Living for the movies is a concept I can understand, but attempting to live within them, well, is another matter entirely. Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers explores just such an attempt; the foolish idealism of youth that believes it can keep the world at bay indefinitely, even while claiming to be involved in its whirlwind of issues. There are three young people here — Matthew, Isabelle, and Theo — but only Matthew, despite his attraction to the others, ends up being reasonable. Unlike the brother and sister, Matthew understands that actions have consequences and that when the world beckons, it is often necessary to play by its rules. The time is 1968 and the place is Paris — when students took to the streets by the thousands, at first to defend their beloved Cinematheque Francais and founder Henri Langlois, and later to riot for a hodgepodge of causes; often ill-defined, but moved by the spirit that something was being opposed.
Matthew is an American student in Paris, abroad to study French, and he spends much of his time at the Cinematheque watching every kind of movie under the sun — Westerns, silents, comedies, and of course, the French New Wave. He is in love with the cinema, and is ready to defend its giants with a passionate intensity. During a demonstration to protest the firing of Langlois, Matthew meets Isabelle, a reckless, impulsive, yet striking young woman who never leaves the side of her brother, Theo. Matthew is immediately drawn to these two, and for good reason. They are attractive, fearless, and share the same love for the cinema. After all, they do not just talk about “favorites,” but are able to analyze, debate, and penetrate all aspects of the art; to elevate the movies to a higher plane of existence to such an extent that yes, it does seem possible to escape into such a world and live forever. But there is more at work here than the days and nights of a few cinephiles. For Isabelle and Theo, there is a deeper mystery, one that may or may not involve incest.
At first, the world of these three is very appealing indeed, as Isabelle and Theo hide away in their parents’ home, fully funded of course. They take baths, eat, talk, engage in trivia games, and slowly reveal to Matthew the depths of their perversion. At one point Matthew peeks in their room and finds them on a bed fully nude, staring longingly as if old lovers. And the movie games usually involve the brother and sister, as when Isabelle misses a question and is told to have sex with Matthew while Theo watches. Still, this is more than a matter of simple attraction. Isabelle and Theo seemed to be joined at a deeper level — almost telepathically — and their sexuality is merely an extension of the unshakable emotional bond that they share. When, for example, Matthew insists on taking Isabelle out on a real date, Theo’s response is to wound Isabelle by bringing home a woman of his own. They are simply unable to break away from that which has been formed by a self-imposed isolation.
While this film is inexplicably rated NC-17 (I believe for shots of the penis, which as we know could bring down the empire if left unchecked), the sex itself is not meant to be erotic or titillating. As with Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, sex is used by the characters to block out the world; a way to live forever in the moment, seemingly without consequence, responsibility, or even a real identity. Sex can be reduced to its basic elements, and the surrounding noise of the city is seen as a pollutant; an intrusion into the dream world of the apartment. And yet, I don’t believe Bertolucci is ruthlessly attacking the foolish naiveté of Isabelle and Theo, only demonstrating that for all the joys and spirit of youth, it is necessary, at some point, to enter society if one seeks to change it. Isabelle and Theo are, in many was, the worst sort of idealists; they pepper their rooms with images of Mao, even reading from his Little Red Book from time to time, defiantly oblivious to the millions of dead bodies lying in the Chairman’s wake. They (accurately I believe) see the need for revolution (all established orders need to be challenged at some point), but are utterly clueless regarding methods.
Even worse, they excuse mass murder and oppression because such things interfere with the romantic ideal of the revolutionary. But these self-deceptions are inevitable, of course, because Isabelle and Theo never venture into the open air; locking the doors and windows tight to keep their fantasy alive until, I guess, the food runs out. When it does, we get a scene of devastating humor and insight. After Isabelle uses the remaining food to create a nasty, burned dinner, she admits that Papa needs to be called so that the money supply doesn’t dry up. Revolutionaries indeed, only subsidized by the very figures they claim to oppose. These characters are typical of their lot, however. They rebel against the world simply because they can. And when that is no longer possible, they’ll become what they’ve hated, sure as shit.
The final scenes represent a shift for Isabelle and Theo, as an intrusion from the outside world brings them face to face with an inevitable choice. They choose one course — a destructive course that, for many, represents a turn in the 1960s from peaceful protest to self-destructive violence — while Matthew hangs back in horror, fully aware of the implications. But consider Isabelle’s action immediately preceding the march to the streets (as much as I want to, I won’t ruin it for you). Her selfishness demonstrates that when the dream is threatened, she lacks the tools to make a shift and stay on track. She cannot evolve because she has never fully grown up, and her actions are that of a child who has been denied a sugary treat one too many times.
And yet, I felt alive during much of this movie, for I can understand their overwhelming passion for the movies. Bertolucci pulls brief clips from the history of cinema to reinforce a character’s point, or demonstrate how fully these people are immersed in the world of the silver screen. At one point, the trio want to see if they can sprint through the Louvre at a faster rate than the group in Godard’s Bande a part. Silly and juvenile, yes, but understandable. Their heroes, after all, are from the movies (there are so few in life, right?), and not simply the traditional good guys. They are quite aware of the shift in world cinema, and they not only want to be present at the creation, but drink in its power so that perhaps, it can be used to inspire social change. As such, The Dreamers is a film that presents “both sides” equally, and with great allure, although Matthew’s break is more in line with Bertolucci’s sympathies. He remembers those wild, carefree days (and with affection), but he also knows where and how they went off the rails.