Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 20, 2004 9:08 pm 
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The Dreamers seems like the best thing Bertoluccis has done in a while. It left me with a deep and pleasurable impression. But I'm not at all sure it's a masterpiece. It's immensely seductive, an enchantment, a gloriously beautiful movie, but in some quite obvious ways inconsequential; like so many skillful and cinematic movies, it’s more surface than substance. But such surface! Say what you will about this movie -- that it’s selfish, sensual, emptily visual (and audio) in its approach to Paris 1968; that once the pretty trio, Anna, Theo, and Matthew, start staying home all the time and laying about half naked, the action drags a bit. No matter how the movie falters, there is a magnificent flow of beautiful images; it’s a sort of ceaseless hypnotic dream. Its enchantment lingers long in the mind’s eye.

If you’re not turned off arbitrarily by some mnemonic irrelevance, anyway, some prejudgment about how the period should be rendered or the people should look and act, the first 25 minutes are very likely to seem quite enchanting. The celebration of cinema, of youth, of Paris before there was Macdonald’s, of being an American abroad with good manners, a warm heart, nice hair and pretty lips, hanging out suddenly in a big mysterious “appartement grand bourgeois” with a pair of gorgeous, adventurous, friendly, welcoming Anglo-French siblings: it’s an irresistible tonic for someone not much older at that same time, like myself, and present at just that age in Paris, a few years before – like myself --; a tonic anybody in my place would be a fool to resist.

Bertolucci’s “use” – cold word – of black and white film clips and vintage Sixties music is stylish and elegant. This is above all an extremely classy sex story, with restraint, originality, an intellectual framework (the twins’ father, after all, is a famous poet; the American boy can debate the history of cinema; revolution is in the air), and a graphic, bold approach to sex that nonetheless is tasteful.

But although I felt left flat by the way the movie ends, and it was already way too long (as indeed was Last Tango in Paris), I really love this movie. It’s a poem, a celebration of youth and of the experimentation of the Sixties. The three young people are vivid, real, and beautiful. When they’re all in the bath tub together smoking hash, it’s great. When Théo and Matthew argue about Chaplin vs. Keaton, their acting is terrific. Michael Pitt, who plays Matthew, in fact is not just a delightful cuddly sex toy, though he is that: he’s also quite a good actor. He’s real and natural, and he’s just right for the sweet and decent character he plays. He’s created a character who’s almost too good to be true – but not quite! But also spontaneous and natural, graceful even in his most awkward moments. Louis Garrel, who plays Theo, is a good actor with an air of intellectual fervor and dandyism. He’s also a haunting, sexy, powerful force; he’s the quintessential Mediterranean fox, with his lanky body, his long, aquiline nose, his striking pale face and big beautiful needy eyes. Eva Green as Isabelle is beautiful, also tall and statuesque with a lovely body but overly big breasts, which somewhat mar her many naked scenes, especially her pose as the Venus de Milo. She’s a very decent actress, with the voluptuousness of Isabelle Adjani and the soulfulness of Marie Laforet blended together—quite a find, a striking debut. You could just go on about the three young actors for pages: they’re splendid to look at and quite charming.

This is also a time when a European director, thankfully, has managed to make a film in Europe that’s mostly in English and that works – except that Theo talks at lightening speed in French and pretty fast in English and sometimes his English is impossible to follow; Isabelle never is; Theo has more of a French accent, quite pronounced at moments.

Yes, The Dreamers plays to my fantasies – a ménage à trois was an obsession of mine at one time, and the beautiful youths, glamorous Parisian setting, and momentous time, filled with evocations of one of my favorite (maybe my all time favorite) film styles, the French Nouvelle Vague. I admit it. Since Bernardo Bertolucci is around my age, there’s little doubt that he’s reliving his own fantasies, his own fantasies of a time when he was young.

There are those who like The Dreamers but still will say, with some justification, that it's not as thought-provoking as Before the Revolution or The Spider’s Stratagem, and isn't the challenge to its historical moment that Last Tango in Paris was, and who can disagree? But look at what the man did just before this: Stealing Beauty and Besieged. I rest my case. This setting, these characters, these themes got the director going again. He’s running on all eight cylinders. He is too far from the characters physically and emotionally to achieve the exciting edge of Last Tango, but he’s done something lovely.

I don't pretend that my view is unopposed. People either love or hate this movie. On the Italian website FilmUp where commentators rate movies from one to ten, there are as many ones as tens. Despite claims that this is an adolescent boy's and old man's fantasy, there doesn't seem to be any particular link between age and rating.

Aside from its cavalier treatment of the political events of 1968 in Paris, which the story chooses to sidestep in favor of cinema, self development, and sex, the movie also dodges the obvious implication of any ménage à trois -- realized in Adair's book, The Holy Innocents, upon which he based the screenplay: the two guys never get it on. And that's a disappointment and a cop-out.

(YouTube may have a full video of the film here.)

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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