Dream on if you think the NC-17 stamp that the ratings board stupidly slapped on Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers means you’re in for porn with your popcorn. The film provides a view of a vagina (full frontal) and two dicks (limp), plus one scene of jerking off (faked) that is far less sticky than anything in the R-rated There’s Something About Mary. That’s Hollywood hypocrisy. You can blow a head off and get by with an R, but show someone giving head and you’re accused of rocking the foundation of George W.’s America.
Will the film be hurt by the rating? Yes, in that some theaters won’t show NC-17 films, and many newspapers won’t take ads for them. But this film was never meant to fit in with multiplex drool. Bertolucci, the Italian master behind Last Tango in Paris, The Conformist and the Oscar-winning Last Emperor, stirs things up. The Dreamers may go slack when you most want it to soar, but it also seduces with eroticism and resonates with ideas.
The setting is Paris in 1968. Matthew, an American student played with implosive intensity by Michael Pitt (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), spends hours absorbing movie culture at the Cinematheque Francaise. Matthew sits up front wanting to feel the images as they come off the screen “still fresh, still new.” New Wave directors are revolutionizing film. Outside, young protesters take on the government.
It’s in this surging atmosphere that Matthew meets Isabelle (Eva Green) and her twin brother, Theo (Louis Garrel). He moves into their apartment — their parents are away for a month — and is pulled into their incestuous games.
The Dreamers, like its three main characters, is drunk on movies. Bertolucci includes clips, from Chaplin and Garbo to the exhilarating moment in Godard’s Band of Outsiders when the lead actors race through the Louvre, a scene Matthew, Isabelle and Theo re-create. Bertolucci, fighting the stilted script by Gilbert Adair, revels in this atmosphere, especially when Theo is forced by his sister to masturbate to a photo of Marlene Dietrich as punishment for not guessing the name of one of her films.
The early scenes of playful sexuality — the three in a tub, and Matthew gazing wonderingly up at Isabelle’s crotch as he sucks her toes — take on a toxicity as jealousy kicks in and secrets are revealed. Matthew and Isabelle go at it on the kitchen floor while Theo fries eggs and pretends not to notice. Bertolucci and his superb cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti notice everything. And the three actors — Green has a startling beauty — provide the canvas for the play of conflicting emotions. The film errs only when it tries for a profundity it can’t support. But there’s no denying the thrill when the trio — now possessed of a hard-won self-awareness — gets swept up in the street riots and a new world of danger and possibility. Bertolucci provokes audiences instead of pacifying them. Boy, do we need him now.