For Matthew, the dreamer and the film fanatic, the matter is clear: In the cinema, the true enthusiasts sit right at the front. They want to be the first to see the images on the screen; nothing should come between them and the wonderful light. What Hollywood strategists sometimes trivialize under the label of the “magic of cinema”, which comes across as overwhelming dramaturgy, is put into perspective here in a way that is as immediate as it is touching – the movie theater as a palace of dreams, as a privileged place where anything is possible in an almost indecent way. This is where Bernardo Bertolucci takes us with his erotic drama “The Dreamers” – to a crystallization point of all great hopes and utopias: Sex, cinema and politics in the Parisian spring of 1968. With sweet seriousness and solemn lightness, the director evokes in his ménage à trois the mood of an era and at the same time the presentness of this past, which is also his own. For the professional dream interpreters, there are plenty of Oedipal entanglements, transferences and symbolic shallows – but it is much nicer to dream the dream along.
The young American Matthew (Michael Pitt, Last Days, The Village, Funny Games U.S.) comes to Paris from San Diego. At a demonstration for Henri Langlois, the just-fired director of the Cinémathèque Française, he meets twins Isabelle (Eva Green, Casino Royale, The Golden Compass) and Theo (Louis Garrel, Chanson of Love, Actrices). A close friendship quickly develops between the three passionate cinema lovers. The siblings put Matthew up with them while their parents (Robin Renucci, Secret State Affairs, Arsène Lupin) and (Anna Chancellor, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) are traveling. The three young people increasingly satisfy themselves, soon they don’t leave the spacious apartment at all. Over wine, sex and lively discussions, they become increasingly lost to the world – before it literally breaks open the trio’s cocoon.
1968 – the year has long since become a catchword, sometimes almost a swearword. For Bertolucci and his screenwriter Gilbert Adair, who adapted his own novel “The Holy Innocents”, 68 is first and foremost a time of innocence, which they tell of with thoroughly autobiographical features. Thus, the clashes with parents that result in speechlessness seem as believable as they are inevitable. Father and mother can soon only view the children’s lives with a mixture of resignation and tenderness – and wordlessly leave a check. Far from any historicizing synopsis, the filmmakers allow their dreamers to act out the unconscious recklessness of youth and explore boundaries. Unlike in his masterful historical epics “1900” and The Last Emperor, which are true social novels, the long arm of history does not reach for the protagonists here until the very end – and Bertolucci stages this quite clearly as a wake-up call. With the awakening, however, the dream is also ended, innocence lost and the triangle blown up.
In 1972, Bertolucci had caused a famous scandal with The Last Tango in Paris – at the time, the revealing sex scenes of Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider in particular caused outrage, censorship and punitive measures. Detached from this somewhat silly and superficial excitement, however, the film is characterized above all by its clear-eyed look at the connections between sex and power, at the relationships between the sexes, and at the complicated worlds of feeling in a modern society defined by increasing isolation. “The Dreamers” now provide us with a kind of preliminary study of “Tango”: the discovery of sexuality before the loss of illusions, there are also incestuous undertones no taboo. There are already power games (for example when Theo is urged by his sister to masturbate in front of the others) and jealousy, but for long stretches an almost paradisiacal informality prevails. For the three young actors (for Eva Green it was even her very first film role), nudity and sex really do seem to be the most natural thing in the world, and Bertolucci’s staging is not indiscreet for a moment.
Bertolucci is a master of sensitive observation. With him, even a complicated love story like “Shandurai and the Piano Player” can unfold in the most poignant way without big words or visual gimmicks. The greatest love in “The Dreamers” is that of cinema, and so Bertolucci gives us the warm tones of the spacious apartment, which with its “secret” rooms and mirrors is almost a kind of dreamscape itself. From there, it’s just a short step into film history. There, Michael Pitt gets out of bed like James Dean once got out of a car, movie photos hang all over the apartment, and the Liberty in Delacroix’s famous revolutionary painting now has the face of Marilyn Monroe.
Cinema is taken as seriously here as almost only the French can, who have long regarded it as the seventh art. Bertolucci not only pays tribute to the legendary Henri Langlois, to whom Truffaut had already dedicated his Stolen Kisses. His alter ego, Jean-Pierre Léaud, alias Antoine Doinel, also appears briefly in Bertolucci’s film, reading out a pamphlet as he did in 1968. The protagonists are also infected by this cinephile atmosphere. They passionately discuss the question of who is better: Chaplin or Keaton? The fronts are clearly divided and the American must also be reproached for his lack of understanding for the genius of Jerry Lewis. When Eva Green feels the furniture like Greta Garbo in “Queen Christina”, Bertolucci switches almost imperceptibly to the original film. In a similar way, excerpts from Out of Breath and from Bresson’s “Mouchette” (here the cinematic model tempts Isabelle to make a fatal decision) are integrated, music from They Kissed and They Beat Him can be heard, and in the most beautiful reminiscence, the three film maniacs break the record of Godard’s “Gang of Misfits” in their sprint through the Louvre.
Bertolucci’s masterpiece is disarmingly innocent itself – the director mindlessly and unobtrusively puts the “anything is possible in cinema” into practice. His declaration of love to the medium is at the same time one to life itself – and to the mystery that makes the two so indistinguishable: “The dreamers” are us.