The Dreamers

Revolution as a Gala Dinner and a Game

A close, detailed viewing and extended discussion of the context, plot, and themes of Bertolucci’s controversial masterwork.

Steven Q. Fletcher

Part 1. A few things to consider before watching the film (no spoilers):

Perhaps it is best to begin our reading of The Dreamers (2003) with a brief history lesson, although the film, as will be repeated later for emphasis, is not essentially about history, or politics, or anything else quite so academic, but is instead a coming-of-age story about three youths. However, The Dreamers is set in Paris in the year 1968—a significant moment in history, for it was a time when many in the western world believed that protest, particularly student protest, held the power to force major changes in the way societies’ governing institutions operated.

Revolution of all sorts was in the air: in America, the 1967 Summer of Love’s flower children had shown themselves to be the spiritual inheritors of the alienated bohemians and beatniks who had come before, and in Britain and France—and much of the rest of Europe as well—counterculture musicians, writers, and political activists were calling for an end to the war in Vietnam. But the charges of imperial aggression—warranted or not—were not the only rallying points for the youthful reformers. Denouncing the prevailing culture as corrupt and immoral, they heaped scorn on what they contemptuously labeled “the Establishment,” and turned against the values of the middle class, envisioning instead a “New Republic” based on a more open sexuality, new styles of art such as rock and roll, a revamped cinema, and the use of consciousness-altering drugs.

Preceding the more physical protests to come in 1968, students in certain overcrowded Parisian universities quarreled with school administrators over the right to receive members of the opposite sex in their dormitories—for political and scholastic reasons as well as the more traditional ones. Because of this and other problems, an overflow university was established outside Paris in the working class suburb of Nanterre. Eventually nineteen thousand students were crammed into inadequate facilities, and the school and its neighboring cafés became a fermentation tank for political unrest, fueled by the writings of such idolized figures as Che Guevara and Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (the highly influential la Nouvelle Vague director Jean-Luc Godard even filmed a movie in 1967 entitled La ChinoiseThe Chinese—showing a group of French students infatuated with Mao, who eventually translate their new ideas into terrorist activities).

In March of 1968 the students of Nanterre revolted against the administration, and baton-wielding police and rock-throwing students clashed. Afterwards, students and workers alike rallied around an arrested student leader (Daniel Cohn-Bendit) and the wave of protesters spilled out of Nanterre and into Paris. The protests became all-inclusive in nature, railing against all the authority figures the students and young workers considered oppressive, against the consumer-driven lifestyle of the bourgeoisie, and of course against the military policies of various governments—not just that of France.

On May 3rd, the ranks of the protestors swelled as the government reacted harshly to quell the unrest; in a major skirmish more than a hundred protesters were hurt and more than six hundred were carted away by French riot police. You’ll see these policeman reenacted in the movie and shown in archival footage; they are terrifying in their black uniforms and faceless masks, hurling tear gas canisters and striking savagely with their batons from behind a wall of shields held before them like those of the Spartan warriors at Thermopylae.

On May 6th, an even larger demonstration again turned violent, with hundreds more injured and arrested. Classes were suspended at Nanterre and the Sorbonne in Paris, and many workers unions called for general strikes. By mid-May, millions of workers were on strike, and many of the major industries were shut down. Paris became a barricaded city, and travel throughout the country became problematic, if not impossible. The Cannes film festival of 1968 was cancelled. On May 30th, close to half a million protestors marched through Paris chanting “Adieu, de Gaulle!” But the president stood his ground, and, backed by the military, somehow managed to pull the country back from the brink of collapse, and even succeeded in banning several of the left-wing student organizations that had precipitated the crisis.

Very little of these events are present in The Dreamers. But all this pervasive history is there as a living backdrop—one can almost peer around the edges of the screen and see the men in riot gear, hear the students marching in the streets, even catch a whiff of the tear gas. At the beginning of the movie there is a protest happening because Henri Langlois, the founder and director of the Cinémathèque Française (the Paris-based film theater and museum which is the Holy of Holies to our three main characters, cinephiles all) has been removed from office by the government, and the theater barricaded. The actual protest happened on the 14th of February; three thousand people showed up including many famous directors and actors. The police attacked after the protest turned violent; eventually the horrific event shamed the government into reinstating Langlois. In the movie these events make the actions of the authorities personally oppressive to our protagonists, and set into motion the plot of The Dreamers.

* * *

However, the movie, let me now repeat, is not about the revolution of 1968. It is instead about the intense relationships that evolve between three teenagers on the cusp of adulthood in a time of revolution: Matthew, the naïve American visiting France by himself for the first time, and Theo and Isabelle, the sophisticated yet immature twins who have grown up in Paris under the overly permissive care of their father, a famous but increasingly irrelevant French poet.

As mentioned, all three friends are cinephiles—mad for films—and Paris in the sixties was the perfect place to exist for such creatures. It is within the culture of incessant movie-going that they meet, and it is about movies that they ponder, dream, and spend their hours discussing. During The Dreamers many clips of other films are shown to illustrate the inner thoughts of the characters. You can usually understand what is meant by these cinematic quotations: many times the characters themselves identify and explain them. However, I will address some of the more important filmic allusions in my analysis of the film.

