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The International Writers Magazine
: Film Review THE DREAMERS 2004

A young American studying in Paris in 1968 strikes up a friendship with a French brother and sister. Set against the background of the '68 Paris student riots

Directed by: Bernardo Bertolucci
Written by: Gilbert Adair
Produced by: Jeremy Thomas
Michael Pitt
Eva Green
Louis Garrel

Robin Renucci .... The Father
Anna Chancellor .... The Mother
Greta Garbo .... Queen Christina (archive footage)
John Gilbert .... Antonio (archive footage)
Jean-Pierre Kalfon .... Himself
Anna Karina .... Odile (Archive Footage of 'Bande à part (1964)
Jean-Pierre Léaud .... Himself

Bernardo Bertolucci
Bernardo Bertolucci is the one of the key influences of why I love cinema. When I finally discovered him in 1971 his work made a huge impact on me as a film student. He began with Before the Revolution in 1964 – a story about a University intellectual who has sided with the communist rebels in Italian society and it being a Bertolucci film, he is also having an incestuous relationship with his aunt. Filmed when he was just 22 it revealed his skills as a brilliant stylist, if not a great storyteller.

By far greater in impact was his film The Conformist. Here we have fascism, sex, politics and psychology. It is a film about acceptance, betrayal and cowardice. For one outside the ‘party’ to belong to the fascist movement in Italy the important test was to prove you could betray your friends, even your loved ones. For Marcello, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant –a huge international star then - he is an outsider desperate to belong, to conform.
Shot with astonishing bravura and a wonderful use of lighting and shadows which add menace and lustre; the whole film is a work of art. It is one of the most perfect recreations of wartime Italy in character and sensuality, fully exploiting the architecture and music of the period. A film noir, part-road movie, told almost all in flashback, it uses unique film techniques to tell its tragic story. When I think of the 1940’s, it is this film that defines it.

Marcello is sent to kill Professor Quadri who has fled Fascist Italy for Paris. He is reluctant to do this, even though he wants to prove he is a good fascist. He respects Quadri and knows in his heart that Quadri is a good man. He takes his new wife with him and in this journey, he comes to realise that his wife is cheap and Professor Quadri’s wife is who he really wants. Dominique Sanda (Anna Quadri) was then the most extraordinary cruel beauty, used by Bertolucci in both this film and 1900.
There are many moments of pure cinematic poetry in The Conformist, the wind swirling the leaves around his mothers house, the dancing in the restaurant with secret sexual undertones, even the assassination in the forest is beautiful madness. The horror on Dominique Sanda’s face when she realises Marcello’s betrayal haunts one for years. This was Bertolucci at his best and I feel lucky to have seen the film in a 1000 seat cinema and left with a crowd overwhelmed by the emotions of it all. I believe this to be one the finest films of all time.

It was followed by Last Tango In Paris in 1973 and here I began to lose interest. Sure there was sex. Brando, mannered as usual, buggering Maria Schneider and doing wonders for butter sales, but where were the politics? what was the point of it all? Mid-life crisis? Audiences went in their millions but this was not the same man who made The Conformist.
The attack in the forest

However it was Bertolucci who educated me about film, about politics and although I did not share his flirtations with communism, he enabled me to see how fascism and communism seduced a whole generation. 1900, originally six hours long,was cut to four hours for US release. I saw both parts in the compromised five hour European version in 1976. By this time Bertolucci films were an event, particularly in Europe, London and South Africa. Starring a young De Niro and Depardieu, as well as Dominique Sanda, Burt Lancaster, Sterling Hayden, Donald Sutherland these were the giants that strode the land of cinema in the 70s. The film proved to be a shock however. Broad in scope covering the dawn of the millennium 1900 and sweeping through the rise of communism and fascism in Italy through to the aftermath in 1950, it was unbelievably ambitious for a filmmaker so young. However, he was the greatest of his time and got the finance and the stars. I haven’t seen the short versions and luckily own the European Video release in Italian with English subtitles but it was always going to be uphill to get audiences to go to both parts then. In our times Lord of the Rings was at least a year apart and Kill Bill several months between the parts. Having two parts combined with the shock of seeing the end of part one proved to be a stumbling block. Audiences reeled out of the cinema after witnessing the fascist played by Donald Sutherland buggering a little boy and then dashing his brains out on a barn wall. Audiences did not go back for part two.

Bertolucci took a while to recover from the reaction and it was a time when Italian films worldwide began to disappear from our cinemas as American dominance took hold.

