Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Dreamers

Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 4/2/04 w/ Additional Edits.

One of the most compelling and seminal filmmakers from Italy, Bernardo Bertolucci has always been a lightning rod for controversy. Whether it was for the raucous, carnal sexuality of his 1972 masterpiece Last Tango in Paris or the five-hour epic film 1900, Bertolucci has always been considered a filmmaker of grand beauty and ambition. With films like 1970's The Conformist, many filmmakers including those in the U.S. loved his style and in 1987, Bertolucci reached his peak with The Last Emperor that won nine Academy Awards including Best Picture and a Best Director prize for Bertolucci. Unfortunately, following up a film like The Last Emperor proved to be a task that is hard to live up to. While latter day films liked The Sheltering Sky, Little Buddha, Besieged, and Stealing Beauty had their moments, they weren't up to par with Bertolucci's landmark films. After taking a brief hiatus, Bertolucci returned to the silver screen in 2003 in classic form with his homage to the French New Wave and the sexuality of Last Tango in Paris with The Dreamers.

Based on The Holy Innocents: A Romance by Gilbert Adair, who also wrote the screenplay, The Dreamers is a film about an American in 1968 France amid the turmoil of student riots in Paris meets up with two film-obsessed French twins as they explore sexuality and their passion for cinema. Directed by Bertolucci, The Dreamers isn't as shocking as Last Tango in Paris despite some surprising antics as the film really explores the relationship of three people and their love for cinema as they each explore their own individuality. With American actor Michael Pitt in the lead role along with young French actors Louis Garrel and newcomer Eva Green along with veterans Robin Renucci, Anna Chancellor, and a cameo from longtime Bertolucci associate Jean-Pierre Leaud. The Dreamers is a divine, lush film of racy sex and grand cinema.

It's Paris, 1968 where an American student named Matthew (Michael Pitt) is in the city learning to speak French and avoid the Vietnam War. Instead, he learns French through cinema at the French Cinematheque as he and many film buffs watch movies. He along with the hardcore ones decide to watch the films in the front row so they can be closer to the image as they're watching Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor. Then one day, the film buffs and French college students learned the Cinematheque has been closed by the government while Cinematheque founder Henri Langlois had been fired leading to a huge protest from students as they battle policemen. Matthew learns what's going where he meets a young Frenchwoman named Isabelle (Eva Green), who has chained herself to the doors, while her twin brother Theo (Louis Garrel) is wondering if he should join the protest.

Later in the day, Matthew befriends the two twins where they engage in talking about cinema where Isabelle says her first words were "New York Herald Tribune" from one of her favorite movies, Jean-Luc Godard's A Bout de Souffle. Matthew felt happy for the first time now that he has friends from Paris where later, he gets a call from the two where he's been invited to dinner. He meets Theo and Isabelle's Bohemian parents where their father (Robin Renucci) talks about non-violent protests that upset Theo while Matthew was fiddling around with Isabelle's lighter showing their father and mother (Anna Chancellor) the shape of the lighter and its table cloth. The parents are impressed with Matthew as they let him sleep for the night in the guest room of their huge flat where the next day, they leave for the summer. Matthew would then discover the closeness of Theo and Isabelle that disturbs him at first but he's also intrigued by it. With the parents gone, Theo and Isabelle let Matthew stay with them where they have conversations of films where Isabelle reenacts a scene from Queen Christina.

One day during a talk about films, Theo and Isabelle decide to test Matthew by seeing if he is one of them. To do that, they decide to run through a museum in the same place where three people ran in the Godard film Bande a Part in the time of 9 minutes, 45 seconds. Matthew is officially accepted since they beat the record by seventeen seconds where they engage in more film trivia in which, Isabelle asks Theo a film she's reenacting that he doesn't know. Since he forfeits, she forces Theo to do something to a picture of Marlene Dietrich. Theo gets a bit of revenge when he reenacts a scene from Howard Hawks' 1932 version of Scarface to Matthew that he doesn't know and he forfeits. Theo forces Matthew to have sex with Isabelle that Matthew at first was reluctant but gives in as Theo watches.

