The Dreamers

Bertolucci would probably have no objection to The Dreamers being called a masturbation fantasy of May 1968. Perhaps he wouldn’t even disagree with the description. He has made no claim to making a film about the Events; those seeking historically worthy reconstructions of the tensions of college occupations, food shortages or factory shutdowns will be disappointed – in fact, it is the distance between this reality and the protagonists’ mode of existence that is emphasised. Instead, what he has accomplished is an idealised, gloriously cine-centric distillation of the interweaving forces of change and renewal then current: sex, cinema, music, drugs, philosophical and ideological debate and experimentation, political activism. As he has made clear in interviews, his intention was to film not ’68 but a “dream” of ’68 from the perspective of the early ’00s. We should take this statement literally. It is stunningly manifest in the brief scene that intercuts Jean-Pierre Léaud, playing himself reciting a tract by Godard to demonstrators, with newsreel footage of him, 35 years younger, declaiming the same tract. In his ageing face, time is simultaneously acknowledged and ignored. It is not sufficient to recreate the event. It has to be a re-occurrence. Léaud haranguing a crowd from the steps of the Palais de Chaillot now, intercut with shots of him back then – not to sentimentally generate nostalgia but to clarify the distinction. This temporal strategy is central to The Dreamers, which is strikingly free of nostalgia, one of the most obvious traps this material would present for a lesser filmmaker. This absence is part of the broader rejection of any aspect of retrospection. This is not ’03 looking back on ’68; this is ’68, or the cultural constituents of ’68, existing again in ’03. It is not exactly time regained because it has no pretension of being other than time present, the time passing before Bertolucci’s camera. If there is any element of nostalgia, it is therefore a peculiarly Bertoluccian nostalgia that brings to mind a line from Before the Revolution (Prima della rivoluzione, 1964) in which a character claims to feel a constant “nostalgia for the present”, the intensity of the moment linked to its fading, nostalgia without retrospection.

Through this temporal technique he has succeeded in looping time, in creating a heavily mythologised moment defined by Possibility – political, sexual, aesthetic (read: cinematic), even fashionable – that suspends itself from the consequences of history. Even in the concluding scene, in which one of the decadent young heroes, Theo (Louis Garrel), dramatically joins the street riots, Bertolucci chooses to end on an image – charging cops – suggestive of history closing in that also remains euphoric. If consequence is implied, it is never depicted or allowed to emotionally inflect the immanent “high” of defiance. In this respect it is an interesting – and, in its historical implications, perhaps despairing – development of the Utopia Bertolucci dreamed into being in 1900 (Novecento) (1976). That epic began in history and dreamed that history into the triumph of revolution, situating Utopia in the unfolding of time. In The Dreamers Utopia is temporally finite, expressed, ironically, not in post-revolutionary success but in celebrating the potential of time “before the revolution”, the time that, 40 years ago, caused the young hero of Bertolucci’s breakthrough film such anguish as an inescapable historical trap.

Jean-Pierre Léaud in The Mother and the Whore

Of course narrative cinema has long mythologised ’68 but in melancholic retrospect, and either symbolically or in words. For viewers of Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la putain) (1973) or almost any of Philippe Garrel’s films, ’68 might seem to have been a moment so cataclysmically beautiful and tragic as to be unfilmable. Garrel’s long procession of somnambulistic, drug-ravaged ghost men – from the mythically alienated Pierre Clémenti and Laurent Terzieff to latter day prisoners of memory like Benoît Régent and Daniel Duval – is perhaps the most eloquent and certainly most persistent cinematic testament to the moment when, as Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud) puts it in Mother and the Whore, reality split open. Bertolucci knows better than to attempt to fill the originary black hole at the centre of this cinema with his spectacular images – the shots of Léaud again serve as a disclaimer: this is not ’68 but an idea of it. Furthermore, the incorrigible voluptuousness of Bertolucci’s style could not be further from the hungry, emaciated, heartbroken cinema on the run of Garrel or Eustache (or, for that matter, from the edginess and confusion of aftermath in Rivette’s Out 1 [1971] or Doillon’s Les Doigts dans la tête [1974]). For all its referentiality, there is nothing mannerist about The Dreamers. If Garrel is an inevitable point of reference, it is mainly due to the presence of his son Louis Garrel in the cast. Although the youngest member of this extraordinary cinematic dynasty (his grandfather is actor Maurice Garrel) proves exceptionally talented to the point of leaving his two perfectly adequate co-stars looking decidedly second best, it would be hard to think of a less (Philippe) Garrelian actor. Alert, classically handsome and radiating good health, Louis Garrel is the antithesis of the wasted Garrelian archetype. If he resembles any of his father’s actors, it is Léaud and even then only in a specific, non-Garrelian context: Eustache’s use of him in The Mother and the Whore. What these two performances share is a wired, almost animal enjoyment of the intensity and abandon of dangerously irresponsible emotional games at crisis point. They are both able to project a grippingly split-second series of transformations from alarm to elation and back again such that the two states almost become simultaneous but not quite. Young Garrel can be seen as a perfect embodiment of Bertolucci’s approach to ’68: while referentially carrying the emblematic Garrel name, his youthful energy bespeaks the renewing potential of pre-revolution dreaming, not revolution’s devastated aftermath.