The three friends find themselves thrown together more and more in a special time of self-discovery and revolution, and eventually find themselves living in a kind of dream world that is at once beautiful, perilous, and unique—and as fleeting as all days of youth and love’s first dawning.

In the film’s “making of” documentary, director Bernardo Bertolucci has this to say about the time period which he himself lived through and has re-imagined in The Dreamers:

“I don’t want to say that 1968 was a magic moment . . . but almost. The fact is that we were, let’s use the word “dreaming” together cinema, politics, music, jazz, rock and roll—and sex—and the discovery of how these things could be conjugated together and how they could interact between each other, how they could really be mixed up in a kind of harmony that I don’t see today.”

This film, then, is an attempt to portray a very special kind of dreaming—a kind of dreaming that is only possible when the world seems balanced on a knife’s edge of change, when one is young and all things are new, all things are possible, and every moment’s now is all that there is—a time when one doesn’t have a lifetime of painful experience to tell one that certain things simply cannot—or should not—be done.

Part 2. An analysis of The Dreamers:

“Bliss it was to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven.”

—William Wordsworth, writing at age seventeen upon the eve of the French Revolution

The soundtrack of The Dreamers kicks off with the instantly identifiable rock/blues of Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun”—instantly identifiable, that is, to anyone like me who happened to be a teenager in the late 1960s. The haze of sound rhythmically bangs and growls as the camera begins a determined freefall down that most iconic of French structures, La Tour Eiffel. It’s as if we are entering first France, then Paris, and finally the story itself through the city’s most prominent node, through its loftiest antennae pulling in the outside world—in fact, it is through one of the radio antennas on that tower that the people of Paris might first have heard the same music that we hear now. (Incidentally, it is interesting to note that Bertolucci used the exact reverse technique to begin his 1990 film The Sheltering Sky: the camera begins at street level in New York City and pans steadily up during the credits until we are above the skyline—the point there being that instead of entering the city we are leaving it behind—and the civilized lifestyle it represents—for the duration of the film, which takes place in Africa.)

As we descend we might take a moment and reflect what the Eiffel Tower means and has meant to the people of France: it was completed in 1889 as the crowning achievement of the Paris World Fair, itself the centennial celebration of the French Revolution. And, as the art critic Robert Hughes points out in The Shock of the New, the designers of the tower meant it “to illustrate the triumph of the present over the past, the victory of industrial over landed wealth that represented the essential economic difference between the Third Republic and the Ancien Regime.” So even if Bertolucci wasn’t consciously trying to do so, he begins with one of the most potent symbols of change available to him while simultaneously establishing the film’s locale (and I can’t help wondering if Bertolucci is also in some small way parodying the well-observed Hollywood cliché that all movies set in Paris—American movies at least—somehow manage to show the Eiffel Tower lurking outside nearly every window!).

Hughes also points out something else that I would like to connect with The Dreamers. When the tower was built, it was of course a marvel of new technology, but it was also quite consciously a work of art. And the hundreds of thousands who came to experience this work of art, who climbed up into it and saw the ground from a thousand feet in the air, were given a new vision of the earth they lived upon. In the years before flight, this was their first aerial view of their great city and its surrounding countryside, and they were changed by the sight—by this granting of new perspectives. In a similar way, the mechanical marvel of the motion picture also grants new perspectives—and The Dreamers in particular is quite consciously concerned with how people may become obsessed by these perspectives, and consequently form unique communities.

When we get to the bottom of the tower we find Matthew waiting for us, our clean-cut All-American Boy, a bemused expression on his face as he sets off for yet another visit to a cinema in a life we soon learn is wholly consecrated to this activity. As he walks over the Seine, Hendrix’s song begins to fade, giving way to the yet unexplained sound of police sirens (a bit of sonic foreshadowing), although if we listen closely, we can still hear the explorer from another world uttering his quiet longings:

Oh strange beautiful grass of green
With your majestic silken scenes
Your mysterious mountains
I wish to see closer
May I land my kinky machine?

The song is perfectly chosen, for Matthew is also a traveler from afar come to explore an alien—and soon to prove quite “kinky”—civilization. He is also our point of entry into the human aspect of the film—his is the consciousness we cling to as we, too, find our way around Paris early in 1968; his is the character that is the most “normal” at the beginning, the one through whom we will vicariously experience a series of seismic events that will shift everyday reality as the events of the film play out. And so, fittingly it is Matthew’s narration that begins the story of The Dreamers—once the sirens have passed and “Third Stone From the Sun” can be heard again.