Isabelle and Matthew become closer while Theo insists, he and Isabelle are like Siamese Twins in their mind and they’re really one. Matthew really wants to be part of them where for the next few days, they just stay at the flat engaging in sexual games while eating very little food and spending all the money they had. Matthew finally had enough of the fact that Isabelle and Theo are inseparable as he tries to show Isabelle the ideals of American dating that Isabelle enjoyed but Theo' influence was becoming overwhelming. With the chaos of the student riots now looming as Communist union workers join in the protest, the lives of the three film-loving individuals are put to the test over their own idealism and exploration.

While The Dreamers isn't up to par with Last Tango in Paris or The Last Emperor in cinematic achievements or innovation, its clearly Bertolucci's best film since The Last Emperor. It's not just because the film has the same raunchiness of Last Tango in Paris since the film does show full-frontal nudity and with the uneasy subject of incest, it's really has also has this wonderful story of three people passionate about films and culture at that turbulent time. In many respects, the film is partially a thank you letter to the filmmakers that Bertolucci loved when he was young and pays tribute to those who love movies. The idea of sitting close to the screen just because of the image is understandable since some movies are more than just movies. In The Dreamers, Bertolucci uses film clips of some of those old movies including A Bout de Souffle and news clip of what was going in French including a reenactment where Jean-Pierre Laud recreates his own protest scene.

While Bertolucci's directing trademark style doesn’t do anything new, he does manage to bring a story together without making it too slow or too shocking. The only real flaw of the film is its ending which is a bit disappointing but in truth, shows the final development of the characters. Bertolucci still manages to make the film interesting with its characters and story as he presents the film as a thank you note while the sexuality is much more innocent than the one in Last Tango in Paris. Whereas Last Tango in Paris was more adult, The Dreamers is really more linked to the angst of Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien where the sex is explored as not just something new but also in an emotional standpoint. While some might think the idea of a naked woman dancing or showing a minute or two of two male penises is obscene and exploitive. Well, then those people should get over it. After all, guys get to see women naked in many films, why not give the ladies what they want? It plays well in film. Even the screenplay plays strength to Bertolucci's directing style where the story is filled with trivia and references to pop culture, politics, and the Vietnam War.

If Bertolucci's craft as a storyteller is as potent than ever, then his mastery in visuals remains flawless. Whereas his old cinematographer Vittorio Storaro helped capture the beauty of early 70s Paris in Last Tango in Paris, Fabio Cianchetti does a spectacular job in giving Paris a sunny, colorful look of 1968 Paris while in the flat scenes, the colors are filed with lushness. Cianchetti's exquisite cinematography may not be on level with the work of Storaro but Cianchetti does give life to Paris, especially capturing the turmoil. Since the film is a homage to the French New Wave and classic cinema, the clips that were edited by Jacop Quadri cut with the reenactments are well done. While the music from Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and other late 60s classics help give the film a time warp feel as if we're in 1968 all over again. Especially with Garrel and Pitt's argument over who is the better guitarist, Hendrix of Eric Clapton? No contest there on who is better.

While the smaller performances from Robin Renucci and Anna Chancellor as the parents were small, they were well played in their brief time. Really, the film belongs to its three young actors. Michael Pitt delivers his best performance to date after standout roles in Hedwig & the Angry Inch, Bully, and Murder by Numbers. Pitt brings in his wide-eyed boyish sensitivity in a calm, enchanting performance as he charms the audience as the film’s protagonist. Pitt brings a lot of himself not just physically but emotionally as a young man intrigued by sex and political drama in a role originally given to fellow American actor Jake Gyllenhaal. In the end, Pitt definitely outshines himself since his boyish innocence was well served than Gyllenhaal's more moody acting style.

Louis Garrel delivers an amazing, tough performance as Theo by using his own intellect as his strength. Garrel doesn't make his character be pathetic although his ideals seem to be a bit misguided if not, passionate. He definitely shines in a performance worthy of an international breakthrough. Newcomer Eva Green (who is the daughter of French New Wave star Marlene Joubert) is spellbinding as Isabelle with her kooky personality and oozing sexiness. Green's delightful energy and innocence brings a lot of sympathy and anguish as she explores her own individuality for the first time leaving her torn between the revolutionary Theo and the idealistic Matthew. Though this was her first film role, Green's performance is one to watch out for as she steps up to the plate as an international ingenue with her French counterpart, Ludivine Sagnier.

