Tuesday, February 24, 2004
Bernardo Bertolucci often locates his movies at the intersection between personal and political history, but he’s always more interested in the personal. In 1900, The Last Emperor, and The Conformist, he achieves a balance, saying something about the culture in which his protagonists’ stories unfold. But in films like Little Buddha and his latest, The Dreamers, the political context is no more than a poorly painted backdrop.
The Dreamers is the story of Matthew (Michael Pitt), an American exchange student experiencing the ultimate springtime in Paris. It’s 1968, and Matthew is one of the hardcore film buffs at the Cinematheque Francaise, ground zero for the cultural revolution, where he meets dark-haired drama queen Isabel (Eva Green) and her equally striking but moody twin brother, Theo (Louis Garrel).
When the twins’ laissez-faire parents leave town for a month, they invite Matthew to move in with them. The three enter into a kind of emotional ménage a trois, shedding most of their clothes along with their inhibitions as they hole up together for days at a time.
Matthew and Isabel become lovers after having sex on a dare while Theo watches. Sex permeates the other relationships as well, both in the incestuous relationship between the twins and the strong traces that remain of a homosexual relationship between Matthew and Theo, which was in the first draft of the screenplay and the book it was based on.
That’s not the only ghost haunting The Dreamers. The shadow of Last Tango in Paris, Bertolucci’s best-known and probably best movie, also hovers over his latest, which the filmmakers jokingly called First Tango in Paris. Both movies are set in Paris in the counterculture era. Both are about people who use sex — much of it transgressive — to express their sense of alienation and to rebel against social conventions. In both, the lovers spend most of their time shut up together in an elegantly aging Paris apartment, and the spell is broken when they finally leave the apartment together. And both carry ratings usually reserved for porn, though Tango’s X sounded more hardcore than today’s equivalent, Dreamers’ NC-17.
Tango, which is about an anguished man trying to regain control of his life, stunned audiences with its raw eroticism and emotion when it premiered in 1972. It still has power because of Marlon Brando’s raging-bull performance, Maria Schneider’s youthful bravado, and the seemingly natural ease with which they riffed off each other. Dreamers, in contrast, doesn’t seem to be about anything much, and with the exception of Pitt’s the performances are too lightweight to anchor it.
Screenwriter Gilbert Adair says his movie is about the political, sexual, and cinematic utopias that young people of that time believed in. The characters’ near-religious worship of the cinema clearly comes through, as does their preoccupation with sex. But there’s no sense of the politics behind the clashes we periodically glimpse between demonstrators and phalanxes of police, which leaves you wondering whether all those Parisian protesters were as politically passive and apparently clueless as Isabel or as naïvely self-righteous as Theo.
Himself the pampered son of a wealthy poet, Bertolucci has a blind spot for the children of privilege. Terence Rafferty recently called him “the movies' great poet of narcissists and spoiled children,” and The Dreamers is no exception: He seems to take the twins every bit as seriously as they take themselves, unaware of how irritating Theo’s perpetual sneer or his sister’s aristocratic helplessness can be.
Despite the Dylan and Hendrix on The Dreamers’ soundtrack, the story never transported me back to the '60s. Instead, it dredged up a different kind of memory: the excitement an introvert feels when a charismatic extrovert befriends him or her. Matthew is a nice kid from San Diego. He’s never gotten close to anything like this glamorous, sophisticated duo, and edging into their inner circle thrills him.
Pitt, whose lips are so plush they’re written into the script, looks disconcertingly like Leonardo DiCaprio on steroids. His looks have mostly gotten him boy toy parts so far, playing the object of Jen’s desire on Dawson’s Creek and of Hedwig’s in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but here he plays the old soul of the group. It’s Matthew who knows that Keaton is better than Chaplin and Hendrix is better than Clapton, and who doesn’t fall for the trendy infatuation with Chairman Mao.
Yet it’s not hard to see why he’s enchanted by this Peter Pan and Wendy. The twins exude the ease of the overprivileged, and their physical beauty carries its own authority: Even rooting through garbage for food, wearing nothing but a velvet suit jacket, Theo looks elegant.
Bertolucci is a master of the syntax of moviemaking. You never tire of looking at his gorgeous images. He finds wonderful settings, many of them ancient places whose strangeness and mystery he captures without exploiting them. And his unobtrusively moving camera and skillful work with actors create memorable scenes that feel lived rather than enacted.
But unloading that arsenal on The Dreamers is like hiring a fine artist to paint your kitchen. Sure, the thing is well done, but what an odd use of talent.