Matthew muses on the fact that only the French would house a cinema inside a palace (Cinémathèque Française). And then, seated along with him in this very cinema, we see our first film clip: Samuel Fuller’s brutal Shock Corridor (1963). It is the story of a journalist who voluntarily enters an insane asylum, posing as an inmate in order to solve a murder—i.e. to pursue knowledge he does not yet have. But after total immersion in the bizarre culture of the mad, he himself becomes insane. The excerpts we are shown are perhaps the most dramatic that Shock Corridor contains—hallucinatory scenes of the asylum corridor being ravaged by floods and lightning and epic waterfalls, along with scenes of the insane shrieking in hopeless desperation. Matthew comments on the hypnotic quality of these powerful images; we are thus left to wonder about any parallels between the protagonist’s displacement in Shock Corridor and the displacement of our naïve twenty-year-old in a country we soon learn is also “going mad”—a madness in both its public and private manifestations that Matthew will have to guard against if he is not to succumb like the protagonist of Fuller’s movie.

But that, of course, is getting ahead of ourselves. As the same images play over Matthew and the two other adolescents he has not yet encountered, he declares that his real education is not occurring in the classroom but springs instead from his membership in what he describes as “kind of a freemasonry—a freemasonry of cinephiles, what we called film buffs.” He wonders, too, if the movie screen itself “screened us from the world.” This is perhaps just another form of the questions that aesthetes have been asking themselves since the beginnings of culture about the consequences of giving oneself over to art. In The Dreamers the question is fruitfully explored even if a definitive answer does not await us in the final reel.

* * *

“But there was one evening, in the spring of 1968, when the world finally burst through the screen.” In saying this Matthew verbally expresses the metaphor of something breaking through from one reality into another; this metaphor will be echoed visually and concretely near the end of the film, providing something of a cyclical structure to the work. Here he is talking about the protest over the government’s firing of Henry Langlois, the national film curator and director of the Cinémathèque Française. Bertolucci, in order to accomplish his stated goal for this sequence (“I wanted to put together the present and the past.”) deliberately crosscuts between archival and newly filmed footage of the event, to the extent of showing several of the same speakers reading from their manifestos of over three decades before. Matthew immediately realizes how significantly this real-world event affects him and his fellow cinephiles: “It was our very own cultural revolution.”

The camera eye wanders through the crowd of petition-signing students until it comes to rest on our heroine Isabelle, looking like a sexy Che Guevara with her red beret and cigarette, her expression the resigned but defiant one a condemned prisoner shows before the final command is barked to the firing squad. The camera wanders down her lithe body to reveal chains encircling her wrists. Then follows the reaction shot: Matthew sees her, and realistically enough cannot believe she is speaking to him: Can he remove her cigarette?—it has become stuck to her lips.

She tells him that she’s seen him at the cinema; he says he’s American and is always alone because he doesn’t know anyone. He asks why she’s chained to the padlocked theater gate—and we have the first example of things not being what they appear to be. With a flourish she frees herself, unmasking the deceit—she has merely made it look like she has chained herself up.

So much for the Revolution! After all, one wouldn’t want it to interfere with dinner, or, perhaps more precisely, the next matinee. But then again, a number of revolutionaries have stated that revolution is, in the last analysis, merely a specialized kind of theater. And what is more fitting that a cinephile, protesting for the inalienable rights of cinephiles, should make use of an illusion? Nevertheless, it does make us wonder about the seriousness of Isabelle’s commitment to The Cause—and, by extension, about her ability to commit to any cause which might prove inconvenient.

Something else happens at this encounter. Isabelle tells Matthew that her brother Theo has gone to talk to a revolutionary named Jacques. “If shit could shit, it would smell just like Jacques,” she says, shocking us with her gleeful profanity, fanning at imaginary odors and wrinkling her face in a way which tells us right away we are not dealing with a classically classy femme fatale. But then she entreats Matthew to sniff likewise distastefully when her brother approaches.

Embarrassed, he refuses this first overture to join into The Game—that ongoing private competition through which the psychologically intertwined siblings create their intimate, privileged, and subjective reality. (The conceit of The Game was implicitly adopted by screenwriter Gilbert Adair from that of the twin protagonists of Jean Cocteau’s 1929 novel, Les enfants terribles.) However, it will not be long before Matthew becomes, at least for a while, an uneasy member of this juvenile society, with its secret codes and constant loyalty tests for new pledges.

Significantly, when Isabelle introduces Matthew to her brother, Theo does not offer a welcoming smile or proffer a hand to shake. Instead, he takes a seat above him on the theater steps, like any judge preparing to pass sentence on a supplicant—or upon an applicant for admission to a select society. The questions are of course all about films and film directors—because for these young people these concepts are their Apostles’ Creed when it comes to the defining who they are and precisely what they believe in—and to deciding whether or not they are worshipping in the right denomination.

However, before Theo can pass judgment, the whirlwind is upon them all in the form of jack-booted riot police. We see the rioters scattered, some falling under a rain of batons. The scene then cuts away in time and space to a literal rain shimmering in the lamplit streets of Paris, with the sounds of rioting still present, but slowly dying away. The trio walks and talks into the now quiet urban darkness, and Matthew thinks himself in heaven with his newfound friends, hoping the night will last forever: “He who has not lived in the years before the revolution cannot know what the sweetness of living is.” (The quotation—not in the movie—is by Talleyrand, a French diplomat who survived the French Revolution, and was used by Bertolucci as the epigram to his early film Before the Revolution, although he now claims its use was ironic.)