***Updated, DVD Tidbits 10/18/05***

The 2004 Dual Layer DVD from Fox Searchlight comes in two different versions. A R-rated version that's available on blockbuster that cuts a lot of the film's graphic sex. The other is the theatrical NC-17 version that is the most preferred. Both DVDs come in with the 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround for English Audio along with Spanish and French audio with English and Spanish subtitles. The film overall comes in its Anamorphic Widescreen 1:85:1 ratio presentation. The most preferred way to see a movie, particulaly a film by Bertolucci.

Overall on DVD, the film retains its look from the theaters as well as its audio. The DVD also includes several special features. One is the film's trailer along with the teaser trailer to another Fox Searchlight release, Zach Braff's 2004 debut feature Garden State. Another feature that was to promote the film's soundtrack is a music video of Michael Pitt and his band singing the Jimi Hendrix classic Hey Joe in a studio with Bertolucci listening in on the track with clips from the film.

Two documentaries appear for the DVD. One is a making-of featurette entitled Bertolucci Makes The Dreamers in which Bertolucci is seen making the film with his actors and his crew. It's a wonderful 50-minute documentary of how the director works and over the years while making his actors comfortable for the sex scenes with very little people around that scene. The actors talk about working with Bertolucci and how after a few days, they felt comfortable with him to the point that he gave them enough freedom to be the characters. Bertolucci also talked about how he almost didn't chose Michael Pitt only to realize that he was the right guy after Jake Gyllenhaal dropped out of the film.

The second documentary entitled Outside the Window: Events in France, May 1968 is a 15-minute documentary which is about the chaos surrounding France in that year which included the closing of the Cinematheque as well as the working conditions and wages. In the end, politicians resigned although some felt at that time that the revolution was lost. With interviews from Bertolucci, writer Gilbert Adair, and those talking about that year knew the impact it had and they felt that now, some things did change because of those protests. Both documentaries are insightful to watch.

The final special feature is a commentary track from Bertolucci, Adair, and longtime Bertolucci producer Jeremy Thomas. Though each individual's commentary was recorded seperately, all three do give an insight into the film. Bertolucci talks about a lot of the film's politics, his approach to shooting sex, and how the actors got to know their characters so well that made him give some free reign into their performances. Gilbert Adair talks more about the stories in the film and its comparison to his original novel while giving some insight into the historical part of the film and the movies its referenced.

Jeremy Thomas meanwhile, talks more about the business and technical aspect of the film where everything in the movie was shot on location. He also talks about the rating system in the U.S. which he dislikes as he and Bertolucci fought the MPAA to release their film, even if it receives the dreaded NC-17 rating. Thomas insists that the version people saw in the theaters is the same version that the world got to see and was happy that people did see the film. Especially since The Dreamers did modestly well in the U.S. despite the rating. Overall, it's a nice commentary track despite Bertolucci's annoyance on the DVD market. The DVD for the The Dreamers is a must-have for fans of the film and anyone who loves Bertolucci.

***End of DVD Review***

The Dreamers is a lovely, colorful film of sexuality and cinema from the master filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci. While it's not a perfect film, it's still a worthy return to form for the Italian film legend as he help shine out new stars in Michael Pitt, Louis Garrel, and Eva Green. Those interested in the French New Wave of the 1960s will find this film as a nice introduction while it's really a film geared towards cinema lovers. Those who enjoy sex films will indeed enjoy this but again, it's a movie not for everyone and you have to be 18 to see it. Overall, it's Bertolucci's thank you to sex and cinema as he proves himself again to be the master storyteller of the past. The Dreamers in the end, is a delightful film of sensuality and passion for culture amid the chaos of 1968.

Bernardo Bertolucci Films: (La Commare Secca) - (Before the Revolution) - (Partners) - (The Spider's Stratagem) - The Conformist - Last Tango in Paris - 1900 - (La Luna) - (Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man) - (The Last Emperor) - The Sheltering Sky - Little Buddha - Stealing Beauty - (Besieged) - (Me & You)

© thevoid99 2011

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