The Dreamers (2003)

the dreamers film review

The Dreamers (2003) Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Politicized eroticism, allegorized carnality and libertine idealism are the three vertices that make up the love triangle, the lustful philosophy of the three sizzling protagonists of The Dreamers. This lascivious cinematic work, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and written by Gilbert Adair, who adapted his own 1988 novel The Holy Innocents, is the most flirtatious, carefree and jocosely sexy film in the prolific oeuvre of the Italian filmmaker, the master of the erotic and the political.

Some will argue that this is his most preposterous, showy and pretentious film, however I find myself on the complete opposite side of that; The Dreamers is one of the best canvases on which he has etched his controversial, yet sweaty, art. I have a feeling that as time goes on, and inevitably some of the more flawed aspects in the film become even more rusty, cinephilia will begin to rediscover its inner beauty with different eyes. Without a problem, despite my uncompromising fanaticism for this film, I can accept that The Dreamers is a film bloated with imperfections, yet the intrinsic imperfections are hidden pleasures that vindicate themselves once you enter into a conscious state of acceptance of its problems and how they operate with such purposefully heavy-handed pomposity. It is an objective truth to mention that much of the enjoyment one extracts from the hyper-sexualized experience of The Dreamers comes precisely from a reciprocity the audience has with the film’s ambiguous architecture.

The mere fact that it is a Bertolucci film should already elucidate for us the level of unseemly provocation to which we will be exposed; it is quite evident that the film fails in its ambivalent objectives because it is more hormonally stimulating than intellectually stimulating, for let’s face it, the film works more as a potent aphrodisiac than as a psychosexual drama with political contrasts. But for all its scholarly failures, the irrationally overlapping transcendent layers are still there, not operating effectively, but they exist and remain there solidly hypertrophying the figurative complexities narrated in the plot of this peculiarly sensual film. And finally, I think that’s what matters most when it comes to rationalizing the licentious ostentatiousness of The Dreamers, to begin to experience and relish Bertolucci’s dramatic pornography in a segmented, bit-by-bit and leisurely fashion, without rushing to decipher its steamy atmosphere just for its orgiastic superficiality.

The point is that every time I revisit this film, I try to see it differently than the last time I saw it. Transmuting perspectives helps remarkably in giving integrity to the ethereal, legibility to the opaque, and maturity to the obscenity. If one day you see The Dreamers as a rapturous political discourse being allegorized through sex and the next day as a perverse psychoanalytic study of the sexual nature of human beings, then the qualities you didn’t see before begin to have a shape, a consistency that emerges in a blistering, but uniformly sensuous, journey through the human psyche in a socio-political lexicon.

The sybaritic plot takes place in a nostalgic and colorful version of Paris during the insurgent May ’68. The protests and the cultural furor that eroded that year coincide with the stay in Paris of a rather formal and educated American student named Matthew, played by Michael Pitt, is a cinephile with exquisite tastes and as he wanders the itinerant streets of Paris he observes everything as if he were an anthropologist studying the oddities of Gallic culture. Matthew, of course, is amazed by the religious passion of the rebellious French youth for the seventh art, and is lucky enough to cross paths with a captivatingly good-looking French girl who shares the same filmic tastes as he does. This mesmerizing girl named Isabelle, played by a film debutante Eva Green, does literally everything along with her subversive and persuasive brother Theo, played by Louis Garrel, both of whom are equal parts beautiful and dangerous, and both of whom sense that Matthew is the right person for them to join in their sexual games. For Matthew, Isabelle’s intoxicating beauty is enough to be seduced by her charms while succumbing to Theo’s youthful defiance, but his innocence gives him the impression that his relationship with them will be like that of a gentle, pristine classic romantic comedy, only to realize too late that he is caught in a web too sticky to detach himself from the harmful state of mind of the two anatomically perfect siblings.

Only 23 years old and with only theatrical experience, a statuesque Eva Green awakens our five senses with a voluptuous performance, with so many intricate nuances that it makes her one of the most astute, committed and dauntless performances of the 21st century. Playing the unpredictable Isabelle is challenging but being directed by Bertolucci is surely more so; courageously Eva Green is unafraid of the controversial director’s voyeuristic camera and is shown in a state of bodily and emotional vulnerability, intimidating and excessively inciting, she simply devours the character in a powerful performance that catapulted her as an insightful and compelling actress, ebulliently Frenchy. The layered, frisky and prurient performances of Michael Pitt and Louis Garrel are the other two pillars to complete the acting trio that defines this film, three breathtakingly gorgeous actors starring in sexual sequences that work as a metaphor, especially when you interpret the sexual act as revolutionary poetry.

The formal multiplicity addresses the thickness of the themes contained in the narrative without any hierarchy, there is no priority for a specific theme, at times it is an invigorating tribute to cinephilia and its peculiarities and at others an exaltation to the French youth of the 60’s.

There is no justification for the thematic disproportionality of the reckless narrative configuration, and certainly one of the biggest sins of this film is to forget the transcendence of its context. But on the other hand, a huge percentage of that contextual or historical neglect encourages us to satirize the facts and give the film a tone more inclined to be seen as a romantic and amusing depiction rather than a truthful portrayal of juvenile ethos in a France spiritually imbued with communist philosophy. Theo unlike Isabelle and Matthew, is a professed Maoist and passionately believes that student revolution is the way to abolish the violence of the oppressive classes on the working class, the inconsequential wars and the French socio-political disaster. The contradiction of his ideals gradually become present in the anti-thesis of his principles, especially when Matthew, the American, is someone who shows an intelligent neutralism in the face of the feverish violence of both political spectrums, he is openly a pacifist and does not believe in the use of weapons to combat the supposed fascism that rules in France. There is an imminent belligerence in the dialogues Theo and Matthew exchange, in which we are aware that they differ but we recognize that one is right and the other is wrong. Almost as a deliberate self-critical function, Bernardo Bertolucci, a tenacious advocate of leftist politics like Theo, delves in a conscious and reflective state into the negative aspects of Marxism and its numerous variations.

