The Dreamers (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
"They believe they have the power not only to provoke the world, but to transform it"
- The twins' father in "The Dreamers"
On March 31, 1968, the most powerful man on the planet, Lyndon Johnson, capitulated to the reality of the times, and announced he would not run for re-election. It was an astounding victory for grassroots student protest, causing 19 year olds across the world to feel that their marches were more than merely provocative, but were capable of causing tectonic shifts in political power. It was a heady time to be 19, I can tell you with some confidence, since I turned 19 about two months before Lyndon resigned. This is a film about those who were 19 and feeling their oats in those early months of 1968, and that year is more than just the setting for The Dreamers. It is a character.
The story begins with a young Southern Californian who was studying in France at that time, ostensibly to do the perfunctory "year abroad" for language students. Once there he placed academics on the back burner and decided to watch as many great films as possible. Night after night, he sat in the front row for the free screenings at the Musée du Cinéma inside the Palais de Chaillot. He and his fellow cinephiles were mesmerized by everything from silent films to the French New Wave. The world of politics was far from his mind, but politics and the cinema would soon merge into a single issue when the De Gaulle government turned its attention to the movie world.
The creator of that same Musée du Cinéma was the legendary Henri Langlois, who had also created the Cinémathèque Française in 1936, and in so doing managed to rescue hundreds, perhaps thousands, of films from oblivion. He later managed to preserve France's cinematic heritage through the darkest days of the German occupation. Still later, his dedication to film was credited with a key role in giving birth to the Nouvelle Vague movement which transformed film in every developed country in the 60s and 70s by popularizing the concept of the "auteur" director. For all of his dedication and contributions to the culture of France and the world of cinema in general, Langlois was ousted from his own Cinémathèque in February 1968 by the De Gaulle government. This provoked the cineastes, who took to the streets in protest during a time when student protests were starting to shake the globe. The February Cinémathèque protest turned out to be mere kindling for a later conflagration, but DeGaulle's capitulation, followed by the Lyndon Johnson resignation a month later, convinced student protestors worldwide that their actions were effective, and those successes emboldened them further, igniting the massive student protests and general strikes that virtually shut Paris down in May of 1968.
In that first tentative demonstration over the Langlois ouster, the innocent American cinephile, the first dreamer in our story, was nearly swept away in a battle between protesting students and riot police, but was rescued by two French siblings. The American quickly befriended both the brother and the sister, so when the twins' parents disappeared from Paris on business, the three of them turned the family's Parisian apartment into a kind of mini-commune and filled their time with long, stoned discussions about movies and politics and, of course, sex. Those three topics are the real meat of The Dreamers, and it is not by accident that a noteworthy documentary about the making of this film is called "Cinema, Sex, Politics." It was not long before the dreamers' discussions of these three subjects started to transmogrify into practical experience. The first subject to move from the theoretical plane to the pragmatic was sex. Once that was out of the way, political discussions started to turn into reality when the French siblings joined the student protests. At that point, the American turned his back on them, and that more or less ends the film.
So what about the third subject? Cinema? Did that never leave the dream-plane and become reality? Is there no sense of parallelism?
Well, the cinema discussions took a little longer to move to the practical plane. Say, oh, about 35 years. I assume that Bertolucci's film is somewhat autobiographical, and in that sense, the characters' discussions about films did finally leave the world of theory to become this very film, which is the most recent in a four-decade career which has merited many high honors. Bertolucci has been nominated for four Oscars, two for direction and two for writing, encompassing three different films. He has won in both categories. His list of credits is impressive:
Despite Bertolucci's genius, I've often been ambivalent about his work, and this film illustrates why. In its best moments, it is marvelous, demonstrating a complete command of camera movement, composition, and lighting, all of which are used to illustrate some fascinating ideas, and to bring the viewer deep inside its world. Dude, that's what film is all about. When it works, it bathes me in its glow. At its worst, however, it seems tedious, with scenes that either have no point or drag on long after the point has been made. In fact, I'm not sure there is a point to the entire film.
And I feel that way despite the fact that I was there. These are my memories he's stirring. I am exactly the same age as the film's three characters; I was also caught in the turmoil of student activism and the cultural revolution; and I was also a film buff. If this film does not grab me and hold me completely, it may be far less compelling for you because The Dreamers immerses itself so deeply into the arcana of 1968 and the mystique of pre-1968 movies that it virtually excludes anyone who wasn't there and doesn't care a fig for Godard or the Keaton-Chaplin debate.
I've reacted with a feeling of unfulfilled love to a Bertolucci film before: Last Tango in Paris. I've watched that film several times because there are some things in it that I really enjoy seeing again and again, and I don't just mean the female flesh. It has some brilliant moments that linger in the memory, that draw me back to the film. Yet when the film is over, I never feel that great satisfaction that comes from having watched a great, well-loved movie. Similarly, I believe that I will probably return to The Dreamers at least once more. I will watch how Bertolucci uses his cinephile characters to recreate scenes from older movies made by Godard and others. I will wonder how he got the camera to move in a certain way, and admire his lighting effects. I will enjoy Eva Green's flesh and the freshness that the three kids brought to the lead roles. I will admire Bertolucci's daring and share his nostalgia for 1968.
And I believe that I will feel unrewarded when it is over.
The Dreamers is like good sex without a climax.
Mind you, good sex without a climax is still better than just about any other human activity, but after all that teasing, all that delicious foreplay, all that wild yearning, one feels owed a climax, and Bertolucci couldn't deliver the goods.
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