Combustible Celluloid
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With: Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrell
Written by: Gilbert Adair, based on his novel
Directed by: Bernardo Bertolucci
MPAA Rating: NC-17 for explicit sexual content
Language: English
Running Time: 115
Date: 09/01/2003

The Dreamers (2004)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Paris Belongs to Us

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Bernardo Bertolucci has never shied away from sex in his movies, especially sex in confined spaces. The most famous example is Last Tango in Paris (1972) which caused quite a stir when it opened in the United States in 1973.

In that film, Marlon Brando plays a middle-aged man who regularly meets a young woman (Maria Schneider) in a room for anonymous sex; no names are allowed. And it was not the film's nudity that shocked, it was the psychological violence, the raw and aching core to which Bertolucci stripped the characters' relationship.

Now Bertolucci returns with a film that has made headlines due to the fact that Fox Searchlight plans to release it with an NC-17 rating. Yes, the film has plenty of nudity, but this time it doesn't particularly shock or titillate or reveal anything of emotional consequence. It's more like Bertolucci going through the motions.

This lethargic feel is backed up by the film's setting, Paris in 1968. Three young movie junkies regularly attend La Cinematheque Francaise, watching films by Sam Fuller, Nicholas Ray, Frank Tashlin, Jean-Luc Godard, and other master directors.

They meet during a real event; Cinematheque founder Henri Langlois is fired and all of France -- including many of its greatest film directors -- turn out in support. An American student, Matthew (Michael Pitt, from Hedwig and the Angry Inch), who looks like Leonardo DiCaprio crossed with a male model, complete with perfect, floppy hair and pouting, sensual lips meets a beautiful young girl who has chained herself to the Cinematheque gates.

Only she really hasn't. Her ruse and the cigarette dangling off her lower lip intrigues him, and he goes home with her, Isabelle (Eva Green) and her twin brother Theo (Louis Garrell).

The twins invite Matthew to stay at their lovely old flat, crammed with books, papers and aging bottles of wine. He accidentally spots the siblings sleeping naked together and before long, he's swept into their sex games. They test each other with film trivia and the loser must engage in sexual acts.

As in Last Tango in Paris as well as Bertolucci's previous film Besieged, the space gets smaller and smaller as the physical intimacy grows more intense. The trio takes baths together with hot water, soap and Isabelle's menstrual blood.

Strangely, though all three young actors are easy on the eyes, none of them really captures an erotic restlessness, abandoning all care for the sake of pleasure, politics and celluloid. It's as if they're too hung up on keeping their makeup and hair intact.

The Dreamers characters occasionally discuss Chaplin, Keaton and Marlene Dietrich, but the discussions feel inserted. It may be exciting to hear these names and see clips from their films, but Bertolucci doesn't mesh with the older films. He begins with a clip from Fuller's masterpiece Shock Corridor (1963), but The Dreamers doesn't move with any Fuller-like intensity, any of that crackling, pulp immediacy It hasn't learned anything from Fuller.

Perhaps the most exciting scene has our heroes leaving their apartment for a rare trip into Paris, duplicating the scene in Godard's Band of Outsiders where the three main characters race through the Louvre in record time. Bertolucci deftly intercuts clips from Band of Outsiders with his three heroes, but ultimately it comes across as just a cool exercise without a real point.

Bertolucci grasps at straws throughout. For some reason, Matthew has a preoccupation with fingers. On his first night at the twins' home, he brushes his teeth with his finger. He later eats honey off his finger and also uses it to test for blood on the occasion of his first sex with the virginal Isabelle. I made a note of this phenomenon, but for the life of me, I couldn't figure out its significance.

We can't forget that Bertolucci was around and making films during the turbulent period of the late 60's. But with The Dreamers, it's hard to shake the image of an old man telling stories about his wild youth and failing to really get the fabric or the texture of the stories across.

Note: Even though The Dreamers was one of the rare films to get a theatrical release with an NC-17 rating, the home video release for some reason has been split into two DVDs: the theatrical version, and a tamer, "R" rated version. For the life of me, I can't picture anyone wanting to see the latter. In any case, the extras are the same on both discs: a commentary track by Bertolucci, writer Adair and producer Jeremy Thomas; two featurettes, one on the making of the film and another on Paris in 1968, a trailer and a music video -- directed by Bertolucci -- of Michael Pitt performing "Hey Joe."

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