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Parisian Triangle: Lust for film and social ferment binds Louis Garrel (left), Eva Green (center) and Michael Pitt (below) in Bernardo Bertolucci's 'The Dreamers.'

Next Tango in Paris

Bernardo Bertolucci's 'The Dreamers' stirs up a potent cocktail of sex, politics and movie love

By Richard von Busack

FOR DECADES, director Bernardo Bertolucci has zeroed in on lovers hiding away from the world. We've seen the lipsticky love scene under the silk canopy in The Last Emperor; the lesbian tango in The Conformist; the gentle stalking of a cleaning woman in Besieged; the forceful, sometimes cruel fucking in that apartment in Last Tango in Paris.

And now, Bertolucci has returned for another round of lyrical yet under-pressure trysts in another confined Paris apartment for The Dreamers, a film so sexually outré that it has received the rare NC-17 rating. The Dreamers, Fox Searchlight's first NC-17 film, represents a gamble, because some newspapers won't advertise films with that rating, nor will some theater chains exhibit them. This new comedy of love and rebellion befits a director who has always pushed against sexually repressive conventions but who mistrusts the personality of revolutionaries.

The story follows the circumstances of three young people--two boys and a girl--curling up together in 1968, while outside, Paris roils through the paroxysm of one of its frequent revolutions. But the film never feels claustrophobic; it exerts the unstoppable fascination of housebound TV series like The Real World or The Surreal Life.

The cluttered flat where the three rebels lounge around boasts multiple rooms and labyrinthine halls. The weather is warm enough for these three attractive youths to putter about in kimonos. And the tremendous fixation of the young upon the young keeps all three mesmerized. (The film wouldn't work with older people; in later life, the smell of each other's decay becomes too overpowering.)

The apartment has been temporarily abandoned by loving, indulgent parents, who want to escape their rebellious offspring for a beach holiday. Inside, the trio is trashing the place and plundering the wine cellar, while outside, Paris starts to come apart during the watershed troubles of May 1968, when student riots lead to widespread worker protests. While this key event in French history unfolded, the streets were torn up, barricades were erected and the tanks rolled in. The portentous Paris spring begins with flowers, walkouts and poetically situational slogans. One slogan in particular is relevant to the movie: "Sex is good, Mao says, but not too often." The May rebellion ended when the laboring class didn't recognize the students as the vanguard of a real revolution.

Avoiding this historic clash until the end of his film, Bertolucci conjures up a thick atmosphere in which his three characters float like jellyfish. Heavy music hovers in the air of the flat: the guitar solo from Big Brother and the Holding Company's "I Need a Man," the icicle blues notes of the Doors' "Spy in the House of Love."

To some, all that smokiness may resemble hot air. But I got what used to be called "a contact high" from the film, as if the intoxication of being around these lovers in heat had enveloped me in their world. One of Bertolucci's particular facilities is making ambient horniness look positively elegant.

Name That Scene

A boy from San Diego has come to Paris to study--still earnest, still dutifully wearing a suit everywhere. Matthew is played by Michael Pitt, who looks slightly like Leonardo DiCaprio but is more cupid-lipped and untrustworthy. We first see Matthew crossing the Pont d'Iena on his way to the Palais de Chaillot, home of the Cinématèque Française. In a voice-over, he comments, "Only the French would put their film museum in a palace." And only the French would mount the barricades when the director of their film museum is fired by the government.

Isabelle (Eva Green), the girl he's about to fall in love with, claims facetiously that she was born the instant she saw Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless. We catch sight of her chained to the Cinémathèque's gates, wearing a beret and smoking a pink-and-gold-papered Sherman cigarette. The two glimpse each other during screenings at the theater, sitting in the front row where the images can hit you first. Isabelle takes Matthew home for dinner, and he never really leaves.

At Isabelle's parents' flat, Matthew converses with Isabelle's regular escort to the movies, her twin brother, Theo (Louis Garrel), a breezy, arrogant cinema student who likes to look down his Roman nose at Matthew during an argument. What some call pride in being Parisian, others call snobbery. Theo's superiority is calmed by the fact that Matthew comes from America, where the movies come from.

Matthew loses his outsider's discomfort during his stay at the flat. The Dreamers is what an American Pie sex-for-ingénues comedy would look like if the movies were half as weird as real life. Matthew falls, without much of a struggle, into the rhythms of the games this brother-and-sister team play.

Because their temple, the Cinémathèque, has been temporarily closed, the trio can only re-enact movies. They propose a round of "name that scene." Each sex has its own advantage at the game. Being male, Theo's sacred moment is one of Howard Hawks' X-shaped gangster assassinations in the 1932 classic Scarface. Isabelle, being female, remembers Garbo pacing around a bedchamber in Rouben Mamoulian's 1933 drama Queen Christina, trying to memorize the room where the tryst of her life took place. Isabelle turns, nervously touching the furniture with her fingers, just as Garbo did.

