`Dreamers': a crude awakening for fans of Bertolucci

Perversity ruins tale of obsession

March 19, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

For several years in Los Angeles, a frequent screening companion constantly tugged me straight toward the third row, no matter how large the theater.

She had logged some time at the Cinematheque Francaise and had been a friend of the British critic Gilbert Adair, author of the Cinematheque-inspired novel The Holy Innocents and now its screen adaptation, The Dreamers. So when I heard the narration to Bernardo Bertolucci's movie explain (in language directly from the book) that Cinematheque fanatics sit close to the screen "because they cannot bear not to receive its images first, when they are brand new, still wet," it struck home with the force of revelation.

In its opening minutes, Bertolucci's movie captures the shared aesthetic passion of young movie lovers; as the film goes on, and its characters quote from other movies and make them part of their lives, it glories in the movies' power to catalyze new and risky real-life possibilities. Unfortunately, the film eventually drowns in a stew of perversity and pomposity. It's an adolescent wallow, not the novel's doom-tinged lyric flight.

Michael Pitt plays Matthew (the narrator), a movie-crazy American student in Paris, and Louis Garrel and Eva Green play Theo and Isabelle, the sensual twin offspring of a celebrated French poet. Bereft when the doors of the Cinematheque are shut because of the firing of its founder, Henri Langlois, these three end up playing house - or madhouse - in the twins' apartment while mere and pere are away. They devise a movie quiz with perilous consequences: Miss a reference and you may be compelled to commit intimate acts with or in front of other players.

The movie is spot-on when it initially depicts the mingling of Matthew's curiosity, fear and desire, the brazen ultra-closeness of this brother and sister, and the melding of these three into one unholy trio. The debates over the relative worth of Chaplin and Keaton, the riffs on Freaks and Top Hat and Queen Christina and Breathless, a race through the Louvre patterned on (and intercut with) the record-breaking gambol through that museum in Godard's Band of Outsiders - all capture that long-ago time when youth created its own canon, its own high and low culture, with full respect for individuality and no respect for tradition and conformity.

But as the threesome's movie games push them into an incestuous menage a trois, the movie loses its grip. As these lovers lose interest in everything except their sexual and artistic obsessions, the audience loses interest in them. Bertolucci simply hasn't made their lust immediate, complex and palpable, no matter how luscious the visual mesh of flesh and film clips.

When the outside world enters the apartment with a rock through the window, and the trio emerges into the worker-student general strike of May 1968, the movie falls apart. Matthew starts preaching nonviolence, Theo and Isabelle drift into the anarchy in the street - and whatever authenticity the film has as an expression of young-adult self-indulgence suffocates in self-importance.

For Bertolucci, a deserved darling of cinephiles, the message should be that you can't go home again, even if it's to the Cinematheque.

Dreamers

Starring Michael Pitt, Eva Green and Louis Garrel

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Released by Fox Searchlight

Rated NC-17

Time 115 minutes

Sun Score **1/2

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