Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Bernardo Bertolucci’s new film, The Dreamers, is rated NC-17, and it’s rated NC-17 for a reason. There are genitalia on display, and masturbation, and menstruation, and drug use, and intimations of incest, and intertwined thrusting bodies. It is not for those who still have a lot of growing up to do.
Which is a bit ironic, because it is really about those who still have a lot of growing up to do.
When a film draws attention for controversial content, it’s easy to talk about nothing but the controversy (see also: Passion of the Christ, The). But there’s a lot more going on in The Dreamers than taboo body parts, and what the characters occasionally do with them. Working from Gilbert Adair’s adaptation of his own novel, Bertolucci has crafted an ode to a certain kind of youthful fervor. And the real surprise is that it’s not nearly as sentimentally sympathetic as one might expect.
That doesn’t mean that there’s not affection in this flashback to tumultuous 1968 Paris. A 20-year-old American student named Matthew (Michael Pitt) is studying there, though he prefers to spend as much time as possible soaking up films in the Cinematheque. It is there that he meets Isabelle (Eva Green) and ThÃ©o (Louis Garrel), twin siblings who seem to take to Matthew as quickly as he takes to them. When their parents go on a holiday, Isabelle and ThÃ©o impulsively invite Matthew to come stay with them—where he soon comes to realize that impulse is pretty much their default behavior pattern.
There are other unique behaviors Matthew finds odd—like the twins’ curious fondness for sleeping together naked—but he’s drawn to them by their shared passions. They engage in sharp disagreements over the relative merits of Chaplin vs. Keaton, or Clapton vs. Hendrix. They dip their toes into the growing labor unrest and socialist student movements. And they dive into a complex brand of mÃ©nage-a-trois that grows both deeper and more awkward with each passing day.
The throbbing heart of The Dreamers—and what ultimately makes it vividly compelling—is the understanding it displays toward being a certain age. Matthew, Isabelle and ThÃ©o are incarnations of everyone’s college-age years, when everything is felt intensely and nothing seems to matter more at the time than winning an argument about social policy or pop culture arcana (often while either drunk or stoned, if not both). No subject—cinema, politics, music, sex—is approached with equanimity. With pitch-perfect realization and solid performances by the three principals, The Dreamers deposits you in the world of 20-somethings who live their lives as a series of exclamation points.
Yet while Adair and Bertolucci understand that fleeting moment, they don’t exactly celebrate it. Matthew observes the strange relationship between Isabelle and ThÃ©o as a kind of arrested pre-pubescent exploration spilled over into adulthood, and eventually comes to question—sometimes spelled out too literally in the dialogue—whether all the bold talk amounts to anything. The Dreamers may be the ultimate artistic expression of looking back on one’s early adulthood with a chuckle, a shake of the head, and a sigh of, “I can’t believe we thought we knew everything.”
It’s a bit startling to find Bertolucci, a lifelong socialist, looking with a somewhat cynical eye on the idealistic fancies of his characters. By the time the film draws to a conclusion—with Edith Piaf’s refrain of “Je ne regret rien” (I don’t regret anything) playing somewhat ironically over the closing credits—The Dreamers demonstrates a certain resignation that growing up means abandoning marches with banners or staying in one room making love for days at a time.
Speaking of which, just in case you missed the point, there is explicit sexual content in the film. Bertolucci doesn’t soft-pedal a scene of deflowering, or hide all the naughty bits discretely. And there’s no way to stop people from assuming that means The Dreamers is de facto pornography, even though its entire purpose is to show impulsive action giving way to mature reflection. Perhaps Bertolucci is still idealistic enough to hope that audiences can grow up enough to grasp the concept of a movie for grown-ups about the messy process of growing up.
THE DREAMERS, *** , Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garre, Rated NC-17