There was only one Garbo, and Eva Green ain't her--she's ravishing, but she's also a flouncing, insolent girl. Isabelle playacts the Garbo scene, a big quote for a movie to quote. But the moment works; whatever happens to Matthew and Isabelle later in life, certainly they too will "be spending a great deal of time in this room" in their memories.

The stakes keep rising in this film-or-dare game. After a lost bet, Matthew takes Isabelle on the floor, right in front of her brother. To disguise his mixed feelings of jealousy and arousal, Theo does what Breathless' star, Jean-Paul Belmondo, would do. Smoking a cigarette, he makes himself a midnight snack of fried eggs as the lovers writhe near his feet.

A scene like this must have been what critic David Denby in The New Yorker meant when he called this film "an attempted shocker." You can always get a rise out of an audience from explicit incest, but the point Denby misses is that the three characters are immune to shock. Being film fans more than anything else, they are conscious of the way in which sophisticated people act in a movie. They may be flamboyant, but they must also be unflappable.

The sexual infatuation between the brother and sister bugs Matthew less than the siblings' closed world does--and his inability to get Isabelle alone. The two males in Isabelle's harem grow wary of each other. Theo displays a privileged kid's infatuation with Mao Tse-tung. He even owns a glow-in-the-dark bust of the chairman. Before the wedge between them grows too great to close, Matthew tries to argue Theo out of Mao worship on purely cinematic terms. What good's a movie, Matthew asks, with only one star and millions of extras? (Tellingly, Bertolucci sticks a poster on the apartment wall for Godard's 1967 film about young Parisian rebels with a Maoist fixation, La Chinoise.)

Ultimately, the wedge between Matthew and Theo replays outside on the streets of Paris. No matter how much sex goes on in a room, it can never keep the external world at bay. Eventually, a flying paving stone shatters a window. And finally comes the irreconcilable argument between those, like Matthew, who believe love and nonviolence can change society, and those, like Theo, ready to fire up the Molotov cocktails.

All Tango-Ed Up in Blue

Bernardo Bertolucci is best known for Last Tango in Paris, with Marlon Brando performing a type of sexual explicitness undreamt of outside of porn. The debate over that film will be rephrased by critics of The Dreamers. Some will call this smut, others will see it as a breakthrough.

When Last Tango opened more than 30 years ago, it seemed possible that two opposites--mainstream cinema and porn--were going to join in a synthesis. Mainstream audiences were lined up for the forbidden thrill of Deep Throat. And in the art house theaters where Last Tango was unspooling, Brando--the most prestigious actor of his age, coming straight off The Godfather--was pantomiming the kind of anarchic, earthy sexuality that went along with the rest of his work as an actor. Now we knew what Stanley Kowalski would have been like in bed with Blanche.

Obviously, the synthesis never took, and the two types of cinema have stayed rigidly separate to this day. Later on, Brando renounced his sexually graphic acting: "I felt the violation of my innermost self."

Prestige movies still feature sex, nervously acted and nervously edited, such as Nicole Kidman's heavy-breathing scene in Cold Mountain. On the other side of the fence, porn is meaner, coarser and crasser than ever. The renaissance of Ron Jeremy, the strangely cuddly hero of TV's The Surreal Life is a celebration of what is thought of as the golden Boogie Nights era of 1970s porn. In the documentary Porn Star, one of Jeremy's regular co-stars from the 1970s, the tough-talking Sharon Mitchell, explains what was in it for her: "I got to see my pussy on a 26-foot screen."

The missing element in porn today isn't just the big screen itself, or the attendant loss of visuals, narrative and acting the most ambitious pornography of the '70s had. The golden age of porn--when porn had sideburns!--evinced a certain evangelical impulse, an exalting of sexual freedom.

This exaltation of sexual freedom is the rationale when Bertolucci puts Eva Green's pussy on a 26-foot screen. The Dreamers may be seen as just a "blue movie" (as Denby blue-nosedly puts it). I thought it was one of the year's best. Bertolucci's interest in this kind of sex on screen--in Last Tango in Paris, The Conformist or The Dreamers--is bound up with his excitement at its potential to fire revolutions.

Lightning in May

Key to the narrative is a side story about the firing of Henri Langlois by de Gaulle's minister of culture, Andre Malraux. Langlois founded the Cinémathèque and had been running it for 33 years when he was sacked. Film critic David Thomson calls Langlois "the inventor of the archive game." Langlois began the kind of film-preservation efforts still undertaken by the likes of David Packard at Palo Alto's Stanford Theater. Thomson adds that Langlois was present at "the moment at which the history of a film as a whole begins to be felt and described."

In Paris, Langlois was the first to attempt to retrieve that transitory experience of watching a movie. Before Langlois, movies were meant to be shown a few times, then recycled or dumped. Then as now, they persist only in the memories of those perverse enough not to shed the experience.

