Boasting an eye-opening amount of full-frontal nudity from both sexes, along with a refreshingly free, European attitude toward sex in general, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers certainly has the benefit of showcasing beautiful, rutting young bodies under its rare NC-17 umbrella. Beyond that, unfortunately, The Dreamers is a meandering work that melds uninhibited sex, background political furor, and a love for cinema into a three-pronged character study that's overstated, overbearing, and overpraised.
The story of The Dreamers (based on a novel by Gilbert Adair, who also wrote the screenplay) is set against the political turmoil of Paris, 1968, when a cinephile protest outside the Cinémathèque Française eventually led to a revolt against the French government. The film reconstructs the actual film-history events that led to the protests. Against that backdrop, avid American movie-lover Matthew (Michael Pitt) finds activist Isabelle (Eva Green) chained to the cinema's doorway. She's also a great lover of film, along with her twin brother Theo (Louis Garrel), and soon the mysterious, vaguely incestuous siblings have taken naïve Matthew under their wings, convincing him to stay with them in their home while their parents are away for a month. Of course, all three of the central characters are beautiful young people, and as they gradually loosen their inhibitions in each others' company—playing erotic games, engaging in "dares," culminating in sexual acts—there's a genuine eroticism to the increasing displays of tentative, dangerous, mildly kinky sex. And as pleasing as all that is to your baser instincts, you can't help but ask, What's the point? Bertolucci, after setting up a firm historical backdrop, seems ultimately to forget about everything happening outside the house, leaving us with baseless kink. Even the characters' discussions about movies are startlingly shallow, considering the wealth of information this film's writers and its director must possess.
The Dreamers becomes a somewhat pointless and implausible erotic exercise. Of course, Bertolucci is known primarily for his character studies, favoring the inward over the outward. The most immediately comparable film to this one, if only for its erotic content, is Last Tango in Paris, whose rich, mysterious characterizations stand in stark opposition to the empty, film-trivia characterizations in The Dreamers. The film progresses as some kind of bizarre sexual and philosophical coming-of-age journey among all three participants. But the journey proves ultimately meaningless, since it lacks a working foundation. And because the sex serves almost solely a symbolic function, it doesn't say anything about the characters who engage in it.
The acting feels like so much posturing—young actors not quite capturing some ephemeral thing. Or maybe it was really like this. I can certainly imagine that a group of cinephiles might engage in haughty posturing. Still, although Green is gorgeous and fitting for her role as a shedder of clothing, she comes across as practiced. Garrel, in his efforts at post-teen rebellion, also feels forced. And Pitt, frankly, feels all wrong with his Leonardo DiCaprio face and yuppie expressions. Every interaction between these three has the feel of words on the page rather than organic, natural storytelling. It feels like aging filmmakers inventing words coaxed out of nostalgia, reiterated—but not brought to life—by a cast that doesn't really see where the older generation is coming from. Bertolucci uses popular music of the '60s to try to place the story more firmly in its time, but for some reason, his efforts fall flat. They, too, suffer from self-consciousness, from a strange disconnectedness.
This probably sounds shallow, but the saving grace of the film—for me—would have been its sexuality, had it meant something. However, atop the non-issue of the film's historical and thematic background, the sex doesn't really hold much significance. Why are Theo and Isabelle apparently incestuous? Why are we supposed to be shocked to learn that she's a virgin? Why the blood smearing? Is Bertolucci reaching for some of his Last Tango shock value?
WHY TWO VERSIONS?
Fox is offering two versions of The Dreamers on DVD—the original NC-17 cut that graced theaters, and a new R-rated cut that censorship-endorsing Blockbuster can carry. We can assume that some of the more racy sex-scene footage has been cut. By all means, avoid the cut version, as it surely negates one of the primary reasons you might have for viewing The Dreamers.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Fox presents The Dreamers is a splendid anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. This is really a top-notch effort, particularly as far as fine detail and sharpness are concerned. Detail reaches very far into backgrounds, making this a show-off kind of presentation. Color is vibrant and mostly accurate, save for it being a tad too pink. Blacks are deep and defined. I looked hard for edge halos and found only minor ringing. It's also an extremely clean print, free of dirt and debris.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is just fine, offering clean dialog (with no distortion at the high end) and boisterous music. In fact, the score is when the soundtrack really comes to life, seeping into the surrounds to nice ambient effect. Otherwise, openness across the front is minimal, and so is surround activity.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The DVD comes with an array of supplements that genuinely enhance the experience of the film—or at least they increase your understanding of the film's origin and background. What more can you ask from DVD supplements?
First up is a Commentary by Bernardo Bertolucci, Gilbert Adair, and Jeremy Thomas. That's the director, the writer (of the novel and screenplay), and the producer, respectively. This is an edited-together track that's quite dry, made even more difficult by the fact that Bertolucci has a halting accent that's often difficult to understand. That being said, I came to enjoy this discussion of the film. The three men talk intelligently about the history behind the film's setting, the intricacies of the shoot, the gathering of film snippets and songs to support the subject matter, the meaning of the title, and so on. I especially enjoyed the frequent and frank discussions of the film's nudity and sexuality.
The 52-minute, anamorphic-widescreen Cinema, Sex, Politics: Bertolucci Makes "The Dreamers" documentary is a terrific behind-the-scenes look at Bertolucci's influences and processes on this film. Featuring occasional interviews with key cast and crew, the documentary speaks at length about the film's autobiographical elements—in particular, Bertolucci's involvement and interest in the cinephile riots in France, February to May 1968, when a student revolt evolved into a major nationwide protest against the political regime. Key to the themes of The Dreamers are the philosophies of the French New Wave, and the notion of going against established values. For much of the documentary's length, and in a nice fly-on-the-wall format, we see Bertolucci and his team painstakingly recreating actual riot scenes in the streets of Paris. We also learn a little about the casting of the three lead actors. In the end, though, this documentary isn't very well structured. It's a bit rambling but still manages to engage, thanks to its excellent tone and subject matter.
The 14-minute anamorphic-widescreen Outside the Window: Events in France, May 1968 is another, more focused look at the history behind the film's setting. However, this piece is almost completely undone by an insanely dry female voice-over and annoying strobing graphics. There's some interesting information here, though: We learn about the filmmakers of this time period and learn a little more about the revolt.
The awkwardly titled Michael Pitt and the Twins of Evil "Hey Joe" Music Video Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci is composed of clips from the film, behind-the-scenes snippets, and a lip-synching Pitt.
Finally, you get 2.35:1 anamorphic-widescreen Trailers for The Dreamers and Garden State (featuring an adorable Natalie Portman).
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
The Dreamers is one of those films that gets fawned over by critics who think an old pro like Bertolucci can do no wrong, but the truth is that the film is woefully shallow and shrug-worthy. It feels like it wants to be big and important, but it just sits there failing in its strange attempts to arouse your libido and your mind. On the plus side, this is a fine DVD presentation that offers terrific image quality, good sound, and pleasing supplements that enhance your experience of the film.