The Dreamers, Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci (2003)


From left to right: Michael Pitt, Louis Garrel, Eva Green Photo: 20th C. Fox Searchlight publicity

From left to right: Michael Pitt, Louis Garrel, Eva Green Photo: 20th C. Fox Searchlight publicity

The Dreamers tells the story of  three students, the American Matthew (Michael Pitt) and French brother and sister Isabelle (the beautiful and entrancing Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel) living in Paris in 1968, at the time of the student revolts and brought togther by their shared love of cinema.

The film starts innocently with Matthew seeming the rather naive ingenue entering Isabelle and Theo’s sophisticated cultured world. Indeed, when we first see Isabelle she looks like a member of the French resistance as she sexily and nonchalently smokes a cigarette in a red beret and red lipstick.

Her sophistication is revealed however as artifice as she reveals herself to be at heart a playful naive girl who with her brother likes to live her life and play games according to what films they’ve seen. For example running down the corridor of the louvre in reference to Bande A Part or chanting ‘one of us’ from Freaks when accepting Matthew into their closed world or Isabelle claiming she was born in 1959 in the Champs Elysees shouting “New York Herald Tribune!” as in A Bout De Souffle. Or when Matthew and Theo have a heated argument about the merits of Buster Keaton versus Charlie Chaplin. Which is as important to them as questions of contemporary politics (as when later in the film Theo and Matthew have an equally heated debate over the merits of communism). To emphasise how much the films reflect their lives, Bertolucci frequently intercuts the film with clips from the original films after they are reffered to.

The games, however, soon take a very perverse turn  as punishments for not getting movie references are meted out, as Isabelle forces Matthew to masturbate over  a photo of Marlene Dietrich in front of her and Matthew, for not getting her reference to Blonde Venus. Or most pervesly Theo getting Isabelle to have sex with Matthew in front of him for not getting his reference to Scarface.

This highly graphic, almost pornagraphically filmed sex scene also emphasises the voyeuristic nature of cinema , a common Bertolucci motif, as Matthew says at one point about the cinema he frequents: “It makes films like crimes, and directors like criminals.”

Despite the erotic nature of the games, however, there is still a sense that they are children playing at being grown-ups. As Matthew says in frustration when they ask him to shave his pubic hair to be more like them (a highly symbolic gesture) : “you wanna look at my peepee!?” Their sense of childishness is reinforced by how cut off they are from the world spending most of the time playing in their parents house or the cinema (as Matthew says their “screen from the world”).

They have no jobs and no sense of responsibilty living off their parents’ donations, this is illustrated in a scene where they run out of food and Isabelle attempts to take on a motherly role by cooking, completely burning the food in the process. 

It is also reinforced by the revelation that Isabelle was a virgin before being made to have sex with Matthew, whilst the fact that Theo and Isabelle sleep naked together is for them not incestous but natural. They are entirely unselfconcious of their naked bodies.

They are ‘the dreamers’ after all and live outside the normal boundaries of civilised morality. The interruption of  their carefree lives  in the guise of their parents emphasises this. As Isabelle learns that her parents saw them all naked together in a makeshift tent, in a scene that could’ve only looked like debauched revelry as they lie entangled with empty wine bottles and glasses around them, Isabelle plots to kill them all with a gas pipe from the oven.  For reality in their world cannot be allowed to intrude and spoil their sense of innocent fun.

Their sense of outside political events while earnest is also limited, only taking part in demonstrations that  affect them directly such as the closure of their beloved cinema at the beginning. Or when a brick smashes through the window prompting Theo to joins the angry student mob outside, chanting their slogans and taking on the mob mentality despite not (probably) having a clear idea of what he’s rebelling against.

The final static shot of Theo throwing a burning bottle at the army sent to pacify the crowd, symbolising how he has become part of the crowd, no longer a free-thinking individual (as Matthew tries to point out to him) but a violent automaton.

Utimately the film works as a beautiflly and languidly filmed testament to the naive enthusiasm of youth, whether to films or to sex or to political idealism. It also conveys the vanity and irresponsibilty of these enthusiasms, of believeing too wholeheartedly in an idelology or piece of fiction as the way to live life. Whilst  paying homage to the great and often overlooked films and directors (such as Nicholas Ray) in cinema’s history.


1 Comment

  1. Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” (2003) is one of his most intellectually challenging films – not less than “The Conformist” (1970), and even more semantically intricate than his “The Spider’s Stratagem” (1970). It is a film about the pernicious influence of repression of infantile sexual urge (incestuous desire) on person’s psychological development. “The Dreamers” depicts incestuous brother/sister twins in their early twenties (Isabelle and Theo) tormented by their barren sexual fixation on each other. If they could give themselves to their desire they would go through and out of it to sexual adulthood (incestuous need makes sex more important than it really is exactly because it is forbidden). But beautiful French twins are psychologically repressed and therefore stay forever fixated on their infantile sexual obsession. So, they instinctively need a sexual ersatz-object which unexpectedly became personified, for them, by their recent American friend (Matthew) who has his own psychological complex that makes it possible for him to agree to be sexually involved with Isabelle in spite of not being loved by her and despite the fact that he himself was just attracted to her beauty and sexiness (without amorous complications). According to Bertolucci’s images, this whole situation is quite common and widespread in Western civilization, and this allows the director to make daring generalizations about why young people, with all alleged openness of democratic societies to humanistic progress, are not able to promote social change towards a more democratic life. Fixation on infantile sexual object of those who (like Isabelle and Theo) are traumatized by their unconscious or conscious incestuous desires, and proclivity of many who (like Matthew) are ready to mate with a sexually attractive object without a simultaneous amorous need – are two halves of Western youth with sexual life as a symptom of emotional and psychological underdevelopment. One group needs incestuous ersatz-object and leads a pseudo-conventional sexual life, and both groups need to be passionately occupied with artifacts to which they are emotionally tied symbiotically, in infantile manner (consumer goods, hobby or technical toys) inside today’s omnipresent mass-cultural setting. That’s why the drama of our “dreamers” takes place amidst the student rebellion in Paris in May 1968, and all three of them are hooked on cinema like a child on his/her toy (they use cinema instead of living; they live inside the films, their love for cinema has a symbiotic immediacy that is characteristic of consumerist tie between subject and things he/she possesses or images or ideas he/she bonds with). Repressed incestuous object (Theo) in Isabelle’s life returns/reincarnates as incestuous ersatz-object (Matthew) and as incestuous artifacts (cinema for all three main characters).
    The film includes a lot of sexual action and multifaceted (and multi-angled) nudity, but everything in it is colored by Bertolucci’s sadness about the lost existential direction of our civilization. Does he love young people? He is worried about their general sensibility distorted by psychological repressiveness and ideological and consumerist predatoriness of today’s society.
    Please, visit: to read the essay about “The Dreamers” and other Bertolucci’s films (with analysis of stills), and also articles on films by Godard, Resnais, Bergman, Bunuel, Kurosawa, Bresson, Pasolini, Antonioni, Alan Tanner, Cavani, Fassbinder, Anne-Marie Mieville, Werner Herzog, Ken Russell, Wim Wenders, Maurice Pialat, Jerzy Skolimowski, Rossellini, Moshe Mizrahi and Ronald Neame.
    By Victor Enyutin

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