Bernardo Bertolucci has long fed off a cinephilia he appears to despise. Think of some of the figures of fun he’s put on the screen: the cafe intellectual in Before the Revolution, yammering fat-headedly about camera movements and Rossellini, or the film-mad fiancé in Last Tango in Paris, cuckolded before he’s even been married. (While the lad raves about turning Maria Schneider into cinema, Brando is already working on the inserts.) Bertolucci has consistently mocked the elevation of film over life, while leaving his characters, poor dead insects, to glitter within the amber of his style. Can you find a more glaring contradiction in the work of any other bankable, international auteur? Only in the work of this same Bertolucci, who shrugs elaborately at political commitment (see Before the Revolution; see The Spider’s Stratagem) and yet contrives to be seen as politically astute.
Now he sums himself up in The Dreamers: the story of three very young habitués of the Cinémathèque Française, who spend spring 1968 holed up in a Paris apartment, making love and talking movies, while the rest of their generation gathers at the barricades.
Anyone who has followed Bertolucci’s work will know there’s only one question worth asking about The Dreamers: How’s the girl? The answer: She’s everything you could hope for. And so are the guys, for that matter. Louis Garrel, as the epitome of slim and insolent French youth, appears as a kind of Oh! Boy: Jean Cocteau plus Jean-Pierre Léaud. Michael Pitt–the ingenuous American, who soaks up attitude in Paris when he’s supposed to be studying the language–has the sculpted profile of a Nazi poster boy and the gait of Marilyn Monroe. But it’s Eva Green, as Pitt’s lover and Garrel’s semi-incestuous twin, who is revealed as the movie’s main attraction, and revealed, and revealed. Viewers who wait for Pitt and Garrel to consummate their passion will be disappointed by the tease; but those of us who are susceptible to Green will admit that The Dreamers, at a minimum, provides a memorable service. The world now has a complete camera survey of Eva Green at age 22.
You may think it strange that a film about late-1960s movie buffs should be destined so unmistakably for the DVD market, whose aficionados will watch The Dreamers very happily with the other hand on the Pause button. And yet it’s not strange at all, since the chunks of film culture that Bertolucci folds into The Dreamers are porn of another kind. When the characters, playing their version of truth-or-dare, challenge one another to identify some vintage movie scene, the audience naturally joins in their game; and Bertolucci, quick to flatter and gratify, makes every ticketholder a winner. Breathless, Scarface, Blonde Venus, Band of Outsiders: These are the familiar reference points for The Dreamers, chosen, I believe, not because they’d be the characters’ favorite films but because audiences will feel good about recognizing them.
Well, what’s so bad about feeling good? In principle, nothing. In Bertolucci’s practice, everything. The story he tells (attributed to Gilbert Adair, who has done good work in the past and so might not be the guilty party) starts off with the exhilaration of discovery–new experiences at the movies, new friends, new music. But soon, in a development that only becomes worse if you read it allegorically, the three denizens of dark theaters shut themselves away in a dim, labyrinthine apartment, where for the rest of the film they mope, argue, posture and pout in plush claustrophobia. No life comes in (except for a symbolic brick, hurled through the window at the start of the May uprising); and no life goes on.
If this is what old-style cinephilia was like (as The Dreamers claims), then we’re lucky it’s dead; and if this was truly the spirit of May ’68, today’s young people are right to tell us geezers to get stuffed. But maybe the most stuffable of the geezers is Bertolucci. Maybe the movies–not his, but other directors’–can actually open you to life.
“His actors do not behave like the actors in other films,” as a certain critic wrote, back in the heroic age, “except in the sense that their gestures and attitudes are common to all human beings, but they urge us to look for something else behind this behavior, something other than what our natural role as spectators would prompt us to recognize. The old relationship between the sign and the idea is shattered”–and the filmmaker who dares to shatter it may receive “the remarkable privilege of conducting us into the most secret regions of the soul. Secret? Let’s make our meaning clear: not the troubled zones of the libido, but the broad daylight of consciousness.”
Despite what Bertolucci tells you, this is the possibility that originally excited the movie nuts in Paris, at the Cinémathèque and in the offices of Cahiers du Cinéma. It’s still the great possibility. I’m quoting from an article in Cahiers by Eric Rohmer. He was writing about Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia.
So let’s take a trip–a Russian one. Say that two brothers–one on the verge of puberty, the other well into it–come indoors one late afternoon from playing and fighting in their town’s crumbling industrial relics; and there in their mother’s modest house, sitting at the dinner table, is their father, whom they haven’t seen in twelve years. Where has he been? Why has he come back? Nobody explains. All Dad will say is, “Let’s drink,” as he pours each of his scared and fascinated boys an ample glass of wine.
