For what it could have been, “The Dreamers” does not carry the burden of bad sentimentality. The plot references a much-romanticized era in time: Paris, spring of 1968. Gilbert Adair adapts his memoir, “The Holy Innocents,” about menage a trois and cinephilia, for the 63-year-old director Bernardo Bertolucci (“The Conformist,” “Last Tango in Paris”). Perhaps his age allows Bertolucci to treat the romantic spirits of this story with such naivete and grace.
Matthew (Michael Pitt), an American, has come to Paris to study French. A frequent moviegoer, Matthew considers himself a cinephile: the one who prefers to sit in the front row and be the first to receive the spectacle on screen. To sit in the front row is a devoted act, and yet also a marker of devotion. Bertolucci’s panning camera presents the front row as spectacle itself: the beautiful Isabelle (Eva Green), who will soon introduce herself, breaks her gaze with the screen to check out another, Matthew. The glamour of each youthful figure does not fail to attract our notice either.
In spring of 1968, demonstrators protest the new management of the Cinematheque Francaise; the government had fired its founder and director, Henri Langlois. Isabelle has chained her wrists to the gates, her demonstration more for show than for good. Rather than request a light — that old trick — she asks if Matthew would remove the cigarette from her lips. His good manners and devastating looks pique her interest. After introductions to her separated, yet inseparable Siamese twin, Theo (Louis Garrel), Matthew has an invitation to their family’s apartment.
Over dinner Matthew impresses the twins’ father, a poet most famous for his equation with poetry and politics: “a poem is a petition.” Matthew confesses to distraction: his observations about proportion — the length of a lighter fitting the grid of the tablecloth, plate, etc. It seems Bertolucci speaks through Matthew of cinematography’s language, of the beauty of proportions. This ode calls attention to the fabulous construction of the movie’s sets.
The space of the apartment belongs to the minds of hidden artists, or even to the appreciative senses of the super-tasted bourgeoisie. If Urban Outfitters ever had a luxury brand, this apartment would represent its zenith of the interior design department. Its good taste borders on kitsch. Bertolucci defends the space’s artistry by allowing it to disintegrate. The twins’ parents leave them and their guest alone to keep the apartment, and even the beautiful chevrons on the parquet floor seem to run with entropy. As the days pass, the apartment falls into slow squalor, wherein every piece of garbage has its artful place of rest.
Above the guest bed, Marilyn Monroe’s iconic face is posted over the French lady liberty, leading forward the troops of the French Revolution. This collage sums up the politics of this movie: led by cinema, inspired by America, undeniably French, serving the graphics of the film, and without too much greater dimension.
The young men often engage in politics, whether film, music or actual politics: Chaplin verses Keaton, Hendrix verses Clapton, or Vietnam verses China. Frequent intercutting between the film and referenced films — Goddard’s “Breathless,” Hawk’s “Scarface,” Bresson’s “Mouchette” — along with the twins’ sexual movie trivia games, make the running motif of cinema obvious. The soundtrack cues great rock and roll — lots of Hendrix, Joplin and Doors — at all the right moments, about all the time. This coupling of French imagery with raw American sound locates Bertolucci’s homage as more about the Zeitgeist — that historical moment and spirit — than about just a place, Paris, of which the director is more than fond.
Only toward the story’s end does the political reel of such gentlemanly argument gather momentum of its own. The street demonstrations eventually summon the trio from their sexual and intellectual lounging. Of all of Bertolucci’s themes, politics comes closest to being called a crutch. The plot motivations provided by the political situations do little beyond a superficial duty. That said, it also begins to unmask the character’s own superficial regard of politics. Theo’s and Matthew’s conversations about peace and war do acknowledge the distinction between action and talk.
The other obsessions of this film remains unsaid, but the NC-17 rating speaks: breasts and more. Bertolucci hopes to sustain the gaze by the handsome, bare forms of woman and man. Toward the last hour one barely notices nudity at all, due to its fabulous abundance. Lovely performances behind each lovely body also complement the viewing. With this movie, Bertolucci offers a cornucopia for the cinephiles, but also just for the lovers of good things: love, music and beauty.