Thursday, May 12, 2011
It's appropriate that Bernardo Bertolucci, late in his life, should make a film like The Dreamers, which at this point, eight years after its release, remains his final film to date. If he never makes another, this will be a fitting and beautiful swan song, a love poem to the cinema that's as aware of the limitations of film as it is enraptured with the artform's possibilities. This cineaste's dream, a vision of Paris at the height of the passions of May 1968, is essentially Bertolucci's return, in highly symbolic and stylized fashion, to his own youth, to his own introduction to the cinema. The film opens with Matthew (Michael Pitt), saying that the Cinémathèque Française is like a palace, and in the opening scenes of the film he goes religiously to see films there, staring raptly at the screen, alone but together with a crowd of people all seemingly hypnotized by those flickering images. That word, "religiously," is not chosen lightly. The film is about a generation of people, born with the French New Wave, for whom the cinema was a religion, for whom those flickering images were the Stations of the Cross, carved in film stock rather than stained glass. Later, after Matthew meets the brother and sister cinephiles Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel), Isabelle says that she was born in 1959, an impossibility except that she's not referring to her literal birth but her birth through cinema: she came into this world, figuratively, in the year of Godard's Breathless, the film that ignited the New Wave and served as a symbol for everything that would change in the cinema, and maybe even in the world outside the theater, with the coming of this new movement.
The film is also, of course, about disappointment. Bertolucci has precisely captured a particular moment in time when anything, seemingly, could happen — and when, in fact, almost nothing actually did. The cinephilia of Matthew, Theo and Isabelle briefly flows out into the streets, into the world beyond the frame, with the Langlois affair, the series of protests aimed at reinstating the Cinémathèque's director Henri Langlois. New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud appears, reprising his own role in those protests, juxtaposed alongside his own black-and-white image from 1968, that much younger man shouting out speeches to crowds of young cinema fans who had been galvanized by this situation. Later, Matthew and Isabelle will go to see Frank Tashlin's The Girl Can't Help It, with its opening in which Tom Ewell playfully expands the borders of the cinematic frame, kicking the constricting Academy ratio frame out to widescreen: a perfect metaphor for the expansion of boundaries, for the possibility of expanding, eventually, not just from 4:3 to Cinemascope, but from Cinemascope to reality, to the world pushing in on the corners of the screen, or conversely to allow the film to bleed out, past the black border into the world outside.
Instead, Matthew, Theo and Isabelle cut themselves off from the world in the beautiful apartment of Theo and Isabelle's bourgeois parents. The brother and sister — Siamese twins, they insist, and they have matching scars on their shoulders to suggest it's true — have a passionate, near-incestuous attachment to one another, and they essentially invite Matthew to join them as the third point of a triangle, to be absorbed, if he can be, into their perfect unity. When their parents go on vacation, leaving the apartment to the young people, the trio hole up there for an indeterminate amount of time, playing games of sex and cinema. They challenge one another to re-enact the famous fast-paced run through the Louvre of Godard's Band of Outsiders — a sign, in the original film, of how little those characters cared or knew of culture, and a sign of this trio's repetition of those same mistakes, taking the film as a guide for living without thinking about the meanings behind it. They challenge one another to identify scenes from films: Isabelle apes Garbo while Theo performs death scenes where X marks the spot, as in Hawks' Scarface. And the penalties for losing in these guessing games are sexual penances that only draw the trio tighter together into a sexual-cinematic union. Matthew falls in love with brother and sister together, and his love for them is mashed up with his love for the cinema, with his excitement over what he'd seen on the screen in darkened theaters. When the Cinémathèque closes during the Langlois affair, the apartment becomes a substitute theater, a place where these young people can create their own films, their own fantasies, using the films they love as raw material.
