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.