This is the start of the voyage in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s The Return, a road-and-boat movie that’s all about space: physical distances that intimidate, emotional gaps that can’t be bridged. Not that Dad doesn’t try. When he packs his sons into a car for a get-acquainted trip, Dad begins a course of practical and moral instruction that he evidently regrets having neglected for all these years. Unfortunately, he conducts the lessons with no more gentleness than you’d expect from his taut body and seamed, unsmiling face. Maybe Dad (Konstantin Lavronenko) is a discharged soldier or pardoned convict; or, just as likely, he’s a guy who ran off in the Yeltsin era to make money and didn’t. Whatever his past, he now has no way to show love to his sons, except to demonstrate that the entire world is deep water, and a man can’t waste time learning to swim.
The older boy (Vladimir Garin) at first rushes to please the old man. (“Did you see how he’s built?” he whispers excitedly to his brother. “He’s huge.”) But the younger son (Ivan Dobronravov), who still tends to cling to Mama, hangs back sullenly from the father, and so absorbs blow after blow. (You don’t want to dawdle over lunch with Dad or question his itinerary.) At last the trio leave behind the Russian back roads and take a little motorboat to an island in Lake Ladoga; and there the final confrontation plays out in a setting that is natural and wild, except for the discordant presence of a derelict shack and a rickety old watchtower.
Because Zvyagintsev has a way of making the landscape seem more eloquent than the suffering human figures it enfolds, his supporters are likening him to Tarkovsky. It’s an obvious sales pitch, and one that does Zvyagintsev no good at all. Why should he be asked to live up to Tarkovsky’s films, which were an unrepeatable eruption within world cinema? The Return, by contrast, is clearly a commodity made for a known market niche–but a good commodity, honestly crafted and filled with unquiet awe at the way we stumble and sink on our voyages, yet usually keep going.
Here is one current film that does take place in “the broad daylight of consciousness”–and also in its shadows.
Screening Schedule: BAMcinématek, the film repertory program of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is showing The Best of the African Diaspora Film Festival, February 20-26. I can’t claim familiarity with all fifteen pictures on the schedule, let alone with the five continents they represent; but let me at least mention two. The Other World (2001), by the extraordinary Algerian filmmaker Merzak Allouache, is a feature-length drama about a young, well-assimilated Parisienne who journeys into the rural interior of the home country, into the midst of its Islamist insurgency. Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property, by the great Charles Burnett, appears to be a fairly straightforward made-for-TV documentary for most of its fifty-eight minutes, until (being a Burnett film) it suddenly turns inside out. For information on the series: (718) 636-4100 or www.bam.org.
An unrealized early screenplay by Krzysztof Kieslowski is the source of The Big Animal (2000), directed by and starring his longtime collaborator Jerzy Stuhr (perhaps best known for playing the lead in Camera Buff). This brief and charming fable–not too charming, of course–concerns a magnificent two-hump camel, left behind in rural Poland by a traveling circus and adopted by a bank clerk and his wife, to the consternation of their neighbors. The camel doesn’t do anything, you see; there’s no profit in it. Now released in the United States by Milestone Films, The Big Animal is having its theatrical premiere in New York City (February 20-29) at Anthology Film Archives, where you can enjoy the black-and-white cinematography of Pawel Edelman (The Pianist) and marvel at the wonderful harmony between the faces and bearing of Jerzy Stuhr and Rubio the Camel. For information: (212) 505-5181 or www.anthologyfilmarchives.org.
One of the true lovers of both cinema and New York City, Phillip Lopate, has helped program the Museum of Modern Art’s new series “Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan in 18 Films” (February 27- March 4). Presented to celebrate the publication of Lopate’s intricately essayistic new book Waterfront, the series ranges from Raoul Walsh’s 1915 Regeneration (considered to be the first feature-length gangster melodrama) to Stanley Kubrick’s 1953 The Seafarers (a promotional picture commissioned by the Seafarers International Union) to Mark Street’s non-narrative 2003 short Fulton Fish Market. All this, plus some of the usual suspects: Dead End, On the Waterfront, Pickup on South Street. For information: (212) 708-9480 or www.moma.org.
Finally, since this schedule is hopelessly confined to New York, I welcome the release on DVD of Ferid Boughedir’s 1990 drama Halfaouine: Boy of the Terraces. Like the best of the French New Wave directors, Boughedir wanted to use the camera to explore the world–in this case, a quarter of Tunis–and did so by following the sentimental education of a boy. A wonderful film, now available (no matter where you live) from Kino Video.