The Dreamers, Bernardo Bertolucci’s unforgettable, if daffy, paean to youth, cinephilia, and the student revolt of May ’68, opens by flooring the wah-wah pedal and ends with Edith Piaf warbling “Non, je ne regrette rien.” You may or may not regret indulging this chamber exercise in heroic solipsism, marathon sex (or at least copious nudity), and applied cinephilia, but risible as it often is, there’s no doubt that Bertolucci made it his way.
Perhaps not since 1968 has youthful pretense seemed so hollow. Matthew (Michael Pitt), a corn-fed nitwit whose amiable idiocy is underscored by his blank, DiCaprioid good looks, is picked up at the Paris Cinémathèque by a brother-sister pair, the imperious, riddling Isabelle (Eva Green) and Byronic, glaring Theo (Louis Garrell): The Ugly American meets Les Enfants Terribles. Children of a famous poet (just as both actors are the offspring of French film-world celebs), Isabelle and Theo are as entwined as Siamese twins. That they were once joined is suggested by the matching designer scars on their pretty shoulders. Matthew impresses their earnest, rumpled father by waxing mystical on the spatial relations between Isabelle’s cigarette lighter and the patterned tablecloth and is invited to spend the night, perhaps because he demonstrates a capacity to act stoned without drugs.
The parents leave the next day on an extended vacation, but Matthew stays. Will his be a long, strange trip? Adapted from a novel by Gilbert Adair (which could hardly fail to be more subtle, ironic, and clever than the movie), The Dreamers has zero period-resonance, the heavy atmosphere of juvenile sanctimony notwithstanding. The light may drip like honey and Janis may caterwaul on the stereo, but Isababe’s outfits are far too fashionable and the Mao tchotchkes ridiculously ubiquitous. Indeed, even with the constant signposting, the movie could be unfolding now—most likely as a multipage “narrative” advertising spread in Interview or Vanity Fair.
Encrusted with classic rock (which, whatever its provenance, sounds like the work of tribute bands) and larded with film clips, The Dreamers at times suggests an inept Forrest Gump: Bertolucci evokes the firing of Cinémathèque founder Henri Langlois by intercutting period newsreel demonstrations with the aged Jean-Pierre Leaud (spirit of naive cinephilia in Last Tango in Paris) re-enacting his firebrand speeches. Even more horribly, Bertolucci inserts shards from an assortment of ’30s and ’60s movies (most tiresomely, Breathless) as the references for his protagonists’ worldview. The most heartfelt moment is the argument between Matthew and Theo over the respective merits of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. The most abusive interpolations are from Bresson’s Mouchette.
Film quizzes are a constant with these seemingly incestuous twins, and so are rainy afternoons. When Theo fails to recognize Isabelle’s elaborate imitation of Marlene Dietrich’s gorilla dance in Blonde Venus, he is sentenced to a session of public self-abuse before the Blue Angel poster affixed like a shrine to his bedroom wall. “Now the stakes had been raised,” Matthew muses. Soon, Isabelle’s inability to identify Theo’s impersonation of Paul Muni’s Scarface death throes requires her to bestow her favors on Matthew. The American deigns to mount haughty Isabelle on the kitchen floor while sour Theo makes an omelet, and outside in the street . . . the Revolution!
The Dreamers is bad, but unlike the similarly camped-up Little Buddha or Stealing Beauty, it’s not exactly boring. Bertolucci rises to the technical challenge of exploring the enchanted apartment. When the trio gets stoned in the bathtub, the camera seemingly climbs in with them. But if you’re hoping to see the boys get it on—don’t hold your breath. The Dreamers isn’t as cluelessly offensive as Bertolucci’s fantasy of New Age bwana-dom, Besieged. It’s just befuddled. Pressed to pick the most absurd sequence, I’d opt for le date: Matthew and Isabelle making out in the back row of The Girl Can’t Help It, then kissing on the street as, beaming from the TV in the shop window behind them, once again . . . the Revolution!!
Oh, movie-mediated madness! There’s pathos to the early shot of the slack-jawed young Cinémathèque audience hypnotized by Shock Corridor that’s rhymed by the well-staged finale. In the end, Bertolucci suggests, les enfants terribles find the film they’ve been searching for—what else . . . the Revolution!!!—and enter it, leaving bemused Matthew a hapless spectator. At that moment, The Dreamers embodies the ’60s sense of life as a movie, if not this one.