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The Dreamers
by Dennis Morton

Aired on Feb 24 & 25, 2004

If I were to tell you that a film featuring attractive young people having sex and spending lots of screen time without their clothes on was really a sophisticated character study, you might not believe me. But you might be inclined to find out for yourself. And I hope you do, because I think Bernardo Bertolucci’s latest film, The Dreamers, is smart, beautiful and insightful.

Because of the sex and nudity, The Dreamers has earned the dreaded NC-17 rating, almost always a guarantee of commercial suicide in an America that remains, after all these years, fundamentally puritanical.

In addition to its pleasing and often sensual images, The Dreamers is a film for thinking adults. Set in an important historical time and place, Paris in the spring of 1968, The Dreamers is about three bright young people negotiating their way through the treacherous waters of early post-adolescence.

What makes the film so attractive to me is the exploration of two personality types generally found occupying opposite ends of the spectrum. While each of the three main characters share a number of passions and obsessions, the two males in the trio filter the same material through very different mindsets.

Matthew, a twenty year old American student, ostensibly in Paris to perfect his French, looks at the world with the sensibilities of a poet. Theo, whose father is a famous French poet, tends to perceive the world through the eyes of the true believer. Isabelle, Theo’s twin sister, seems trapped somewhere in an indefinite middle. Appropriately, she’s more like an actress, trying on various roles, and attempting desperately to find her balance.

Most of the film unfolds in a labyrinthine apartment in the heart of Paris. The twins’ parents are on vacation. In the streets outside, students and workers are roiling toward a combustion point. But in the apartment, Isabelle, Theo and their guest Matthew pass the days in a swirl of sex and wine, and talk of politics, music, and the cinema.

Lust, love, curiosity, insecurity and jealousy thicken the soup of self-discovery they simmer in. Eventually the temperature rises and the pot boils over. In the interim we are treated to clever puns dropped inconspicuously into the dialogue, to clips of famous old films blended ingeniously into the narrative, and to more than a few breathtaking pieces of camera work.

In The Dreamers, important things tend to happen at the dinner table. Keep your ears perked for an exchange between Matthew and the twins’ father. In a short conversation they comment on the nature of inspiration and on the mysterious mix of shape and form in the universe. It’s a metaphor for the physical and emotional struggle the three
young characters will engage in, and it provides clues about their perceptual filters.

The soundtrack is important. Listen for the one song that is repeated twice. It accompanies very significant events. The lyrics are in French, but the song was a hit in
America and you may remember the English translation. If so, it will heighten your appreciation of its aptness.

I read The Dreamers as nothing less than a portrait of the endless conflict between two world views, on the one hand, that of the fundamentalist, of whatever religious or political persuasion, and on the other, the mind that can accept complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity.

The Dreamers is as intellectually provocative as it is physically alluring. I recommend it highly.

For KUSP’s Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.