So how does Bertolucci present ’68? The Dreamers repackages it as a contemporary pop-culture sampler for the modern viewer (no prior knowledge necessary!), a sort of concept album that clearly enumerates the cultural tropes of the era from a dramatic situation that allows the maximum scope for their exploration and for choice among them. One could easily push a comparison with Tarantino’s ’70s cinema remixes too far, but it’s fair to say that The Dreamers‘ form of anthological referentiality definitely situates it post-Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994). It’s not a case of quotation or even prevalence of quotation but of characters and situations engendered by the pre-existent cultural texture that their task is to best represent. This is distinct from Godardian quotation, much employed by Bertolucci in his early career, in which iconography (and literature) is discursively juxtaposed. The result is questioning – or, simply, “thinking”– rather than celebration, whether it be of the image itself or another idea for which the image is interrogation tool. But to celebrate and to popularise are definitely the objectives here, or at least the means to create an affective “remembering” in the minds of an audience that might know next to nothing about the film’s themes. One’s reaction to The Dreamers might largely depend upon whether or not one is willing to accept this approach to the subject matter.

Yet it must be stressed that there is nothing dryly pedagogical or impersonally calculating about The Dreamers, an emotionally vibrant work which appears deeply felt sometimes almost to the point of naivete. Certainly nothing in it is more deeply felt or effective than its depiction of cinephilia, the originary energy from which the three lead characters spring into sex, politics, revolt, adulthood – perhaps paralleling the manner in which the February ’68 Cinémathèque demonstrations are seen to pave the way for the May events. It is at the Cinémathèque, during the demonstrations for Langlois’ reinstatement as head of that institution, that the 19-year-old American Matthew (Michael Pitt) meets the French twins Theo and Isabelle (Eva Green), also in their late teens. Film nuts all, they bond and, when the twins’ wealthy parents leave the city for a while, Matthew moves in with them. He embarks on an affair with Isabelle initially almost as a surrogate body for Theo to bridge the hurdle of incest in the dynamics of Cocteau-esque closeness that characterise the brother/sister relationship. Soon Matthew comes to understand that in order to grow, the siblings have to move towards mutual emotional independence. While Isabelle has difficulty abandoning childhood dependencies, Theo is increasingly drawn to the atmosphere of political activism that the unfolding May events have made immanent.

The prominently displayed La Chinoise (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967) poster on Theo’s wall notwithstanding, the cinema The Dreamers draws on is more ’59 than ’68, the giddy thrill of new found moral and aesthetic freedom, as well as celebration of youthfulness, in certain works of the early New Wave – À Bout de souffle (Jean-Luc Godard, 1959), Une Femme est une femme (Jean-Luc Godard, 1961), Shoot the Pianist (François Truffaut, 1961), Jules et Jim (François Truffaut, 1962). The appropriateness of this lies in the sense of new possibilities that the New Wave brought to cinema, in keeping with the rest of the catalogue of possibilities Bertolucci presents here. To underline this he even has Isabelle declare “I was born in 1959 and my first words were ‘New York Herald Tribune’” before cutting to Jean Seberg iconically peddling that newspaper in À Bout de souffle!

The Dreamers makes frequent use of short clips from other films, mostly intercut with discussions of the films or games based upon them. This use of clips might sound like an obvious technique, but in fact it is a novel and perhaps unprecedentedly successful rendition of cinephilia. Most films that treat of period film buffishness do so by creating some form of dichotomy between the “magic” of the screen and the “real world”, between an idealised other and an often grim reality. The space between spectator and image is invariably sentimentalised. This approach is used fruitfully by Woody Allen in Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and by Terence Davies in his autobiographical works. It endures its nadir with Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1989). In several of his films Fellini explores this relationship from a more complex point of view in which the “reality” image is already stylised to the point of announcing itself as almost as distinct from “the real world” as the films that play in it – unlike in Purple Rose or Davies, the nostalgia is successfully interwoven with caricature. (But Fellinian nostalgia is such a rich, complicated entity that one is almost loath to mention it in passing – it would take at least a whole article to even begin to outline its tenebrous labyrinth with any justice).

In the scene close to the opening of The Dreamers when the threesome watch Fuller’s Shock Corridor at the Cinémathèque, Bertolucci’s way of filming the relationship between spectator and image sets it apart from the cinema scenes in the other films mentioned. Whereas they invariably put the spectator in a position of overwhelmed passivity, Bertolucci emphasises the energy with which the cinephiles engage with the film through his dynamic camera that penetrates Fuller’s images with the urgency of a mind taking possession of them. Also, Fuller’s nightmarish vision of screaming lunatics is hardly the easiest film clip to appropriate as instrument of sentimental reverie! Matthew’s voiceover explaining his choice of the cinema’s front row seats (in most other such scenes, the passive spectator is well back in the auditorium, comfortably cushioned by shadows) adds to the sense of tense excitement.

