Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, written by Gilbert Adair, is a rapturous valentine to the director’s own glory days and to those of the cinema-besotted college generation of the 1960s and 1970s. It’s going to ring all kinds of nostalgic, idealistic bells with people who discovered movies at places like the Berkeley Cinema Guild and San Francisco’s Surf Theatre. For younger audiences—the Star Wars and The Matrix generations—it may prove more problematic. For some, the movie no doubt will give them an inkling of what they missed. Others may just shake their heads and wonder if these old fuddy-duddies are ever going to get over themselves. In all honesty, I must admit that as I watched the movie, I found myself pinballing back and forth among all three reactions.
Michael Pitt (looking like a slack-jawed, stoned-out Leonardo DiCaprio) plays Matthew, an American in Paris in 1968, haunting the Cinémathèque française and getting drunk on movies old and new. Matthew tells us in a voice-over that all true cinéastes (the 1960s French term for “movie dweeb”) would sit in the first few rows of the theater, eager to receive the images fresh off the screen, before they became diluted by the darkness and the reactions of other spectators. (The line encapsulates the movie: To anyone who has ever had to sit way down in front, craning his or her neck and trying to focus on that big, blurry screen, it sounds vaguely silly. And yet, at the same time, there’s something naively charming about it.)
When the Cinémathèque’s temperamental director, Henri Langlois, is fired, the film lovers of France demonstrate in support of him. At the demonstration, Matthew meets Isabelle (Eva Green) and her twin brother, Theo (Louis Garrel), and before long, he falls under the spell of their bohemian insouciance. They invite him to move in with them while their parents are away on holiday, and the three embark on a ménage that grows more and more insular and obsessed with their own film-buffery, even as the streets outside their apartment fester and boil over with the student riots of that tumultuous year.
Like many (if not most) movies these days, The Dreamers bristles with references to other films, but Bertolucci pitches his allusions on a more rarified level than we usually see. Other directors may invoke the images and dialogue of Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz, but Bertolucci gives us Greta Garbo in Queen Christina, Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus and Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless.
But Bertolucci, one of the most subtle of visual poets, keeps going inexplicably literal on us. When Isabelle, relishing her increasing intimacy with Matthew, pads lightly around his room, exploring it with her eyes and fingertips, it starts out exquisitely, with the camera caressing Green’s gorgeous face just as she caresses the objects in the room. But no sooner do we think of Garbo in Queen Christina (“I’m memorizing this room, making my memories of this night”) than Bertolucci cuts directly to poor old Greta herself, in all her shimmering silver glory, and we recoil. The overstatement kills the moment. Bertolucci can’t trust us with just references; he has to plunk the actual scene down in front of us. It’s like listening to a rambling drunk who compulsively ends every sentence with, “Y’know what I’m sayin’?”
Then again, when Theo and Matthew argue the relative merits of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Theo snaps, “You Americans don’t even understand the essence of Jerry Lewis!” It’s hard not to guffaw—the line is such a pitch-perfect parody of French pretensions—but we can’t tell whether Adair and Bertolucci are joking or whether the guffaw is the reaction they want.
Ultimately, for all the experimentation and exploration Matthew, Isabelle and Theo do, they end up looking shallow and trivial, even to themselves, and there seems less to them than meets the eye. The Dreamers devolves into a nostalgia trip for 1970s cinema intellectuals; for them, it pays dividends. Others might do better to check out the films—like Bertolucci’s own Last Tango in Paris, The Conformist and 1900—that induced the nostalgia in the first place.