Chained for life: Bertolucci regrets rien in ‘The Dreamers’

[Originally written for Queen Anne/Magnolia News, 2004]

There is a moment in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution when the protagonist, the scion of an Italian noble family, learns that a friend has taken his own life. He had been speaking with the young man only hours before and declined his fervent proposal that they go again to see Howard Hawks’s Red River. Bertolucci cranes up and backs off from his hero; then his camera pivots on the young man’s figure, slowly describing 90 degrees of arc around him as he looks out at a changed world.

It’s an eloquent, operatic gesture. Anyone watching it will have no trouble understanding that the camera movement marks a crisis in the protagonist’s life, a shock of recognition. But the shot is also something else. There is such a moment and movement in Red River — the classic film the hero didn’t go back to see with his now-dead friend — when Montgomery Clift takes the cattle drive away from his adopted father John Wayne, and shifts it and the two men’s relationship and American history in a new direction.

Bertolucci was 24 when Before the Revolution was released in 1964. (It was his second film; he’d made his debut at 22.) He was 28 when the events variously chronicled and imagined in his new film, The Dreamers, took place — and when some of us in roughly the same generation first thrilled to what an international, ecumenical language/religion/poetics film could be: imagine, a Marxist scion of the Italian nobility (like his main character), engaged in making an “art film” inspired by a classic of French literature (Stendahl’s The Charterhouse of Parma) and spiritually linked to an epic Western from the golden age of Hollywood.

This was 1968, when American antiwar youth in Chicago were raging against a police riot outside the Democratic National Convention and chanting “The whole world is watching!” and when, in Paris, demonstrations in protest of the closing of a cathedral of a moviehouse in a palace — the Cinémathèque Française, “where modern cinema was born” — escalated into a nationwide revolution that brought down a government.

Filmmakers — directors and actors — of the nouvelle vague, the French New Wave, played a key role in the insurrection. Bertolucci celebrates its beginning about five minutes into The Dreamers when Jean-Pierre Léaud — the child star of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows in 1959 grown into the young adult star of Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses and Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise — stands on a concrete abutment outside the Cinémathèque exhorting the crowd. Léaud is now in his mid-50s, which, with audacious grandeur, the movie makes no effort to conceal. Bertolucci intercuts black-and-white archival footage of Léaud’s original speech and contemporary color footage of the aging actor’s reenactment of his own historical moment. For Bertolucci, the revolution has never ceased to be young.

No, The Dreamers isn’t “about” the revolution of ’68, not in the sense of spending much time observing street demonstrations and fervent speechifying. Mostly it settles in to contemplate one rather dim, labyrinthine, Gallicly cozy Parisian apartment, the college-age, twin brother and sister who live there with their French-intellectual father and faded English rose of a mother, and the androgynous young Californian with whom they’ve been sharing the sacred darkness of the Cinémathèque. After a droll get-acquainted dinner scene, the parents depart for a month’s stay at the seaside and the twins invite the American in Paris to move in.

Matthew (Michael Pitt), the American, first registers Isabelle (Eva Green) as a revolutionary icon. She stands, a startling combination of jutting elbows and improbably full breasts, in purple crushed velvet and a vividly red beret, fastened by gleaming chrome chains to the gate barring the Cinémathèque. Her saucy eyes meet his and she calls him to her. Being chained appears to cause her little distress, but it has its inconveniences: she needs somebody to remove the cigarette stuck to her lower lip. A triumphantly self-possessed image — the piercingly archetypal Sixties gamine — she seems to have stepped right out of a New Wave movie (albeit one made, perhaps, by Vincente Minnelli). Is she chained to the cinema? Is she cinema itself? Both things are true, and also a third: she isn’t chained at all. When the moment is right, she shucks out of her bondage as if it were jewelry she’d been trying on for effect.

This is only the harbinger of many charming moments to come, when these movie-mad children of the revolution slip into and out of reenactments of scenes they have memorized on the silver screen. Often, Bertolucci cuts to the original: most lyrically when Isabelle, brother Théo (Louis Garrel, son of director Philippe Garrel) and Matthew reenact and top the record-setting speed tour of the Louvre by the boy-girl-boy trio in Godard’s Band of Outsiders; most drolly when Isabelle invokes a sublimely surreal scene in the Josef von Sternberg–Marlene Dietrich Blonde Venus. Even more enchanting in its way is the moment when Isabelle, moving oddly around the walls and furnishings of Matthew’s assigned room at the apartment, reenacts Garbo’s memorizing of the room at the Swedish inn where she and John Gilbert have shared a bed in Queen Christina. Her self-amused ecstasy in the re-creation is so precisely captured by Bertolucci and Eva Green that there’s not a whit of pretension or presumption in her emulation of the Divine Swede.

From Dominique Sanda in The Conformist through Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris to the luminous Thandie Newton in the little-seen The Besieged (the director’s best film since The Last Emperor), Bertolucci has gifted us with a matchless gallery of exciting female characters. Newcomer Green’s Isabelle is a shining addition to this legacy. She’s also the prime, though by no means sole, focus of another of his characteristically envelope-pushing explorations of sexuality on screen. This first film in six years to be released with the transgressive cachet of an NC17 rating is as frank and sexually untrammeled as you may have heard. Rest assured that it’s an adult film, not a pornographic one, and as challenging and sensually powerful as it ought to be (and as precious few films of the past couple of decades have been).

Some of the most voluptuously stirring moments have nothing graphic about them — the scene in Théo’s bedroom, say, when he and Matthew move through a wash of rain-shadow from an offscreen window and the soundtrack fills with that darkest of Astaire–Rogers themes, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” The movie has already incorporated a clip from the Astaire–Rogers Top Hat, so it’s a little surprising that no glimpse of Follow the Fleet (where this song is heard) is provided. Yet Bertolucci’s movie is as striking for its music as its imagery: it’s as though these nubile cinephiles were mentally scoring their own lives, from timeless show tunes and also the theme music of such New Wave classics-to-be as Breathless and Pierrot le Fou. Pushing the envelope, teasing the lines of gender, delirious yet mindful that “there may be trouble ahead,” they and Bertolucci give themselves up to be embraced by the gathering storm.

Copyright © 2004 by Richard T. Jameson


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