The quality of Bernardo Bertolucci’s work is all over the map, but it is universally agreed that, from Moravia, the moody, spiderlike The Conformist (Il conformista, 1970), about Fascism’s ghosts, is one of the most beautiful films ever made. I also hold in esteem Before the Revolution (Prima della rivoluzione, 1964), Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (La tragedia di un uomo ridicolo, 1981), The Last Emperor (L’ultimo imperatore, 1987), and, partly against my better judgment, The Sheltering Sky (Il tè nel deserto, 1990). But the same artist also made the pathological, arty Last Tango in Paris (Ultimo tango a Parigi, 1972), and only Keanu Reeves, worthy of Hesse as Siddhartha, saves Little Buddha (1993) from utter chaos. I regret to say there are still lesser works, from the 1990s, that go so far down that they blur the distinction between Bertolucci and Franco Zeffirelli. Its brother-sister-friend triangle inspired by Jean Cocteau’s Les enfants terribles (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1949), The Dreamers (I sognatori) continues this dispiriting trend.
I can see the film only with my own eyes, not Roger Ebert’s, and I don’t know what to make of a film reviewer who, panning nearly every legitimate film that crosses his path (and not many do, for Ebert is addicted to seeing only the most illegitimate), has canonized this piece of mush, which “filled [me] with poignant and powerful nostalgia,” he writes, because it “evokes a time [in the 1960s] when the movies—good movies, both classic and newborn—were at the center of youth culture.” While Ebert is very much in tune with Bertolucci’s nostalgic aspiration, I am not. I would rather revisit Jean-Luc Godard’s Band à part (Band of Outsiders, 1964)—and I can, and I do—than delight in Bertolucci’s fleeting quotation from it as his three teens reenact the Godard trio’s running the length of a room in Le Louvre, no matter how skillfully cutter Jacopo Quadri has interspliced the homage and the original, shifting back and forth between color and black and white. For me, Bertolucci’s three main characters command no interest on their own, unlike the boy and the girl who meet and romance in Paris in Pascal Aubier’s 1995 Son of Gascogne (Le fils de Gascogne), a more spirited hommage to the nouvelle vague.
A number of critics, Ebert among them, contend that The Dreamers shows the confluence of movies, sex and politics at a particular time in world history. Perhaps; but I see instead a movie about an American boy who prefers to urinate in sinks rather than in urinals, and, absent a lot of foolish “reading in,” I don’t see politics in this, only spankable behavior. (His French host’s toothbrush falls into the sink; the American boy wets it, shakes it—oh, brother—and the next day stands idly by as the host brushes his teeth.) Indeed, political turmoil in the streets, in Paris in 1968, is mere backdrop for the kids’ movie- and sex-obsessed games, in the apartment shared (while their parents are conveniently away) by French twins, a boy and a girl, and their American guest. Something from the street flies in through a window at one point, and the twins do end up joining the street riots (why I can’t say), but the political moment is only arbitrarily dragged in whenever Bertolucci and company want their film to seem more meaningful than it is.
In 1968 street protests in Paris, organized by Godard, followed the ouster of Henri Langlois from the venerated institution he founded, the Cinémathèque Français. (Bertolucci intersplices documentary footage of Jean-Pierre Léaud addressing the original crowd and an older Léaud doing the same in the film’s reconstruction of the event.) This event triggered a wider event: street protests and riots so voluminous and politically far-ranging in their Leftist impetus that the government nearly toppled as a result. Bertolucci’s film begins with the triggering event and ends with the outcome-event.
The twins, Theo and Isabelle, befriend fellow American cinéaste, Matthew, who is studying in Paris, taking the innocent into their quasi-incestuous domain—although chaste, the brother and sister sleep together, naked—à la Les enfants terribles. They play games based on acting out movies. When Theo fails to recognize Isabelle’s impersonation of Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus (Josef von Sternberg, 1932), for instance, his “forfeit,” which she gets to determine, is to masturbate in front of a still of Dietrich in The Blue Angel (Sternberg, 1930). Matthew and Isabelle eventually become lovers, triggered by the sex that is yet another forfeit, as Theo watches, vicariously participating as voyeur. Bertolucci succeeds in keeping our own voyeuristic tendencies at bay; this is not a prurient film. Nevertheless, its “innocence” wobbles in an overheated atmosphere of incipient, seemingly imminent, incest, not to mention homosexuality between the boys, whose chaste naked bodies also commingle, and whose buttocks, either bare or thinly clad, are like magnets for the gaze of Bertolucci’s camera. (So are Isabelle’s breasts.) I gather from the DVD commentary provided by Bertolucci, a producer, and the author of both the screenplay and the autobiographical novel, The Holy Innocents, upon which it is based, Gilbert Adair, that the boys originally do become lovers. The commentators seem to think this removes “homoeroticism” from the film’s “rich plate,” as one of them puts it; rather, this procedure displaces the homoeroticism, converting its repression into thick, oriental perfume. The Dreamers does for repressed homosexuality what Black Narcissus (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1947) does for repressed heterosexuality. I submit that such repression can do nothing for the film’s purported political angle, although I’m not sure that either actual incest or gay lovemaking would have been thematically any more useful.
The film achieves something of a low point when the twins’ parents return unannounced, mark their children’s and Matthew’s entwined, naked sleeping bodies, write a check so that no one will do without, and silently exit. This, apparently, was an inspiration of Bertolucci’s that owes nothing to the book. In my opinion, Adair ought to heave a sigh of relief, and we all might wonder what planet Signor Bertolucci inhabits. I know what his answer would be: the sixties! His hazy memories may require the correction of a parental mind.
But that’s just it; not much of any sort of mind has gone into this film, only a lot of warm, fuzzy feelings for those bygone days when it seemed possible for movies to change the world. The bloodless sixties revolution, Bertolucci, again on the DVD commentary track, proclaims a rousing success, for the way that men and women today are able to interrelate is the legacy of that war. Perhaps.
For the record, brooding Theo is played by Louis Garrel, the son of brilliant French filmmaker Philippe Garrel. When, oh when, is some outfit going to bring Garrel’s films out on VHS or DVD in the States?