The French government objected to Langlois' erratic, untidy methods and fired him. Protests broke out, just like the one Bertolucci re-creates. The picket lines included many of the French New Wave directors who had been soaking up American films like sponges at the Cinémathèque's screenings. Bertolucci suggests that the protests outside the Cinémathèque were the opening act in 1968's larger rebellion against the staidness and regimentation of French life.

It's a game among history buffs to figure out when the first signs of revolt appeared. In his book Seven Ages of Paris, historian Alistair Horne quotes the actor and director Jean-Louis Barrault: "The lightning in May fell in Paris, that's all. ... The storm, it seemed to one, came from afar, and continued to rumble around the world."

When the student riots hit Paris--and hit the city harder than anywhere else--it was because the Sorbonne was swollen with 130,000 students, many of them stuck at the minimum-security-prison-like satellite campus in the suburb of Nanterre. And that figure was only part of the total number of university students in France at the time. In his new book about the worldwide tumult of that year, '68: The Year That Rocked the World, historian Mark Kurlansky writes that there were an astounding 530,000 students. He adds that "three-fourths of French students failed their courses and left," due to the fact that so many students were chosen but so few passed.

UC-Berkeley's similar inflammability was also due to the size of its student body and its overcrowded and bureaucratic campus. Thanks to the then-new IBM punch card, student and professor contact was limited--so limited that, famously, that one Cal fraternity got its dog a B.A. in English literature.

The echoes of 1968 ring loud this year, and The Dreamers is part of these reverberations. Kurlansky's book provides an overview of that year of assassinations and insurrections, when the tanks rolled everywhere from Prague to Detroit. In a theater near you, the Vietnam era's notorious Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a.k.a. "the fog machine of war," is plea-bargaining his way through Errol Morris' documentary: admitting to doing evil during a good war, in exchange for a dropped charge of fomenting a bad war.

Maybe 1968 is back on the radar because of the nature of 2004, with the most brutal political divisions in more than 30 years. Once again, we're stuck in an unpopular war with no signs of exit. Old Nixonites litter the White House. The pendulum-swings between protest and reaction still continue, between distracting nonissues such as John Ashcroft's terror of the boobies on a bronze statue and Janet Jackson's exhibitionism. (The world's in flames, but the TV news keeps running that snippet of Jackson's breast as if it were the Zapruder film. All they need is Kevin Costner with a pointer, as in JFK: "The breast goes forward. Then it goes back. Forward. Now back.")

During this election year, candidates endeavor to pass the Vietnam War litmus test. Passing it is what has made John Kerry bankable as a candidate, despite his uncanny resemblance to a codfish. It's all proof of the William Faulkner line journalists love to use as a cliché: "The past isn't dead; it's not even the past."

Cultural Exchange

In Theo and Isabelle's flat, one wall bears a cheap repro of Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People. The defiantly bare-breasted, rifle-carrying Goddess of Liberty urges the Parisians over the top of the barricades of 1830; on top of Liberty's face, Theo has pasted the face of Marilyn Monroe.

The Dreamers, a rich, decadent work of art, mixes three perennial intoxicants--sex, drink and politics--and adds a fourth: the movies. The titles of Bertolucci's movies--Last Tango in Paris, The Last Emperor, suggest that this film should have been called The Last Dreamers. We no longer live in utopian times like the late '60s, and today the political rebel is more likely to be portrayed as a crank than a love object. The Dreamers isn't, it should be stressed, a revisiting of baby-boomer wretched excess. Rather it's a warm essay on the eternal qualities of hormone-driven youthful rebellion.

Also, The Dreamers has as its implicit subject the revolutionary spark that American movies brought to France. Langlois' screenings commenced what's been a cultural exchange between the United States and France: we served them Howard Hawks and Sam Fuller; they volleyed back the French New Wave. Quentin Tarantino returned service in Reservoir Dogs, acknowledging his debt to the French: dressing his criminals in the jet-black suits the thieves always wear in Jean-Pierre Melville crime melos, and naming his film company Band Apart, in honor of Godard's irresistible anti-movie Band of Outsiders.

And today, when kid movies flood our screens, European movies come to the rescue. Could there really be a magic faraway land where they make films for adults in which people actually talk about politics and have sex like adults--instead of joking about it like junior high school students?

There aren't many filmmakers left like Bernardo Bertolucci, who insists that sex and the movies alike possess the potential to liberate both the individual and society. This faith seems all but lost. On the whole, movies in 2004 are regarded as a jumbo, saliva-covered pacifier. Thus The Dreamers is not just a dreamy, sexy film. It's a call back to the excitement of everything American movies are hiding out on--by not being movies that go too far.

The Dreamers (NC-17; 115 min.), directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, writter by Gilbert Adair, photographed by Fabio Cianchetti and starring Michael Pitt, Eva Green and Luis Garrel, opens Feb. 20 at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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From the February 11-18, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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