* * *

When Matthew asks about her background, Isabelle immediately claims that she entered the world in 1959, and that her first words were “New York Herald Tribune! New York Herald Tribune!” which she bawled out along the pavements of the Champs-Elysées. Suddenly we see a film clip of Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de soufflé (Breathless) with the actress Jean Seberg hawking the aforementioned newspapers along that famous boulevard, and we hear her cries interspersed with Isabelle’s.

The meaning of this particular filmic quotation is straightforward. Godard and the other Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) French directors of the late fifties and early sixties (including Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette) were credited by many of the young cinephiles with virtually reinventing the cinema. Breathless in particular was heralded as a groundbreaking work with its extensive use of street locations, handheld cameras, self-conscious references to previous films, the obvious and disruptive use of editing (jump-cutting), and character asides—in short, it was everything that traditional Hollywood cinema was not. And, not unimportantly, it was made for much less money by much fewer people: a stylistic revolution which (purportedly) liberated moviemaking for the underfunded masses.

Isabelle’s assertion that her life began with Breathless thus refers to her private sense of her own self being “born” into her present existence as a cinema enthusiast. If her assertion was taken literally, she would only be nine years old in 1968, the “present” of The Dreamers. Since Godard’s work was for her the spiritual rebirth of cinema, it was also naturally the source of her own spiritual rebirth. Thus, with a well-chosen example, Bertolucci shows us how his own film is to operate via his method of filmic quotations (such allusions being quite common for the Nouvelle Vague directors themselves) while simultaneously giving us a strong insight into how a major character perceives her own reality.

* * *

The Game continues when the twins thrust Matthew into an elevator by himself and race him to their apartment door. “We’re very contagious!” Isabelle shouts through the iron bars of the lift. “You mustn’t catch us!” But, of course, that is exactly what Matthew is about to do. We sense that he is more than ready to open himself up to this particular contagion.

The twins’ apartment is a masterpiece of set choice and design. It is comfortable in a solid intellectual bourgeois way, but mildly labyrinthine instead of dauntingly grand. Of course it must have seemed like a place of infinite mystery and richness to Matthew, coming straight from his sordid hotel room on the Rive Gauche, and before that the sterile suburbs of San Diego. Bertolucci said that “the apartment has to become little by little, like a prison.” But there is little hint of what is to come on the evening of the first night when Matthew comes to dinner to meet the parents.

The twins’ English mother is much put upon, and is apparently resigned to her high-spirited, selfish children, who have not bothered to inform her that she needs to prepare extra fare for a guest.

The famous French poet who is their father is approached a bit more warily. Isabelle straightens Matthew’s tie, and presents him with all the ceremony she might a declared suitor, which at this point he is not. After a polite handshake in the sacred study, there is an abrupt cut to Papa holding forth at the dinner table, his eyes glowing with self-congratulatory ardor as he lectures “My young Matthew” in just the right tones of abject humility, about how he, as a poet, can only wait as a poor handmaiden for those brief moments when Inspiration deigns to alight upon him. Although the bored expressions of his own children go unreproved, Papa’s homily stops when he realizes that Matthew is not gazing into his eyes, earnestly imbibing the Truth of Experience being so freely proffered, but is instead fiddling with a cigarette lighter. Mildly outraged, Papa calls Matthew on this rudeness, and won’t let him off the hook with a simple apology, pushing him to explain his behavior despite his wife’s reminder that Matthew is a guest.

In a halting voice, supporting the truth of his words by the simple means of showing how Isabelle’s lighter is the same size as the patterns on the tablecloth, Matthew slowly builds what is nothing less than a syllogism proving something very much like a divine plan.

I was noticing the more you look at everything—this table, the objects on it, the refrigerator, this room, your nose, the, the world—suddenly, you realize that there’s some kind of cosmic harmony of shapes and sizes. I was just wondering why. I don’t know why that is; I know that it is.

This unexpected demonstration of metaphysical connectivity by the seemingly absent boy stuns the father, along with everyone else. The irony, of course, is here the great poet has been going on as if he is imparting invaluable advice about how one must be open to inspiration—but it seems he has actually been dishing out stale canned goods, while Matthew has been too occupied ingesting the genuine nectar to pay him any mind. Papa praises Matthew, but cannot stop himself from immediately turning the boy’s idea of order seen from a godlike perspective into a call for political tolerance and patience with the authorities (why protest against disorder or injustice that is merely the result of an imperfect perception?)—a position that Theo will have none of. Young people, despite what they may say when philosophizing over Chateau Lafitte and Chateaubriand, are not all that practiced at looking at life sub specie aeternitas (from an eternal aspect): for them life is all happening now, or in the very immediate future.