Almost ten years later in 1987 Bertolucci came back with an amazing tour de force movie ‘The Last Emperor’ an historical sweep about the last Emperor Pu Yi and his English tutor in China . Starring Peter O’Toole, John Lone, Joan Chen it charts the tragic life of this ‘royal’ child who would be swamped by the upcoming revolution and die lonely and forgotten in Mao’s China. If Bertolucci was downcast because of the reception of 1900, it could be forgotten now as he won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Cinematography. It was compromised somewhat by the Chinese government having final say over the script, but anyway you look at it, it was a monumental achievement. Aside from ‘The Moderns’ it was certainly John Lone’s finest hour.

Bertolucci followed this with Little Buddha in 1993 which did not connect with the public but he found them again with his more recent ‘Stealing Beauty’ in 1996. It also gave us Liv Tyler and if you look closely Rachael Weisz in the pool. Light, even though Jeremy irons character is dying of Aids, it restored faith in Bertolucci’s ability to mirror the times and the cinematography captured an Italy second homers adore. Just one chip of the old Bertolucci survives. An idylic scene, but you slide off the hill for a moment and there are the whores on the motorway flagging down motorists. Modern Italy isn’t far away. There is also Beseiged which I have not seen and The Sheltering Sky in his oeuvre.

Eva Green as Isabelle
Which brings us to The Dreamers.(at last) It is possible that Berlolucci feels that he has said all he can about European politics in his life. This is a pity because if ever Italy needed translating to the rest of the world it is now. The reign of Berlosconi, the Parmalat scandal and the fate of Fiat are all about corruption, sex and betrayal. So it is strange that he would want to make a film about the May Riots in Paris 1968 and yet, use them only as a backdrop.
We are in yet another incestuous world. (I neglected to mention La Luna, a mother and son love fest in 1979) Based upon Gilbert Adair’s novel Holy Innocents, the film is by the Adair’s own confession a very loose adaptation of his screenplay of his book. An attractive young girl Isabelle, played by Eva Green who looks much older than her years, is in love with her twin brother Theo (Louis Garrel). They sleep together, wash together, study together and play games, taunting each other sexually.

To an outsider like young American Mathew, they are beautiful, sophisticated and he wants to be part of them and their closed world. They meet at the Cinematheque where students of film go to see everything and anything that is cinema. The political element is that Henri Langlois was fired as director of the Cinematheque in the spring of that year and the resulting protests and riots were the catalyst for the May riots that year. There may well be a political film to be made about the unrest in 1968, but this is not that film. This is about the seduction of young Mathew by both sister and brother and how he falls hopelessly in love with Isabelle during a month of sex marathons, games and forfeits, drinking and just playing house whilst the parents are away. There are inserts from long dead movie stars to show just how obssessed these kids are with film and this works well.

The kids act with astonishing frankness and natural ability. The sex is open and often amusing and all of their relationship and petty jealousies seem very real. Eva Green is wonderful and you do find yourself liking these selfish kids.

The film is shot in a real Paris flat and compresses us in there with them; but no matter how much sex you might have wanted to have with a beautiful girl, if there were riots going on outside your flat in Paris, you’d want to know why. If you were 18 and politically aware as they were, you’d want to take part.

It seems Bertolucci is content to show us young love and the semi-tragic obssessiveness of Isabelle with her brother and even though we get to like these ‘innocents’ and enjoy their stoned conversations about film and Vietnam, it is hard to believe they would be so disinterested in the outside world. Even more difficult to believe that when they do decided to take an interest at the end of the film they’d go to the front-line, as it were, to lob bombs at the police. They have no political motives, no interest and it just betrays a certain shallowness of the moment and the times that they would.

People say no one remembers 1968 because it was a failure. By avoiding the issue this film trivialises it as well. It makes no sense to so skillfully recreate Paris of 1968 and make a film about bonking in the room next door. Eva Green is amazing, all the actors are, and your feel you know them intimately after two hours. There is an even bigger surprise about her own sexual experiences and Michael Pitt as the wide-eyed boy from the States who cannot believe his luck is totally absorbing. However, even though Fabio Cianchetti has excelled at creating the period with his fluid cinematography, it all seems a bit of a waste.

Bertolucci might argue the film isn’t about the riots, it’s about the kids. Then, why not make a contemporary film in a flat in Paris? 1968 and its political messages has no bearing on their lives at all. I feel here is a master filmmaker awaiting the call of a better story.

In 1964 he began a career that has been honoured, respected and hugely influential. Scorsese himself has paid tribute to Bertolucci in the development of his own films. The Dreamers is a cinematic pause I hope before he touches greatness again. My best hope is that people will watch this, enjoy it enough to seek out The Conformist or 1900 or The Last Emperor and see what a great filmmaker can really do.

© Sam North Feb 2004

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