In a country where the split-second exposure of a single breast on television inspires weeks of outrage and a rash of apologies, the first NC-17-rated movie in six years is doomed to box-office failure.
Not Pornography, Not Innocent
NC-17 for explicit sexual content
The Dreamers is not pornography, although there are a few scenes of nudity. You won’t see geysers of blood spurt from decapitated torsos; there are no rapes, no torture, and no violent hate crimes (which would only merit an R rating), but for a few seconds you can see an actor’s penis, so the MPAA says you can’t take your teenagers.
Not that The Dreamers is an innocuous film. Director Bernardo Bertolucci is Italian, but his story of The Dreamers is French, in more ways than one. Not only is it set in Paris, but it tells of an askew sexual situation that French filmmakers seem to do so well (The Piano Teacher and Get Out Your Handkerchiefs come to mind).
Theo and Isabelle (Louis Garrel and Eva Green) are conjoined twins, separated long ago, a two-inch scar the only physical indication of their connectedness. But their emotional bond runs deep. Our narrator, Matthew (Michael Pitt), meets them at a cinema while studying in Paris. They invite him home for dinner, and since he likes Isabelle, he readily agrees. Their parents convince Matthew to move in, since they have room, not long before the parents leave for an extended vacation.
Living with the twins, Michael sees just how close Isabelle and Theo are. Theirs is not an incestuous relationship, but it isn’t what you’d call “normal” or “healthy,” either. They haven’t outgrown their little games, even though both are young adults. Casual nudity and a fascination with anatomy when you’re 5 or 6 may be innocent, but at 17, it’s not so wholesome.
The first time Matthew witnesses one of these games, he is in shock. The second time, he is included in the game, and he reluctantly plays the hand he is dealt. By now the sexual tension between the three characters is crackling fiercely. Matthew and Isabelle become partners, but Isabelle and Theo refuse to let each other go.
Pity and Lust
Bertolucci starts the sexual tension early, with stolen glances and significant pauses. Knowing the film has earned an NC-17 rating adds to the air of expectancy. Learning that two of the three main characters are brother and sister twists the gut, turning part of the tension into revulsion.
Admittedly, one of my first reactions was a fascinated revulsion, akin to the feeling inspired by Secretary or The Piano Teacher. No doubt, many viewers will not get past this feeling, and that’s okay. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
As with Secretary and The Piano Teacher, a little empathy goes a long way. After the film, when the entire story has been laid bare, one can begin to unravel the emotions and motives that went into each decision for each character. What first appeared to be an uncomfortable French sex farce becomes a perfectly understandable story of three neurotic characters, more to be pitied than lusted after.
The Dreamers is a movie that could go a long way in a film student’s term paper. When Bertolucci isn’t focusing on the emotional cat’s cradle, he cuts to a failed French Communist uprising. Rather than simply being a setting or a backdrop, this becomes a metaphor for the interior lives of the characters.
Even more impressively, Bertolucci integrates scenes from great films (Bande a Part, Queen Christina, Blonde Venus) into his own movie, smoothly cutting between Godard’s footage from 1964 and his own footage shot in the same location 40 years later.
But these artful references and homages are offset by some spots of hack writing. Sometimes the characters give speeches instead of speaking dialogue. And the last two scenes are impossible to believe, working only as literary devices, if at all.
The Dreamers is not for everybody. If the subject matter doesn’t turn you off, then maybe some of the flaws will. But it is good for film buffs. It lends itself well to analysis, conversation, or maybe even a term paper.