When the French semiotician Christian Metz called cinema "the presence of an absence," he certainly wasn't prescient enough to be talking about Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers, a very guilty pleasure from an artist who apparently stopped feeling guilty (at least about some things) a long time ago.
I don't bring up Metz here to be pretentious (well, not just to be pretentious). The Dreamers takes place in Metz's Paris, in 1968, and it revolves around three young people who structure their prodigal lives around the things they've seen in the movies. Matthew (Michael Pitt) is a 20-year-old American naïf who knows little of the world and who's come to Paris to learn French. Theo and Isabelle (Louis Garrel, Eva Green) are 19-year-old twin siblings and native Parisians, the progeny of an English mother and a French poet-father who all live together in a labyrinth apartment filled with books, wine and privilege of all sorts (financial, intellectual, cultural).
They meet in March, during a rally at the Palais de Chaillot and its legendary Musée du Cinema ("only the French would house a cinema inside a palace," Matthew reflects), where film stars and common cineastes have gathered to protest the government's firing of Henri Langlois, the museum's famous founder. The trio gets acquainted, the siblings invite Matthew home for dinner, and then he moves in with them when their parents take a trip. From there, it's Life Lessons 101 and Cinema Studies 0550 -- a mere six credits, with a mandatory Intro to Political Protest lecture at the end of the semester.
Over the course of the past three decades, the brooding Bertolucci -- a putative fellow traveler whose mainstream epic, The Last Emperor, won numerous Oscars -- has made an erotic quasi-trilogy of illicit love. It started with Last Tango in Paris, the story of a young French woman and her Electrafying affair with a middle-aged American widower (Marlon Brando). A few years later came the Oedipal Luna, about an opera singer (Jill Clayburgh) with an unhealthy attraction to her teen-age son. Now, a quarter-century later, Bertolucci brings his sex train back into Paris station, although this time the three lovers are age-appropriate.
The Dreamers is taken from Gilbert Adair's novel The Holy Innocents, and while Adair wrote the screenplay himself, the result is a surprisingly thin and choppy adaptation. You can excuse a little of this because Matthew narrates, so we see things from his point of view. But he does so with evident hindsight, and he leaves out huge chunks of psychological connecting tissue.
Just how crazy are Theo and Isabelle? Well, they sleep together every night -- Theo naked, Isabelle lightly clothed -- and she's still a virgin because of their emotional co-dependency. She claims that she'd kill herself if her parents found out, and when they do, she almost does. But she's saved from this melodrama by a defenestrating rock: Outside her suicide bed, the Paris riots have exploded, and in the movie's grandest metaphor, it's now time for the randy trio to cease their erotic indolence and join the real world (with Edith Piaf singing "Je Ne Regrette Rien," of course).
As silly as this movie is at times, The Dreamers is still decent undergraduate fiction, larded with easy-to-abstract metaphors and a little bit of explicit sex. Isabelle and Matthew finally make love, at Theo's command, when she can't guess the movie that Theo has just enacted. (They play this game all the time, which gives Bertolucci an excuse to insert quick scenes from the originals, like Blonde Venus, Breathless and Queen Christina). Their intercourse happens on the kitchen floor, and while it does, Theo feigns indifference and fries up a few eggs as the burgeoning riots pass by their window. Thus the movie's central metaphor unfurls: sex = innocence, politics = experience. And eggs? What do they equal? That will be your homework.
To a point, this is fun, if amateurish. Bertolucci, once considered to be something of a "political" filmmaker (1900, The Conformist), clearly wants to recapture some of his (or someone's) youth, but his camera-eye too often drifts away or just stares off into the distance. At the time of Last Tango, he eschewed a commando Brando because, he said, it would be too much like revealing himself. He has no such hang-ups now, although as Isabelle, Eva Green gets most of the money shots. He removed the Theo-Matthew homosexual coupling from Adair's book, and he scolds his characters for living such isolated erotic lives while the world around them erupts with social upheaval. And yet, given the chance to explore the politics of the era, or the difficult emotions of unconventional sexuality (especially male sexuality), he ultimately seems to have made this movie more to overcome his own penis envy.
What remains is a tepid and thoroughly apolitical reflection on the passion, ennui and naïveté of youth, with monologues or dialogues on everything from why we sit in the front row at theaters (to be the first to see the images, before they get worn out), to the importance of nonviolent protest ("We use this!" shouts Matthew, pointing to his head, "and we do this," kissing Isabelle and Theo on the lips). Of course, why this golden-haired young American pacifist refuses to denounce the Vietnam War -- while taking a bath-á-trois with his hosts, and almost getting his pubic hair shaved -- remains as big a mystery as the question of how or why we love, or of what has happened to Bernardo Bertolucci. In English and French, with subtitles.