Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers is one of the best films of 2003. To call it a masterpiece would not be an exaggeration. Sadly, it seems that many critical circles have forgotten the film, with many labeling it as a “lesser” entry in Bertolucci’s filmography. As for me, it ranks alongside Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris as one of the most important adult films of our time – a fascinating time capsule that true cinephiles should wholeheartedly embrace.
The Dreamers tells the tale of a young exchange student named Matthew, who has traveled to Paris in order to learn French. It is 1968, Henri Langlois has been fired from the Cinémathèque Française, and the student riots have just begun. Michael is an avid film buff, and so he spends most of his time at the cinema taking in one film after another. One day during a heated protest outside of the theatre, Matthew meets a beautiful young woman named Isabelle, as well as her twin brother, Theo. The three of them hit it off immediately, finding that they share a mutual obsession with film. Before long, Matthew has dinner with their parents, both of whom find him charming and intelligent. When Isabelle and Theo’s parents leave to go on a trip, the twins insist that Matthew stays with them.
Matthew will soon learn that the twins inhabit a world of their own. They not only love cinema, they have chosen to live vicariously through the characters in the films that they watch, even to the point of reenacting certain scenes together. At first, Matthew is overwhelmed by all of this, but he soon joins in on the fun. The movies have come alive for Matthew in a new way.
And then it happens.
As Matthew wanders down the hallway in the middle of the night, he catches a glimpse of Theo and Isabelle, sound asleep in a naked embrace. This catches him off guard, but he seems to shrug it off. The next day, after Theo loses a round of movie trivia, Isabelle forces him to masturbate in front of a photo of Marlene Dietrich in front of Matthew, who can’t quite believe what he is seeing. Later on, Matthew loses a round of trivia. He must pay a forfeit. Theo demands that Matthew make love to his sister on the kitchen floor. In one of many memorable scenes in the film, Theo casually prepares his breakfast on a skillet while Isabelle loses her virginity.
Matthew and Isabelle begin to sleep together on a regular basis, and the mood inside of the apartment becomes a bit more relaxed. As Matthew becomes accustomed to casual nudity, it is not uncommon for he and the twins to share a bath together, to roam around sans clothes without a care in the world, discussing politics, music, and film. They live like starving artists. When the food runs out, they simply pick spoiled fruit out of the garbage can, right after they raid the wine cellar. They are young and free, and they are living in the moment. Anything seems possible.
Meanwhile, the riots carry on outside in the real world. Matthew slowly discovers that Isabelle and Theo don’t truly embrace the principles which they claim are so dear to them. In many ways, they are simply posers. They are ignorant, full of contradictions. They are still children. When Matthew confronts them with the harsh reality of their situation – and openly condemns the suffocating, borderline incestuous nature of their relationship – the trio begins to drift.
Like a brick crashing through a window, the dream shatters.
The beauty and relevance of Bertolucci’s film was overshadowed at the time, due to the controversy surrounding the incestuous content of the film, as well as the rampant nudity. However, to peg the film as nothing more than artsy erotica is unfair. Yes, sex is one of the central themes in the film, but as many other critics have already pointed out, The Dreamers is a love letter to the art of cinema and to those of us who live and breathe cinema. You come away from the film wishing that you had been a part of this time in history – and Bertolucci captures this place and time in a way that no one else could. This is Bertolucci’s film through and through, featuring many of his trademark filmmaking techniques, as well as a soundtrack that is unforgettable. The performances are incredibly brave and raw. Michael Pitt is pitch-perfect as Matthew, in what I consider to be his best role. Eva Green is beautiful and seductive as Isabelle, and Louis Garrell is amazing as the intense Theo. All three of these actors commit to the film, creating characters that are complex and authentic. The film simply wouldn’t work without them.
In time, I do believe that The Dreamers will be hailed as one of the greatest films of its time. Until then, see it for yourself. With that being said, here is a fair warning: if you are easily offended by graphic sexual content and nudity, this is not the film for you.