The Dreamers (2003)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The first time I saw a movie at the Cinémathèque Française I thought, “Only the French… Only the French would house a cinema inside a palace.” The movie was Sam Fuller’s “Shock Corridor.” Its images were so powerful, it was like being hypnotized. I was 20 years old. It was the late ‘60s and I’d come to Paris for a year to study French.
But it was here that I got my real education. I became a member of what in those days was kind of a free masonry. A free masonry of cinephiles… what we’d call “film buffs.” I was one of the insatiables… the ones you’d always find sitting closest to the screen.
Why do we sit so close? Maybe it was because we wanted to receive the images first, when they were still new, still fresh, before they cleared the hurdles of the rows behind us, before they’d been relayed back from row to row, spectator to spectator until worn-out, secondhand, the size of a postage stamp it returned to the projectionist’s cabin. Maybe, too, the screen really was a screen. It screened us… from the world.
And so it began, my love for films, during the summer just after junior year of high school had come to a welcome close. Bernardo Bertolocci’s “The Dreamers” was a like a thunder shock to my spine that upon seeing it, I sat on the couch, silent and still, Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” playing as the end credits started to creep down, convinced that I had not seen anything like it—and I wanted more. Right then I knew that I had just seen a film that I would carry with me so long as I lived.
The opening credits makes known that it is going to be a physical picture. As names appear on the screen, the background demands that we admire the infrastructure of the Eiffel Tower, the metallic support mostly in black while others are, curiously, in red. The color red usually represents passion and violence. There is violence in the film but it isn’t until the very end. For the most part, it focuses on several kinds of passion, physical and intimate, among three cinephiles—an American from sunny California and two French fraternal twins.
Its physicality is not only defined in terms of sex, nudity, and carnality. It is reflected in how Matthew (Michael Pitt) wears his suits and hair, how Isabelle (Eva Green) finds it a challenge to exist on her own for very long when her brother is not only an arm’s length away, how the posture of Theo (Louis Garrel) is blasé every time his father, a published and successful poet, speaks at the dinner table and yet Theo’s eyes are sharp, just waiting to pick out a ripe moment of hypocrisy. Matthew notices how the length, width, and depth of Isabelle’s cigarette lighter tends to fit in any of the patterns of a table cloth.
One of the picture’s themes is its depiction of Matthew, Isabelle, and Theo as children—that although they talk of politics, they remain cocooned. The trio runs through the Louvre Museum in an attempt to beat the record set by the characters in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Bande à part.” Isabelle refers to the American as “my little Matthew” as if she were his big sister. They explore one another’s bodies up close and afar. Notice the innocent appearance of Isabelle’s room. A fort is built in the salon. Listen closely as to how Theo and Matthew try to persuade one another of the merits of either Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin.
Like children, they even play games. When inspiration erupts, either Theo or Isabelle reenact a specific scene in a movie. The other two must try to guess the film. Failure to do so will result in a punishment. And like children, punishments must involve a level of humiliation. Matthew finds the game sadistic and is repelled by it initially. But Isabelle and Theo’s friendship is one he yearns for. He feels as though he has found his soulmate. Only there happens to be two of them. Their relationships are subtle, elegant, and complex.
But all games must come to an end eventually. The film mostly taking place inside an apartment, we see glimpses of the reality—a revolution taking shape—on television, by looking at a massive pile of rubbish in the streets, and observing protestors marching outside. There are blockades and behind them are police. There is a beautiful scene where Matthew takes out Isabelle on a date. It is the only moment in the film that comes closest to a typical love story but it is most welcome because it is earned. It is a glimpse of a future they might have had if they were born and had met a decade before or after. But, alas, it is May 1968.
Based on the screenplay and novel by Gilbert Adair, “The Dreamers” is beautifully photographed, each location—whether it be a room, a restaurant, or a movie theater—is vivid in detail, and wonderfully—and bravely—performed by the three leads. Some viewers may look and dismiss it to be pornographic because of the amount of flesh shown on screen. But others may look and recognize a story of awakening. In a number of ways, it had awoken me.
In retrospect, if it weren’t for this film, I probably would not have been inspired—and continuing to be inspired—to watch whatever movie I could get my hands on. Though my pursuit of knowledge is in science, it is likely that tough times would have gotten the best of me if the movies had not been there constantly to provide a delicate balance between reality and dreams.