Living In Sin And Celluloid 

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A steamy scene from Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers (courtesy photo)
'The Dreamers' offers more than highbrow softcore

Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci has never been shy about sex. He shocked the world with Last Tango in Paris (which was as startling for the way it thought about physical intimacy as for what it showed of it), and even his most mainstream picture, The Last Emperor, was more interested in its protagonist's libido than the average historical epic.

Now he gives us The Dreamers, which, given its unconventional sexual relationships and obsession with a shuttered cinema, he might well have called The Last French Picture Show. If you've heard anything about The Dreamers, odds are good you know it is being released with the rare NC-17 rating, but all the noise about the film's explicitness (and the near-miss Bertolucci had with the censor's scissors) has done the movie a disservice, letting readers infer that it's just another piece of highbrow softcore, that its main selling point is that you can go see it and get turned on without the shame of visiting your local porn emporium.

This is not to suggest that The Dreamers isn't graphic. The film has an almost Penthouse-level familiarity with the human body; aside from erect penises and actual penetration, there's little hidden outside the frame. But moviegoers inured to dirty pictures may be more unsettled by the social dynamic that gestates here: American student Matthew stumbles into the lives of French twins Isabelle and Theo, and immediately suffers the awkwardness of a houseguest whose sense of privacy is vastly out-of-whack with his hosts'. The brother and sister go to the bathroom together, share a bed (sans intercourse), and, once things get rolling, perform sex acts in each other's presence. Amid the chaos of Paris in 1968, the three find themselves cocooning in one sprawling apartment, talking about the cinema and very little else.

The Dreamers

Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci; writ. Gilbert Adair (from his novel); feat. Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrel, Robin Renucci, Anna Chancellor (NC-17)

The three are hiding out from the very scene that brought them together: They were habitués of the Cinematheque Français, the legendary Paris cinema where Godard and Co. encountered their Hollywood inspirations. When the beloved manager of that theater was fired by the French government, malcontents took to the streets in what evolved into a general strike; rather than attend rallies, the new friends hole up and get to know each other.

It's probably hard for most moviegoers to imagine that political unrest could grow up around the firing of a movie theater's manager - the fact that this actually happened is, along with Monet and Serge Gainsbourg and Charles Trenet's "La Mer" (which is also celebrated here) - reason enough to love the French.

When the movie isn't playing Matthew's mores and manners off that of his friends, it's reveling in their shared passion for the movies. Bertolucci uses their discussions as leaping-off points for snippets drawn from other films, showing how these near-children live (figuratively as well as literally) within the cinema. It's the kind of deep cinephilia that Boomer critics like to claim has vanished. Whether that assertion is valid or not, the sexagenarian filmmaker captures his generation's seduction with a tenderness that is as ravishing as anything erotic in The Dreamers. •

More by John DeFore



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