The father is, unfortunately, the symbol at hand of those oppressive authorities in the larger culture that his children have come to detest. He is partly to blame for the position he finds himself in—it is he who has encouraged them to read and to think and to value the role of subversive art in society. Although still wanting to think of himself in some ways as an idealist and as an artist whose work still retains some power to reform, he does not share the optimism of youth that allows one to believe that society can be changed by chanting slogans and marching in the streets. But he does not fight very hard to persuade his children to his famous assertion that poems are the only petitions one needs to put forth; ultimately we sense that it is his own personal knowledge of the corruption of the authorities that forces him to accept being insulted, and later on to abdicate his rightful authority as a parent. He is, as Bertolucci notes, a weak and compromised figure, who exits the dinner party as a vanquished foe limps from the field of battle.

* * *

Matthew looks uneasy when Isabelle kisses Theo goodnight on the lips—he is still very much on the threshold of their private world, closely scanning whatever signs that might reveal to him the true nature of the landscape. When she comes to kiss him, she catches on fire—literally!—when a dinner candle ignites her hair. A critic may perhaps read something highly symbolic into this bit of spontaneous combustion, but in my case it could only be done in full knowledge of the director’s disclosure that it was a completely unscripted accident—one, however, that he was happy to leave in the completed film, since his young actors were able to appropriate the incident quite seamlessly into the context of the moment, a moment when it seemed, especially to Matthew, that all things were possible. (And yet is it extremely hard not to say that Matthew brings, or attempts to bring, a spark of change into the other’s lives—and to bemoan the eventual fate of all who would play Prometheus!)

Welcoming an invitation to spend the night, Matthew is immediately intrigued by the reproduction of a painting on the wall in his bedroom. It is a poster of La Liberté guidant le people (Liberty leading the people) by Eugene Delacroix. It was painted to commemorate the successful revolution in 1830 when the French people dethroned Charles X, the last of the Bourbons, and replaced him with Louis-Philippe, the Duc d’Orléans. What is interesting is that the painting has been defaced—literally—and a new face has been pasted atop the allegorical features of Liberty (who is represented by a bold, bare-breasted female waving the French tricolor flag in the midst of battle). This new face belongs to screen icon Marilyn Monroe—at first glance, an odd choice to replace the militant original.

Once again Bertolucci has worked the background consciousness of revolution into the frame, yet here it is done in service of character development, reiterating as it does the twins’ belief—indeed, their lived experience—that movies are themselves a potent force for radical change. So it is that, after a small amount of reflection, we can see that poor Norma Jean’s celebrated features are not so ill-chosen after all—if the mythical face of Helen launched so many ships of war, could not the much more famous visage of a modern starlet do at least as much? But of course, it is the symbolism that matters: in the twin’s revisionist image, a traditional figure of revolution has been given a new face, a face belonging to the masses. Andy Warhol well knew the power of that face when he silk-screened it, ad nauseum, onto many canvases (which of course now hang in the same museums as works by Delacroix).

Sleeping beneath this strange palimpsest, Matthew wakes in the night with a start, and goes into the labyrinth in urgent search of une toilette. Finding the twins’ bathroom, he urinates in the sink; we see the yellow stream, then a toothbrush tumbling into it, which we later learn to be Theo’s (which Matthew then politely refuses when Theo generously offers him its use). The contaminated toothbrush is an instance of foreshadowing, for Matthew is eventually going to “contaminate” some other intimate possession of Theo’s—we get a clue as to what this is on the way back to Matthew’s bedroom.

We’re not quite sure why Matthew pauses at a door that is almost, but not completely, closed, and slowly, carefully, pulls it open. Does he think it is his room? Or does he guess perhaps it is Isabelle’s? Whatever he thinks, he is unprepared for what he finds: The door opens slowly, widening the frame like a curtain pulled open to reveal a tableaux: the twins are asleep in bed together with their legs intertwined, Theo naked, Isabelle nearly (and this is significant) but not completely so. The camera cuts from this long horizontal sprawl of flesh to the stunned eyes of Matthew; this back and forth reaction shot is repeated for effect. Silently but palpably the word “incest” is whispered in Matthew’s—and the viewer’s—ear.

As if to underscore the wildness of this residence and to give a premonition of the strange days to come, the scene then cuts immediately to the predawn boulevard in front of the apartment, where the parents are leaving. No words are spoken—it is if they are fleeing the scene of a disaster, or one about to occur. They jump into their car and roar off, making good their getaway. The old chestnut comes easily to mind: The inmates have taken over the asylum.

* * *

Isabelle licks Matthew eyes to wake him, an intimate operation she claims to perform on Theo every morning—and upon reflection such an act is perhaps understandable between cinephiles, since she immediately wishes Matthew to “see” which film she is evoking with her languorous glances around the room and her caressing of various objects. He immediately identifies the 1934 American release Queen Christina, a dramatization of the life of the seventeenth-century queen of Sweden, starring Greta Garbo. In the scene alluded to, Queen Christina ardently expresses her wish to remember everything about the room she must soon leave, a bedchamber in a country inn where she has just spent a passionate night with the Spanish ambassador Don Antonio de la Prada (John Gilbert).