The political imagery in The Dreamers should come as no surprise to anyone, considering that Bertolucci never stopped doing politics through the language of film; like his mentor, the great Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bertolucci saw film as a means of infusing political praxis, albeit always in a state of strict criticism. The Dreamers denounces the pusillanimous attitude of many of the recalcitrant defenders of the communist revolution, it exposes those middle-class intellectuals who drink wine and babble Marxist aphorisms in lengthy discussions that remain only in theory but not in practice. Those self-proclaimed Marxists who know reality in books but not in the streets. Theo’s energetic and inflammatory defense of the protests that take place in the film, remain frozen in verbiage, he is a Maoist rebel who prefers to shut himself up in his bourgeois reality and bizarre ¬†sexual games with his sister and his new American friend than to be in the streets firmly upholding his ideals.

Allegorically, the film’s neglect of May ’68 can be seen as a premeditated omission to epitomize the oblivion of the three characters with that of the social realism of their surroundings. In many sequences of the film, as the three dissolute youths alienate themselves from the proliferation of protests in France, and we see them in orgasmic playfulness and discussions about movies, the atmospheric sound design juxtaposes sounds of ambulances, police, screams and harangues from the strikes intercepting the deluded reality of the three protagonists. The Dreamers takes place during the tumultuous events of May ’68, yet its context is described elliptically. For the most part, the film takes place inside Theo and Isabelle’s old-fashioned but elegant apartment.

Cinema is the art of illusion, since its genesis it has demonstrated that it is capable of capturing reality as well as disfiguring it. I am inclined to think that the purpose of The Dreamers was to materialize an illusory state in the lives of these unbridled protagonists. Theo, Matthew and Isabelle love to do quizzes about movies, games of cinematic questions that if you don’t get right you have a punishment or challenge like masturbating in front of a lecherous picture of Marlene Dietrich. Immaturity rules the lives of these three characters, they confuse their lives with those of the movies, they confuse their identity with those of their heroic rebels that they always see on the big screen. The three enter into an emotional contact that sooner or later we know will explode, they will end up obfuscated by their caricatured way of seeing life, of contemplating problems and evading them with the sensuality of their carnal desires.

I consider that the symbolisms are more than transparent, polysemous and complex, but very clear. Theo, Isabelle and Matthew emblematize the lyricism of the French youth of the sixties, a generation that mobilized culture in the same fashion as the Soviets instrumentalized art as an influential voice for mass revolution.

When we instinctively recognize that the lusty fragrance of The Dreamers exudes more of a pop art flavor than the political spirit of the 1960s, it is precisely there, in that aura of sexual ardor and romantic vehemence, that one can easily decipher the critical theory of its modus operandi. Bertolucci trumpets Marxism as the morally correct and perhaps the most intellectually rich ideology, yet his critical rigor overcomes his fanaticism, thus elaborating a broader vision of an ideology that he defends yet acknowledges to be imperfect. Much like his maestro, Pier Paolo Pasolini, in his neorealist masterpiece The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), a film in which Pasolini takes the life and work of Christ symbolizing his word as a form of proto-Marxism, while at the same time articulating intellectual paradoxes that challenge communist manifestos, a scathing critique of his own political beliefs. The comparison may sound outlandish and inconvincing, even more so considering that one is about the best known history of Christianity and the other is about three horny young people enjoying their beautiful bodies during May ’68. However, the ideological depths are analogous, both steeped in controversy seeking the same end, the self-criticism of the self-confessed Marxist.

With those foundations, the filmmakers of The Dreamers have their objectives well constituted, and consequently the metaphors are fluid and intriguing; who knew that watching a collection of sexual scenes where incestuousness, promiscuity and zero modesty could be so stylishly entertaining. Watching the smooth, divine naked bodies of the three protagonists becomes an addictive routine, where human anatomy aesthetically evolves from sexual obscenity to a celebration of human beauty, and no one, absolutely no one, is as adept at filming naked bodies as Bertolucci’s meticulous exhibitionism. A close-up of Eva Green’s vagina is scandalous enough to misconstrue Bertolucci’s art into something unsophisticated and vulgar; yet Bertolucci does not execute these graphic shots as if he were capturing something lubricious, he poeticizes the human body with a distinctive visual storytelling mechanism, as if the characters’ genitalia were verses stringing together sensual rhymes wanting to tell us something about the characters. Sex and the overexposure of naked bodies, is a figure of speech for this Italian filmmaker, a catachresis in order to give a vocalization to his message, sex as an instrument to make a political critique.

It is a psychosexual and political drama. As full of flaws as it is full of qualities. The Dreamers doesn’t come close to being one of the director’s greatest works, but it is one of his most referential, a detailed libretto in which all his fascinations are illustrated. On my personal side, what I appreciate most about The Dreamers is its hypnotic gala of pleasures, an unabashed eroticism that has a political rhetoric allegorized in carnal acts; and of course it is one of the most whimsical films in Bertolucci’s oeuvre where the exhilaration is not overshadowed by intellectualism, rather they are creatively composed at the same time, without stealing each other’s thunder. And besides, anyone who thinks it’s boring to watch three gloriously beautiful actors spend more time naked than clothed has serious problems and should get their priorities in order. The Dreamers is the erotica experience.


Matteo Bedon
About Author

When I'm not watching and studying films, I'm writing about them.
Part-time essayist and full-time film critic.