Bertolucci is revisiting, in a way, the theme of his infamous Last Tango In Paris. Like Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider in that film, this trio of cinephiles attempt to close themselves off from the world, to blot out everything outside their apartment. It's no coincidence that when Theo and Isabelle invite Matthew over for the first time, the scene is staged with Matthew in an elevator that's very reminiscent of the one leading to Brando and Schneider's apartment in Last Tango, while the twins run up the stairs, recalling the sequence where Brando stalks a frightened Schneider as she tries to escape him. Later, the apartment becomes their whole world, and their games of sex and movie trivia become their only activity, while outside the student riots boil over in earnest, this time with a real political agenda far broader than the cinephiliac demands of the Langlois affair.
When Matthew, finally growing frustrated with the twins' isolation and infatuation with one another, brings Isabelle out on a date, it shatters that boundary between the apartment and the outside world. The lovers go to a movie together, of course, but afterward, kissing by a shop window, they see news of the protests on a TV screen, and it's as though these images snap them out of their selfishness and monomania. When they turn around, away from the TV in the window, the camera pans with their gaze towards a massive heap of trash, the wreckage left behind by that day's demonstration. The streets look like they've been hit by the messy apocalypse of Godard's era-defining Week-end, and the only way this pair could possibly not have seen all this evidence before was that they were still locked into their isolation, as though they were still inside that apartment even while walking through the streets of Paris. Bertolucci carefully shields the audience from these signs as well, right up until the point when Isabelle and Theo see the trash and the wreckage all around them. If Last Tango was about trying to ignore the world in order to extinguish the pain of personal tragedy, The Dreamers is more political than personal; it's about trying to ignore the turmoil of the world, trying to pretend that nothing will or could ever change, so the only thing to do is engage in bacchanalian rites of pleasure, whether in a bed or in the dark of a cinema.
Later, when even this wake-up call proves insufficient to jolt the trio out of their solipsism, Bertolucci intervenes more stridently. The trio barricade themselves in a tent of sheets that, Theo says, dates back to their childhood, when they used to play like this in, one presumes, a more innocent way. The twins' parents, having briefly returned, simply tiptoe in and out, providing no guidance, no direction, for these youths, only some further enabling behavior. It takes Bertolucci himself to shatter the isolation, in a somewhat literal and cute way, as his camera pans away from the tent towards a window, which is then broken by a rock flying through it. As soon as this happens, the tranquility and quiet of the apartment is revealed to be false, as the clamor of street protests rushes in from outside. It's utterly artificial, as no pane of glass could have blocked out all this noise so completely; it's a symbolic rupture, the shattering of the boundaries between the bourgeois apartment and the streets outside. When Theo and Matthew ask what happened, Isabelle calmly replies, "the street came flying into the room," a wonderfully poetic way of saying that it's become impossible to ignore that this is a moment pregnant with possibility for all sorts of changes and ruptures.
Back in 1968, many of the New Wave's filmmakers and artists had realized the same thing, taking to the streets and engaging with the world beyond the cinema, hoping to effect some kind of lasting change. That nothing of the sort ever materialized is well known now, but Bertolucci seemed to have realized it even at the time; his second feature, Before the Revolution, made four years before May '68, is a kind of preparation for the disillusionment and disappointment of that would-be revolution. Matthew, Theo and Isabelle are very much like the aimless revolutionary idealists of that film, unsure of where their lives are heading, momentarily energized by political fervor or the love of cinema or the love of one another, but with a sense of the temporary, the ephemeral, drifting through everything they do, everything they desire. When the "revolution" breaks down into either pointless violence and destruction or disgust with all this squandered potential, it's predictable but no less sad for it.
All of this makes The Dreamers a very personal film, and a very poignant one. It's an elegy, not only for the generation of 1968, but for a whole way of looking at and thinking about the movies. It's an ode to Cahiers du cinema, to a time when all this felt so very important and so very vital. It's a loving if clear-eyed tribute to the filmmakers, and the ideas, that initially inspired Bertolucci and set him off on his own life and career.