difficulties involved in constructing a mountain of garbage.
Bertolucci himself speaks slowly and deliberately, partly as he seems to be a very thoughtful man and partly, perhaps, because English isn't his first language. He mentions the many influences that went into 'The Dreamers' beyond simply Adair's novel and screenplay, from Cocteau to Bunel and Dante, and describes how he spoke at length to the actors to try and explain to them the utopian idealism that was prevalent in youth of the 60s; this is part of his overall desire to create an 'organic' context for the filming to take place in. He also cheerfully points out instances of his own perversity: during the filming of the bathtub sequence, he asked Michael Pitt to deliver a short dialogue about the film-maker as voyeur and criminal, and film-making itself as a disgusting practice, culminating in him saying: "It should be illegal." Just as he says this, again at Bertolucci's behest, the naked form of Eva Green steps into shot as she climbs into the bathtub.
"We're shooting today and we're dreaming of the Sixties," says Bertolucci at the start of the excellent 50-minute BBC Documentary "Bertolucci makes 'The Dreamers' " directed by David Thompson, which brings together interviews with the director, author Gilbert Adair, producer Jeremy Thomas, the lead actors and several key crew from the film.
What makes this piece particularly interesting, especially for someone who knows little about the period, is the background material about the protests against the French political regime during 1968, narrated by Zoë Wanamaker, and the accompanying wealth of good quality footage from the era, seen in the context of the filming of 'The Dreamers'. The sacking of Henri Langlois as head of the Cinematheque Francaise provoked demonstrations and eventually helped ignite a national feeling of resentment against the Government, ultimately leading to the entire country grinding to a halt and rioting in the streets. Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rivette, Renoir and Rohmer, among others, joined the protesting hoards on the barricades. I've always found the idea of intellectual Gauloise-puffing film nerds helping provoke a national incident admirable, ridiculous and, above all, extremely French (at the beginning of 'The Dreamers' Adair, through Matthew's voice over, says "...only the French would house a cinema inside a palace.") Thankfully I'm not alone; Adair describes what it was like to actually be at the scene and see police beating Truffaut and Godard. It's fascinating to see 1968 footage of the protests and riots being intercut with shots of Bertolucci shooting re-enactments of the same scenes for 'The Dreamers'. It's clear that everyone was excited by the idea that the young could really effect change through their own self-willed activism, but Bertolucci admits that - at the time - he was a little out of step with the revolutions that were taking place in Paris, being more involved with the creation of his early film 'Partner'.
Having established its roots in reality, the documentary then turns to the creation of Bertolucci and Adair's fantasy, with Bertolucci describing how he selected the three leads (interestingly, he had serious doubts about Pitt and originally cast someone else in the role before changing his mind), and their comments about them. Bertolucci admits that the couple of Theo and Isabelle are self-conscious, decadent, middle-class 'pseudo-revolutionaries', but even as he says it he looks amused, even admiring. He's equally unembarassed about the amount of nudity in the film and his role as a film-maker over 60 filming a trio of beautiful youths in their early 20s, pointing out, not without humour, that Titian was still painting nudes at 90. "Maybe I didn't talk enough about young people when I was young," he muses in his broken English, "So now I am recouping, what I haven't done." He ends the documentary stating quite plainly: "I am in that phase of my life when I am sure that shooting keeps me alive."
Also included on the DVD is the 14-minute documentary 'Outside the Window: Events in France, May 1968.' This features more extracts from interviews with Adair, Bertolucci plus Professor Robin Blackburn, Editor of the New Left Review. It contains serious political and social history and describes how the overcrowded French student body became politicised in 1968 and eventually created a national political crisis, in which 10 million workers went on strike, bringing the country to a standstill. Normal service was only resumed after Prime Minister George Pompidou met with the Unions and agreed to a number of measures, including raising the minimum wage, cutting working hours and giving workers the right to organise. Soon after these agreements were struck, first the Minister of Education, then Pompidou himself resigned. Within a year, President De Gaule was also voted out. Some parts of this documentary are pretty dry and the soporific voice-over, delivering inane sound bites ("George Pompidou met with everybody.") doesn't help (neither does the full-screen, fact-bearing titles that pop up from time to time in clashing colours, presumably as a measure to keep the attention span of 'the kids' from wandering). However, on the whole I thought this was very valuable background material, giving the viewer a chance to understand why Bertolucci and Adair remember the idealism and spirit of unity of those times with such wistfulness.
Rounding out the extras is a music video for 'Hey Joe' as performed by Michael Pitt and his band the Twins of Evil.
As I said at the beginning, I appreciate 'The Dreamers' a lot more now than when I first saw it. It looks stunning, has a great commentary track and the extras included give one insight into why Bertolucci et al felt so passionately about the project. For fans of the film or of Bertolucci, this DVD is essential; if you're just curious or, like me, saw it at the cinema and were lukewarm about it, I'd strongly advise a second look. In fact, my only hesitation about giving Fox total kudos for the release is the cover artwork (see top of review) which, as of the press release in August, looks very poor and features an entirely inappropriate quote from, of all things, the Daily Star!
"Our way of life," says Bertolucci at the end of the commentary track, "Our inter-personal relationships today, the way the young generation of today lives and is developing, was born, designed and imagined in '68." His beautiful trio aside, it's hard to avoid the conclusion - and I don't mean this in a malevolent sense - that the true Dreamer here is Bertolucci himself.