But mostly Bertolucci conveys cinephilia through clips that reflect the characters’ affective memory of films and their definition of a given moment or event in terms of those films. The technique of using pop culture “samples” for a character to comment upon him/herself or a situation has been widely used by Resnais, whether as clips of old film stars (Mon oncle d’Amérique [1980]), cartoons (I Want to Go Home [1989]) or songs (On connaît la chanson [1997]). Yet this often gently sarcastic self-reflexive commentary functions very differently from Bertolucci’s archival interventions. These aren’t the product of frequently anxious self-conscious reflection, as in Resnais, but the irrepressible eruption into life of an emotionally charged experience of image. Even when Isabelle’s attempt at suicide is intercut with the suicide from Bresson’s Mouchette (1967) it seems more like a spontaneous expression of her sense of tragedy than an intellectual comment on her action. Resnais’ quotations are private, representative of mental conflict, whereas in general Bertolucci’s form an intersubjective forum of shared feeling that allows for immediate and profound communication between the characters. Rather than using the cinema as an escape from life, for “the dreamers” the emotional energy of film ultimately becomes an incentive and engine for the exploration of their own feelings. This need to “live cinema” and to live up to cinema, to reenact it and ultimately transcend it, is the most moving and successful aspect of The Dreamers.

Perhaps the most intriguing point of comparison with Bertloucci’s use of clips is, again, “versus Godard”, this time the Godard of the Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988–1998) and other recent videos. In general, their use of film quotation functions – perhaps surprisingly – in a not dissimilar way: to introduce with concision and immediacy the frisson of a sudden access of memory for which the clip-image provides a key and index. Yet whereas within Godard’s labyrinthine audio-visual monuments the clip is historicised within a frequently new context born of his intricate juxtaposition work, Bertolucci rescues his clips from history and assigns them maximum transparency in accordance with his “re-occurrence” temporal strategy. They are not, as in Godard, fragments of the ruin of the 20th century but rather come to articulate a present moment so intense that its very texture is ruptured by the images that emotionally underpin it.

As well as being cited in clips, the much vaunted “freedom” of early New Wave films seems to have had an influence on the style and structure of Bertolucci’s film. The Dreamers is set almost completely within the space of one apartment. His dynamic approach to the unity of intimate space develops on his similarly enclosed Besieged (1998), a remarkable and deliberate self-reinvention after his years making epics, and the second step in a scaling down that began far more cautiously with Stealing Beauty (1996). In The Dreamers the Last Emperor (1987) director seems to have completed his rejuvenation with the injection of a new casualness or even, at times, carelessness into his storytelling. The Dreamers, like some of Truffaut’s films, unfolds in paroxysms, a sporadic series of intense emotional rushes separated by moments of uncertainty and sometimes rather wobbly exposition. Yet whereas Truffaut was always word-driven, Bertolucci is musical and perhaps the best way of viewing The Dreamers‘ structure is as an album, a collection of “songs” interspersed by pauses that contain “track listings”. Music itself plays a prominent role in the film’s emotional texture, with a soundtrack that mixes late ’60s American music – Hendrix, Dylan, The Doors, The Grateful Dead – with earlier French songs – Piaf, Trenet – and samples from soundtracks to films by Godard and Truffaut.

The Dreamers

The instrument of the forces of possibility in The Dreamers is the body, specifically the beautiful bodies of the three leads. The unabashed pleasure with which Bertolucci celebrates these pre-Salò bodies discovering pre-AIDS sexual freedom is the most quixotically jarring element of the film. Through sex the trio comes to self-discovery and to express what they felt and learnt at the cinema. Through sex, the body, the overtly idealised body, is empowered as a positive force of communication and self-expression. The faith that Bertolucci puts in these bodies is very unusual in today’s cinema when the body is frequently reduced to a pornographically impersonal image that functions as nothing more than agent of an often equally impersonal narrative, or is subjected to mutation and virtualisation, from Cronenberg to The Matrix (Andy & Larry Wachowski, 1999), that implies obsolescence, or else is anxiously punished in some way for its claims on freedom. Films that consciously consider the body almost invariably focus on its martyrdom and destruction. Bertolucci’s rejection of this apparent given, his insistence on the privilege of dreaming of immaculate but resolutely non-virtual bodies that affectionately frolic in the talismanic presence of images by Sternberg – supreme exemplar of cinema’s capacity for erotic fantasy – can be read as part of his vision of a looped moment of Utopian possibility. To in any way inscribe negative consequences into these bodies would be inconsistent with this project.

The Dreamers ultimately uses ’68 to create a hymn to Possibility – idealised, improbable and slightly desperate in our era, one so unforgettably defined by Nicole Brenez as “devastated by lucidity like Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Medea yelling at the burning house where her young children are dying: ‘Nothing is possible any longer!’” It is up to every viewer to decide for him/herself if Bertolucci’s gesture of defiance at this state of things is an irresponsibly senile wish fulfilment fantasy or a heartfelt and usefully inspiring idealisation of a contrastingly hopeful historical zeitgeist. There is undeniably something insane and wilful about The Dreamers‘ rejection of the harsh lessons of history. Something insanely beautiful…

With thanks to Alberto Pezzotta.

About The Author

Maximilian Le Cain is a filmmaker and cinéphile living in Cork City, Ireland.