The scene in Isabelle’s bedroom and the scene in Queen Christina’s are about how lives are changed by new relationships. There are some relevant analogies between the two pairs—remember that when Matthew first met Isabelle she was playing a traditionally masculine role of revolutionary in her Che Guevara guise; when Antonio and Christina first met, Christina was traveling incognito in the guise of a man. Like Matthew, Antonio is also a stranger in a strange land, a foreigner who is often feels out of place in his new friend’s country. And although they do not meet at a movie theater, when Christina and Antonio have their first conversation at the inn, they immediately speak of art and literature, Christina saying to the Spaniard, “I shall like news of your countrymen . . . I shall like news of Velasquez. Has he painted any new works recently? And what of Calderon? He writes plays so quickly there must be new ones since last I heard.” We can thus easily imagine her speaking instead of films and directors if these had been a part of Baroque culture.

After this bit of cinematic invocation is finished, Isabelle tells Matthew to hurry up and follow her to the bathroom they will all share. From his window he spies on the scantily clad twins going about their carefree ablutions; we readily understand his nervousness about joining them. When he finally does, he is fully dressed even to the extent of wearing a jacket and tie—he is already finding ways to maintain his individuality against what he realizes to be a friendly yet ongoing attack. After courteously but firmly refusing the loan of Theo’s night-soiled toothbrush, he is clumsily brushing his teeth with a finger when Isabelle emerges, Venus-like, from the porcelain shell of the bathtub, and tries to apply lipstick to what she describes as his “So red . . . and ripe and luscious . . . So sullen, brutal” lips.

Her comments show that he is not altogether real to her—he is but another plaything, another contestant in The Game, another character in the unscripted movie the twins are making of their lives. Matthew can be the Spanish ambassador in one scene and a girl with painted lips in the next, for there is no master script, there is only whatever the fancy of the moment dictates. Of course Matthew is attracted by the strangeness and the novelty of all this, and also by the undercurrent of sex and experimentation not only in the twins’ flat but seemingly permeating the whole French culture. Yet simultaneously he is also trying to become himself, to find his own identity amid the flux around him (this quest being, of course, the eternal task of all who would become authentic—all who would leave the swaddling clothes of childhood’s assigned roles and step into the freedom and terror of autonomy). Matthew therefore accepts the twins’ offer to move into the apartment now abandoned by parental authority—but he does not let Isabelle put lipstick on him and make him into an androgynous object for the twins’ amusement.

* * *

Soon we see Matthew and Theo having one of what we must presume are many such “theological” (no pun intended!) disputes—this one being about which classic film director/comedian was greater, Keaton or Chaplin. Their disagreement is punctuated by brief film clips of both, and ends with Theo placing in evidence the classic last scene from City Lights, where, according to Theo’s interpretation, we see the world-famous Chaplin visage as if for the first time because we have identified with the heroine, who is only at that point seeing him for the first time because she has just received an operation to restore her sight (made possible through great sacrifices made by The Little Tramp).

I don’t believe there is any way to finally settle such a comparison between Hollywood icons, but, not surprisingly, Matthew offers nothing in rebuttal after Theo asserts this last point. This is presumably because it goes right to the heart of what great cinema is and does. If the film has done its work, as Theo argues that it does—and Bertolucci screens the scene right there in front of us to plead Theo’s case—then the filmgoer has been granted a climactic moment of cinematic empathy, and that empathy is what makes the film work, what makes it universal and timeless. We may never have been poor or blind like the girl in the film, and we ourselves may have seen Charlie Chaplin’s face a hundred or even a thousand times before we encounter this closing scene, but if we have fully entered into the world of City Lights (this being not really possible through just watching the few seconds shown in The Dreamers) then we will see the face as we imagine she sees it, with all its attributes of shyness, devotion, and love.

This argument about Keaton vs. Chaplin is almost an archetypal one, pulling us strongly into the world of The Dreamers, where one’s stand on such questions are more important than one’s politics. The question is of course left unresolved, being quickly superseded by a less intellectual squabble between the twins as Theo tries to make Isabelle stop playing Janis Joplin records non-stop. As the two wrestle physically, Isabelle shouts for Matthew to identify a film in which a character is driven crazy by someone tap dancing. We get the clue as Matthew struggles to remember: a film clip plays of Fred Astaire dancing in Top Hat; the camera eye slowly panning down to a startled Ginger Rogers sitting up in her bed in the apartment below. Matthew shouts out the correct answer, and adds: “She’s mad because he wakes her up.” It should come as no surprise that in a movie entitled The Dreamers we will begin to note that rude awakenings, both figuratively and literally, serve as a recurring motif.

