THE DREAMERS directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, written by Gilbert Adair from his novel The Holy Innocents, produced by Jeremy Thomas, with Michael Pitt, Louis Garrel, Eva Green and Anna Chancellor. 116 minutes. A Fox Searchlight release. Opens Friday (February 13). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 71. Rating: NN
It's hard to know how to talk about a film as spectacularly miscalculated as The Dreamers. Bernardo Bertolucci is a great director. You can't dismiss a filmography that includes Before The Revolution, The Conformist, Last Tango In Paris and 1900.
On the other hand, he's shown himself capable of Luna, Little Buddha and The Sheltering Sky, which are very bad films by almost any standard, suffering from berserk miscasting in the case of Little Buddha (Keanu Reeves?) and a radical misreading of the source material of The Sheltering Sky.
And you can't argue that he's lost his way as an older director. Stealing Beauty has some great virtues, and his last film, Besieged, is a magnificent portrait of romantic obsession.
So what went wrong here?
Adapted from Gilbert Adair's novel, The Dreamers tells the story of an American student in Paris, 1968. He lives at the Cinémathèque Français and becomes involved with twins, a brother and sister, who are inappropriately close. (There's more than a touch of Cocteau's Les Enfants Terribles here.) And while Paris is about to explode into the May riots, they lock themselves into an apartment for bouts of movie trivia and sexually transgressive games.
Bertolucci has always had a curious relationship with the New Wave, which regarded him as an Italian cousin because of early films like La Commare Secca and Before The Revolution.
Then, in The Conformist, he assigned Godard's phone number to the professor/father figure whom Fabrizzio assassinates, and in Last Tango In Paris, Jeanne's ineffectual filmmaker boyfriend, played by New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud, seemed a parody of Truffaut.
The Dreamers is an aging director's attempt to recreate the late New Wave era, when Europe took to the streets and directors managed to shut down the Cannes Film Festival.
It's a curiously youthful subject, and the setting is actually a distraction. The three main characters are such sybaritic puppets (it's like Larry Clark's Kids goes to the Sorbonne) and so lacking in any sort of intellectual or emotional depth that every time one of them makes a reference to the world outside, you think, "Well, why don't you go outside? You're not the only ones who could use some air at this point!"
The cast is also problematic. Louis Garrel, as the brother, reads as such an utter creep that you wonder what Michael Pitt sees in him.
But Pitt's no prize either. Bertolucci lost a great deal when Jake Gyllenhaal declined the part. (He didn't want to do the nudity.) Pitt played one of the killers in the Sandra Bullock thriller Murder By Numbers and was in Larry Clark's Bullies. He's puffy and blank-faced, an American who doesn't swing his arms when he walks; he moves like one of Bresson's somnambulists.
More than anything, The Dreamers is out of its time. Though not quite remote enough to be period, 1968 is just distant enough to be very hard to get right. Parent-child arguments are timeless, but the terms of the arguments change with social context. Garrel, Eva Green and Pitt try not to act like the youth of 2004, but Bertolucci doesn't give them enough to feel like the youth of 1968.
Note to directors going back to the past: don't include excerpts from classic films in your work. The Dreamers has clips from Bande À Part, Blonde Venus and Queen Christina. They simply make people wish they were watching Bande À Part, Blonde Venus or Queen Christina.