As a child, I was raised as a Catholic, and went to church on Sunday, um, religiously. I can still remember the first time I skipped Mass and why: a double-feature at the old Harvard Square Theater of “Bonnie & Clyde” and “Easy Rider.” From then on, Sundays were celebrated absorbing the works of Hitchcock, Truffaut, Scorsese, Tarkovsky, Fellini and Cassavettes, usually after smoky Saturday midnight screenings of cult classics like “The Harder They Come” or “Eraserhead.”
For several years I lived and breathed cinema, and it rarely let me down. Good films didn’t just transport you beyond your own experience for a couple of hours, they actually offered you new ways of perceiving the world around you. The really good stuff would insinuate itself so deep into your head that one morning you’d wake up, roll over your Vietnamese girlfriend, reach for the Gitanes, throw some Eno on the stereo, and realize you’d become Richard Bohringer in “Diva.” Or something like that. Think I’m exaggerating? Just ask John Hinckley.
It’s this extreme cinephilia, a passion bordering on obsession, that Bernardo Bertolucci celebrates in his latest, “The Dreamers.” Set in Paris in 1968, Bertolucci’s film — based on a novel by Gilbert Adair — follows three young film buffs who get caught up in the radical protests and rioting that shut down the city, while also tracing the complicated menage-a-trois that develops between them.
Michael Pitt (“Bully”) plays Matthew, an American student in Paris who’s an avid film freak, spending much of his time planted in front of the screen at the Cinamatheque Francais, located in the grand environs of the Palais de Chaillot. It was here, almost by chance, that the spark that lit the 1968 uprising first flared. When the cinematheque’s irreverent director, Henri Langlois, was sacked by the government, the French film world rallied to his support. A pro-Langlois demonstration on Feb. 14 was charged by the riot police, with notables like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard getting beaten by truncheons, an act that only escalated the antigovernment protests.
It’s at this point that Bertolucci’s film takes off, with Matthew noticing a striking young woman, Isabelle (Eva Green), chained to the gates of the cinematheque. She asks him to remove a still-lit cigarette from her mouth, and thus begins a dance of come-ons and withdrawals, one that’s further complicated by the presence of Isabelle’s twin brother, Theo (Louis Garrel, who obviously learned how to play an obnoxiously pretentious cinephile by observing his father, avant-garde director and Nico-worshipper Philippe Garrel). The trio bond over their shared love of films and philosophy, a classic French combination. In what’s kind of an art-house version of “Kill Bill,” the three friends quote and act out bits from their favorite flicks, scenes of which are then intercut into “The Dreamers.” There’s “A bout de souffle,” of course, but also “City Lights,” “Blonde Venus,” “Shock Corridor” and “Freaks,” to name but a few. Indeed, much of Bertolucci’s film seems like a lament for a time when film, as an art form, seemed to matter so much more, a time before culture became as fragmented and diffused as it is today.
He captures this well — a giddy race through the Louvre, for example, as the threesome emulate Godard’s “Bande a part,” or Cahiers du Cinema-inspired debates between Theo and Matthew over who was better, Chaplin or Keaton — but like so many films that are essentially a homage, there are no moments in “The Dreamers” that will be similarly quoted or adopted. Certainly not the scene in which Theo, after losing a film trivia contest to Isabelle, is forced to masturbate on a poster of Marlene Dietrich while Matthew watches.
Sexual conundrums are nothing new to Bertolucci, who last visited Paris in his 1972 film “Last Tango In Paris,” but even the plot here is pure homage, an obvious lift from Jean Cocteau’s “Les Enfants terribles.” The sexual frankness here is welcome, neither overdone nor furtive, though the heavy hand of the Japanese censors is unfortunately evident. A not particularly explicit sex scene between Matthew and Isa is obscured from the ribs to the thighs — about one-third of the screen — while casual nudity is similarly erased. And yet, a full frontal shot late in the film remains as is. I’m pleased to report that public morals did not break down at the sight, and there was no coupling in the aisles, so perhaps Eirin, Japan’s censorship board, should join the 21st century.
Matthew pines after Isabelle, but is confused by the rather too close relations between her and Theo, who even seem to be sharing the same bed. When the twins’ parents leave town for a few weeks, Matthew moves in, and the sexual mind-games really take off. On the cusp of adulthood, inspired by the theatricality and drama of the films they love, high on the radical philosophies of liberation and no rules that permeated the late ’60s, the kids let their desires lead them where they may. It’s a twisted path, and one that’s so hermetically sealed they almost fail to notice the riots outside shutting down the city around them.
“The Dreamers” is not without its charms, particularly in its evocation of the period, and the attitudes of the hardcore cinephiles. Matthew always sits in the front two rows, where “the images were so powerful it was like being hypnotized,” while Isa haughtily declares, “Theo and I never watch television; we’re purists.” (One extra star for this film, right there.)
Alas, Bertolucci suffers from the same fault on display in his last few films, from “Besieged” to “The Sheltering Sky” — an inability to sell us on the central relationship between the characters. It’s hard to believe that Theo and Isa share a bed in their parents’ home on a regular basis, especially given Isa tells Matthew she’d kill herself if her parents found out. Things like that, as they say, only happen in the movies.