* * *

The twins are very impressed with Matthew’s cinematic savvy, and suddenly Isabelle cannot contain her excitement, telling him that she and Theo have finally found their third partner for a long-proposed reenactment, this being a definitive act of homage to a film by the same director who presumably brought Isabelle to life along the Champs-Elysées in 1959—Jean-Luc Godard. In his 1964 film Bande à part (a.k.a. Band of Outsiders), there is a scene where the three central characters sprint through the long galleries of the Musée du Louvre, trying to break a previous record (just under ten minutes) for this pointedly pointless deed. With religious zeal, Isabelle informs Matthew that he must join the twins on a similar race to beat the time set in the movie; she doesn’t seem to care a fig that he could be caught and deported (or, at least, she refuses to acknowledge the possibility of this—after all, they got away with it in the Godard movie!). Despite his heartfelt protest “It’s a movie!” she makes it very clear to him that he is facing a test he cannot avoid if he wishes to bond with the twins in a deeper sense.

After this ultimatum by Isabelle, the scene jump-cuts immediately (Jean-Luc Godard style) to the trio racing through the venerable museum, their exploit intercut several times with parallel shots from the film they are imitating—indeed, if it was not for the fact that Godard’s movie was photographed on black and white stock, this switching back and forth between the two sets of runners might almost go unnoticed. We are thus imagining what Isabelle, Theo, and perhaps even Matthew are imagining as they rocket unseeing past the sacred artifacts of much older schools of art, attesting through action their profound allegiance to the youngest member of the arts family, modern cinema.

Before proceeding we must note that it is here that Matthew takes the biggest risks in order to be accepted. By committing a public disturbance, he risks losing everything he has grown to love—his life in his newly adopted country, which includes his Paris schooling; his residence in one of the few places in the world at that time where cinephiles were assured of a rich and varied diet; and, perhaps most of all, he risks sacrificing his newfound relationships with Isabelle and Theo. For the sake of gratifying what is perhaps only a childish fancy, in the same way that a child must eat a worm or take some other pointless dare to “prove” himself worthy of membership in a group, he has surrendered his autonomy and dignity. We must not fail to note this, and to wonder if it does not have something to do with the finally more independent and outspoken Matthew we see emerging as the film continues.

We mustn’t miss some of the obvious parallels between The Dreamers and Bande à part, or even a few things not so obvious. Both films focus on three young protagonists, two males and a female. There are sexual complications and jealousy in both films also, but I think that simply stating this fact is sufficient here. The characters in Bande à part are likewise obsessed with movies, to the point of also acting out a scene from a film (for them it’s Pat Garrett shooting Billy the Kid). Both films present the characters in a kind of an existential void—they are all waiting for something to happen, or to make something happen, and in the meantime they neglect their schooling, and look for ways to pass the time, which includes running through museums. Both trios believe themselves to be unique, a class unto themselves, outsiders—hence the title of Godard’s work, and the film clip from Freaks which immediately follows the triumphant run of Matthew and the twins. In each film there is also a threat of violence and even chaos lurking behind the seemingly youthful innocence or veneer of sophistication the characters exhibit: the wake-up calls must come eventually, and neither film ends with the dreamers still dreaming.

* * *

If you have a sharp eye, you might have noticed that the camera lens in The Dreamers lingers on a specific painting as the runners traverse the Louvre gallery. It is a big canvas (128 by 165 inches) showing on its left side three Roman brothers each extending an arm up in the air toward their father, who likewise extends an arm to them, his proffering three swords; on its right side the painting shows three sisters with two children. This is another famous and influential painting from French history; it is The Oath of the Horatii, which was painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1784, in the troubled times just before the French Revolution. The brothers shown are the “Horatii”: these were the triplets destined to fight another pair of triplets (the “Curiatii”) in order to settle a disagreement between Rome and the neighboring city of Alba Longa. Their hands are raised in an oath of allegiance to the state, perhaps even making a declaration to die if necessary in its defense (according to my research, the actual historical account of the Horatii in Livy mentions no oath—it was an invention of the painter).

The painting became a famous icon of the French Revolution, with the brothers and their oath representing unwavering allegiance to one’s country and the acceptance of the sacred duty to defend it against all threats. The message is thus to give one’s primary loyalty to the state rather than to one’s family, religion, or any other belief system. Jacques-Louis David wanted to emphasize that the oath is sworn even though one of the Horatii’s sisters is betrothed to one of the Curiatii, and one of the Horatii’s sisters is actually married to one of the Curiatii. Public obligation is thus shown to be more important than any private considerations.

One does not have to speculate very hard to imagine how the message of this work of propaganda would be received by any of the young protagonists in either Godard’s or Bertolucci’s films, who race by it with nary a sidelong glance. In The Dreamers, the state is seen as an enemy to be resisted when it interferes with one’s personal freedom, most particularly when that interference affects the operating hours of movie houses. The transmission of duty from father to siblings signified in the painting by the accord of outstretched arms and the father’s bequest of swords, is a transmission portrayed as broken in The Dreamers, a point easily demonstrated by Theo’s contempt for his father: when they return home from the museum, the phone rings and the twins, thinking it’s their parents, ignore it, with Theo then commenting, “Isabelle’s smart, but she doesn’t know how to deal with parents—I mean, it’s not enough to ignore them. They should all be arrested, put on trial, confess their crimes, sent to the country for self-criticism and reeducation!”

