The year is 1968, and a young American pacifist named Matthew (Michael Pitt, “Murder By Numbers”) has decided to leave his chaotic homeland for the serene beauty of France to do some studying. Enjoying the new culture, Matthew becomes caught up in the daily screenings at the Cinematheque Francais, where he meets, and instantly befriends, siblings Theo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green). Bonding over their shared obsessive love of films, the three begin a strange sexual friendship, which closes them off to the changing face of France happening in the outside world. Once that world finally seeps in, the trio are confronted with who they really are, and how this relationship has changed them.
“The Dreamers” is renowned director Bernardo Bertolucci’s (“Last Tango in Paris,” “The Last Emperor”) attempt to capture the spirit of the French New Wave cinema movement of the 1960s. Delighting in the sights and sound of the era, as well as directly editing in clips from the bookings at the Cinematheque Francais that the directors of the movement learned their craft from, Bertolucci has created a film that has a difficult time trying to spit out everything it has to say. The plot contains elements of sexual obsession, combative friendships, film geekdom, and, finally, the changing face of political resentment in the youth of France. The events are seen through the eyes of the American, Matthew, which helps to justify the wildly fluctuating themes of the film, and it’s all captured with honey glazed sensuality by Bertolucci’s wandering eye. But even working in the filmmaker’s “back yard,” as it were, “Dreamers” doesn‘t have the fires within to make its ambitious points or expand on the experience like it desires.
“The Dreamers,” is an intoxicating sit for about an hour. The story of Matthew, Theo, and Isabelle coming together and exploring their sexual and emotional limits is where Bertolucci has always excelled. Depicting France at a cultural sweet spot in its history, Bertolucci could’ve pointed his camera to the floor and found the makings of a decent movie. But “Dreamers” becomes more determined and pointed with its historical perspective and its acting as it closes. The filmmaker lets the actors head off into method land as the relationships become more toxic and puckered with jealousy, and the last thing any director should be doing is letting Michael “I’m acting, dammit!” Pitt make his own decisions. Once the bubble pops on the dreamy glow of France at the end of the 60s, and the French youth succumb to political disparity and riots, Bertolucci is making a clear point, but by this time the narrative fire and invention as been depleted.
The defining characteristic of “The Dreamers” is not the political subplots or the cinephile mentality, but the sexual content. Indeed, it is one of the few NC-17 rated films to see a sizable release in the last decade, Bertolucci is no stranger to sexually volatile subjects, and “Dreamers” returns the director to his blunt focus on the human body. Trouble is, as deeply erotic as the film is, is isn’t hot at all. There’s a chill in the air when the characters disrobe and explore the more, ahem, “distinct” corners of obsession and intercourse. 1996‘s “Stealing Beauty,” the last foray into sexual exploration by Bertolucci, was genuinely gripping and seized the senses with depictions of sensuality and deflowering. “The Dreamers” contains the very same moments, but they go wrong as soon as they start. I applaud Bertolucci for not bowing down to studio pressure to trim the carnal content, but “The Dreamers” ends up being defined by the flesh, not the mind, and it just isn‘t enough.Rating: C