Film: 'The Dreamers'

NC-17 film is ode to youth

The Dreamers

****

NC-17, 116 m Starring Michael Pitt, Eva Green and Louis Garrell. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Opens tomorrow.

For people who love movies, watching "The Dreamers" is like experiencing one long, sustained orgasm. But the pleasure has nothing to do with the rampant nudity or disarming sex scenes, and everything to do with the way director Bernardo Bertolucci celebrates the iconic movies of the '20s and '30s, French New Wave films, Nicholas Ray and the American movies of the '50s and, indeed, the entire medium of film - even the film he is making.

The story is a setup for a deft mixing of styles. Matthew (Michael Pitt) is an American student studying in Paris in 1968. His friends are the movies he watches in the art house cinemas of the city. He meets Parisian twins Isabelle (Eva Green) and Tho (Louis Garrell) at a rally protesting the dismissal of venerated critic Henri Langlois and closure of the Muse du Cinma. Matthew becomes fast friends with the twins through their shared passion for movies, and soon he is living in the spare bedroom in their family's home.

Isabelle and Tho have a strange dynamic. They have been raised in the couched environments of their home and in the quiet darkness of movie theaters. They both give off a strong sexual vibe and they are both attracted to Matthew, though "attraction" might be too specific a word. Their parents leave for a long vacation and, for the first few days of Matthew's stay, sexual energy burgeons between the three. The rest of the film is all about how this energy is directed, redirected, unleashed and suppressed.

Bertolucci's camera is not shy. The three characters spend most of the film naked or in revealing clothing, but only during the two comparatively brief sex scenes is it ever erotic. The Motion Picture Association of America rated "The Dreamers" NC-17, but everything sexual in the film is not violent, irresponsible or destructive, and it is never pornographic. How the three express love for each other may be a bit strange, but it is beautiful at the same time.

The relationship between Matthew, Isabelle and Tho is not only strangely beautiful, but also curiously logical and convincing. They are three people who enjoy their youth and privilege inside the spacious rooms of a Parisian apartment, while outside people are taking to the streets in violent protest of the French police, or dying in Vietnam or rallying in support of Communism.

Inside, the trio reenacts scenes from movies. They race through the Louvre arm-in-arm, like Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey did in Godard's "Bande a Part." Isabelle glides gracefully around Matthew's room, hugging the walls, the dresser and the furniture like Garbo did in "Queen Christina." Footage from these films are intercut with their reenactments to create a seamless progression of action between celluloid and reality. It is a beautiful touch, and illustrates just how much of them is invested in the movies.

But Bertolucci's greatest achievement in "The Dreamers" is his casting and direction of Eva Green. In look and presence, she is a dead-ringer for Jeanne Moreau, the ultimate ravaged beauty of French New Wave cinema. In her small gestures, in her simmering facial expressions, Green invokes those suddenly brief still shots of Moreau in Truffaut's "Jules and Jim." She, like Tho and Matthew, knows she is the object of the camera's affection. It's as if her character seeks out the best possible lighting, the most pleasing framing - as if each tear is timed just so.

The key to the film is in an early scene, during the protest of the dismissal of Langlois. Matthew first sees Isabelle chained to the gates of the Muse du Cinma. They chat, and Matthew admires Isabelle's dedication to the cause. In response, Isabelle shakes her wrists and the chains fall to the ground. She was doing it just for show, as a performance, to be a dramatic part of the movie of reality.

The film has much on its mind, and the screenplay is literate enough to balance thoughtful commentaries on youthful complacency, politics, art, sex and love. "The Dreamers" is aesthetically refined - Bertolucci's eye for composition, movement and detail will inspire lust in any cinephile - but it also has a brain. The end of the film makes a bold statement on apathy, pacifism and revolution, but the film is ultimately about characters, not ideas.

"I'll kill myself," Isabelle says when Matthew asks her what she would do if her parents found out what had been going on in their absence. It is a testament to the rich portrayals of the characters that, when the last chaotic scene arrives, we're left wishing it had ended in the innocent sheets of their apartment instead of the turbulent streets of Paris.

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