After their triumphal entry into self-proclaimed glory, our three imitators of Godard ironically crown their conformity by declaring themselves their own Bande à part by chanting the initiatory rite from the ultimate outsider movie, Freaks—Tod Browning’s horror/melodrama filmed amid real 1930s carnival folk:

Gooble, gobble.
Gooble, gobble.
We accept him, one of us!
One of us!

Browning, himself a child of the circus, aimed his camera sympathetically yet unsentimentally at a full cast of deformed sideshow attractions, including “pinheads” (microcephalics), conjoined Siamese twins, multiple amputees, midgets, a bearded lady, and various other malformed yet humanized characters. At first glance this is quite a strange film for our beautiful youths to identify with, but so powerful is the aesthetic aura of classic film for them that its paean to individualism is all that they see and thus co-opt for their own purposes.

* * *

They return to the apartment in a Paris downpour. A sodden Matthew is invited by Theo into his room to receive dry clothes. Reluctantly Matthew accepts; we sense he is shy about nudity—and there is possibly an undercurrent of homosexual tension in the air as Theo immediately doffs his clothes while Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” plays on the soundtrack, and Matthew uncomfortably looks away. It is only a few minutes later that Matthew strongly reasserts his heterosexuality by stealing a revealing snapshot of Eva and placing it in his underpants for safekeeping.

This is a good place to mention that Gilbert Adair—the screenwriter of the film and author of the novel The Dreamers is adapted from—is gay, and that the novel contains a homoerotic relationship between Theo and Matthew. But Bertolucci felt that a homosexual relationship would have made the movie “too heavy,” and his screenwriter agreed. They both also felt that to push their heterosexual actors into performing acts outside their own native predilections would have been difficult for all concerned. But I believe that Bertolucci succeeded quite well in establishing a setting so fraught with a sense of sexual and emotional exploration and the curiosity of new sensations that there is a genuine sexual tension between Theo and Matthew that sometimes manifests itself in moments of awkwardness, sometimes in acts of affection, and other times in thinly disguised—if disguised at all—hostility.

The Game continues, with Theo soon having to pay a startling forfeit by masturbating in front of the others. Somewhat predictably, he performs this activity while gazing upon a poster of a film star (Marlene Dietrich); we learn from Isabelle that this has been a usual practice. Afterwards Theo (after failing to get Matthew to confess to being aroused while watching) tells him that Isabelle’s penalty wasn’t unwelcome in the least, because the two of them are almost the same person (Siamese twins, joined “here” Theo says, tapping his forehead significantly). In a troubled voiceover Matthew confides: “Deep down I knew things couldn’t go on as before. Now the stakes had been raised.”

And indeed they have been. For the next forfeit is levied by Theo upon both Isabelle and Matthew, who fail to guess an allusion to a gang war death scene in the movie Scarface—an appropriately startling image to signal the jump in emotional intensity to follow (I can’t help wondering if Bertolucci is making a cinematic joke of sorts—all the deaths in Scarface are overlaid by a shadowy X, and the scene to follow in The Dreamers is very nearly X-rated). And it might be said—by Theo at least—that his imposed forfeit is simply continuing the tradition of giving people as punishment what in fact they actually want—which in this case is sexual intercourse between Isabelle and Matthew.

Isabelle and Matthew both act flabbergasted, but Isabelle’s response may not be all that genuine; if it is, she certainly recovers her usual aplomb quite readily. A few moments later she is doing a languorous striptease to crooner Charles Trenet’s “La Mer”—this while Theo grins in delight and Matthew stares in wild unbelief, before excusing himself with the childish canard, “I gotta go to the bathroom!”

There follows a semi-comic, semi-violent interlude, in which shots of a nearly naked Isabelle sensuously undulating before a seemingly appreciative statue of Chairman Mao (not the only time sex and revolution are to be obliquely linked) are noisily intercut with glimpses of the fleeing Matthew doggedly pursued by Theo, who will have his pound of flesh.

There is no escape for Matthew. He is roughly caught, protesting the aggressive tactics of Theo, and thereby expressing, significantly not for the last time in the film, his antipathy to violence. He is caught between the combative assertiveness of the brother and the cool domination of the sister, both working together here, his twin adversaries in The Game that he has until now resisted playing in its most demanding version. And so our poor Matthew is overwhelmed—overwhelmed by the outrageousness of brutality, overwhelmed by the intoxication of beauty. He ultimately swoons, and, when he rallies, all fight is gone from him. He wants only love and comfort. And so he lowers himself onto the waiting Isabelle, and, in a scene both touching and yet at times deliberately banal, the two virgins lose their innocence.

[Continued in Part Two . . . ]

, Ph.D. is Adjunct Professor of English at Blue Ridge Community College in lovely central Virginia. He teaches courses in World Literature and also a course in Film and Literature.

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posted by editor ::: May 04, 2008 ::: philms ::: (0) Comments