Yes, everything you’ve heard about the sexual frankness in The Dreamers is true. Not only is there a good bit of skin, but it’s surprisingly — and literally — in your face. And there’s also a good bit of sex — explicit sex. And since the film deals with both incest and sublimated homosexuality, it’s fair to say that its buzz of controversy is fully deserved — even if the submission of the film to the MPAA (where it would get a clearly foretold NC-17 rating) was largely a publicity device.
But The Dreamers, as its title implies, is less a movie about sex than about dreams of sex. And it’s a movie about movies and the people who love them — people who may even love them too much. However, the dreams of its titular characters aren’t even their own — they’re dreams cobbled together from lives spent watching, discussing and obsessing about movies. In fact, the title might as easily refer to the filmmakers whose work we see occasionally intercut with the action.
Whatever else Bertolucci and screenwriter Gilbert Adair (working from his own novel) have accomplished here, one thing they’ve done with startling precision is paint the movies’ first unstintingly honest portrait of the cinema geek ca. 1968-1974. I ought to know, because I pretty much was one, though blessedly not quite in the same league as the characters here — at least I hope I wasn’t, though I’ll admit I have, on more than one occasion, indulged in the same Chaplin-Keaton argument depicted in the film. The characters — lacking much of anything in the way of social interaction — spend all their time watching and re-watching movies. Everything they do and everything they see is cross-referenced to something they saw onscreen. An implicit criticism of certain modern filmmakers is suggested here, since more than a few — Brian De Palma, Quentin Tarantino, George Lucas, and, to some extent, Steven Spielberg — have been accused of being in touch with nothing other than old movies.
There’s nothing particularly damning, though, about Bertolucci’s approach — no suggestion of condemnation. (And rightly so — anyone whose own film knowledge extends to referencing Dietrich’s “Hot Voodoo” number from Josef von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus is hardly in a position to throw stones.) More than anything else, Bertolucci looks at his characters with understanding — the director simply knows of what he speaks. And after all, one way and another, these earlier filmmakers were selling dreams.
That much is established in the film’s already notorious scene where Theo (Louis Garrel, This is my Body) masturbates over a photo of Dietrich as Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel (her character in that film was designed to resemble ones then common in German pornography). This is the true crux of the film and its minimalist plot. The brother and sister — Theo and Isabelle (newcomer Eva Green) — latch onto lonely American exchange student Matthew (Michael Pitt, Hedwig and The Angry Inch) expressly (possibly unconsciously) as a means to an end: He can, by proxy, consummate their feelings for one other without crossing the taboo of incest. The idea isn’t far removed from the concept of living life through other people’s dreams — of having others act out fantasies you don’t dare.
For all its multi-layered sexuality — including the strong implication that it’s as much Louis with whom Matthew wants to have sex as it is Isabelle — the film’s bottom line is all about the destruction of the characters’ dreams when those dreams are touched by reality. The most significant moment in the film is a small one — when Matthew takes Isabelle on a date. Naturally enough, he takes her to a movie, but for the first time in his life he eschews the front rows, opting instead that they should sit in the back — the front rows, he notes, are for people “who don’t have anyone.” At that moment, he realizes things can never again unfold on the fantasy level he’s used to, and with which he’s grown comfortable.
Bertolucci is a filmmaker I’ve rarely cared for, but here — perhaps because he’s presenting material close to me — he has blown me away with his precise vision of an era, and a type of person spawned by that era. Not only has the director perfectly captured that time, but his movie looks and feels like it could have been made then, too. It’s truly remarkable filmmaking, but be warned, it’s not for the easily offended — nor is it for viewers who want everything spelled out.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke