Every lover of film knows that film has the power to mold, change one’s life. It does- or at least we have to believe it does. So it is with any kind of love. But in the spring of 1968, film lovers, for a brief period of time, believed that they could change the world with their love and their art. The removal of Henry Langois, the founder of Cinematheque Francais, lead to a protest for cinema which only proved to be a snowball rolling downhill which grew in to a popular revolt, firebombs, riots, politics and more. It became a worldwide phenomenon and ‘gave birth’ to modern cinema.
I am 24 and love films. I discuss the merits of Chaplin over Keaton, Beatles over Elvis and Hendrix over Clapton in the same breath- in the same breath as the issues of the Vietnam war (assisted by Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July), of Christ (The Passion, Last Temptation), of the holocaust, of everything. The characters in Bernardo Bertolucci’s magnificent ‘The Dreamers’ have a similar belief structure based on what they absorb from film.
So after I got home from this movie, I found myself humming the song ‘Revolution 1’ from The Beatles’ “The White Album”, for no particular reason. Except for the lyrics.
You say you’ll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You better free you mind instead
But if you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao
You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow
Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right
Guess what? “The White Album” came out in 1968. Listen to that song. If it means anything to you, stop reading this review- you will love “The Dreamers”.
Oh, to have been in love and in France. I know nothing of what that would feel like. But to have been in love, in love with film and to have been young in France in the spring of 1968? I think I know something of the feeling- but nothing of the experience. And that is what ‘The Dreamers’ is about. Bertolucci’s film can tell us what it felt like to have been a young wide-eyed, idealist American, Matthew (Michael Pitt) in Paris for a year to learn French in 1968. He can tell us of his experience where his fantasy through films, fantasy through his child-like twin friends Isabelle and Theo and the reality of what was happening on the streets would collide to change his life. But films cannot tell us, and films cannot tell Matthew, how we would react if we were thrown out on the streets in between a screaming mob and the charging police. Sometimes, thought, it seems as though film can and does.
And so it was with Theo and Isabelle- who must always be mentioned in the same breath. And so it was with Matthew. Where they draw the line- between art and their lives- is what makes them different and what will define how they live the rest of their lives.
Matthew (who bears a striking resemblance to a young Brando- which would make this the ‘first tango in Paris’) has been in Paris for some time- lonely, watching films at the Cinematheque and picking up scraps of French. When the revolt begins, he comes in contact with Theo and Isabelle, twins who believe so strongly that they are the same person that they cannot imagine life without the other. They invite Matthew to live with them when their parents are away for a month. What begins as a playful friendship through a love of film and interest in politics spirals in to a fantasy of sex and decadence where the reality outside the window takes a back seat.
Bertolucci’s ‘The Dreamers’ is influenced by film. That is an understatement. Every scene is homage to another from the past, present, foreign, silent and even his own (The Last Tango in Paris). But it does not stop there- his characters, Isabelle and Theo, are living their lives in homage to the films they love. They act out scenes from films and require each other to guess where it is from. Failure to answer correctly would result in some childish, yet provocative punishments. They want the most important moments in their lives to be as they were in the films they adore. Isabelle says she was born in 1959 on the Champs Elysees and her first words were “New York Herald Tribune”- and we cut to the scene from Goddard’s “Breathless” (1959) where Jean Seberg is shouting the same words. We have Bertolucci shooting scenes from past films with his own characters as players- running through the Louvre, chased by their own shadows. But this is not all- the film is not a film for film-buffs to smile and chuckle at their own encyclopedic knowledge of film.
While Matthew loves the twins and what they represent, he views them as an outsider looking in- never fully becoming part of their world of two. His own belief structure and values does not let him- Isabelle and Theo’s belief structure would not allow him in. He is a plaything in their child-like fantasy of decadence and view of the world through art which comes crashing down when the reality of the streets enters their bedroom in the climax and they are forced to make a choice about how they will live their lives.
At that age, can films tell you are? Or should we learn from them and but decide for ourselves. Are we Theo or Matthew? All of us do not get these moments of truth, but on the streets of Paris and around the world in the 60s- this revolution and Vietnam- everyone felt like they had theirs.
It is a film for film buffs to recognize the power and limit of their love for the medium. To quote another film, “The Matrix cannot tell you who you are”. And rightly so- though many young people today think that movie can. You do not need to know of Godard, Truffaut, or even Bertolucci to love this film- though it would help. All you need to have is a love of art, a love of the world and at some point in your life, to have believed that one can change the other.
Notes: This movie is rated NC-17 and yet I have managed
to write a review with no mention of it- what a feat! There are scenes of
total nudity and implied ‘social impropriety’. My point is, who cares? Add that fact to the review above, does it really change your opinion about what I said?