Bertolucci’s The Dreamers


I haven't posted anything here for the past week due to chronic headaches, that I put down to overuse of the computer or the need to buy a better chair. It's amazing how easy it is to wean yourself off computer use when the act of sitting in front of it becomes physically repulsive. I've been rediscovering the joys of sitting in the garden watching spiders spin webs, sitting on my cushion doing nothing but stare into space (some people make that sound better by calling it meditation), reading books, and, day before yesterday, going to a press screening.

Saw Bernardo Bertolucci's new film The Dreamers at the Fox preview theatre in Soho Square, plenty of wine and vegetarian food, great little cinema. As soon as the title sequence started, with its superb typography, I leant over to my companion and said: 'I've got a feeling this is going to be a good one.' (We went to the press preview of Octane last week, which is dire and will probably go straight to video.) Anyway, The Dreamers is superb! A real film, at last!

Bertolucci really captures a sense of Paris '68 and the 'May events', much like The Unbearable Lightness of Being took as its backdrop the '68 Prague Spring. The Dreamers concerns a young American guy in Paris, a film enthusiast who hooks up with a Parisian twin brother and sister, fellow cinephiles, and sinks into a cosy world of sexual play, catalyzed by a game of 'Forfeit' where you have to guess an acted homage to film, with Bertolucci weaving in the actual footage.

Adapted from Gilbert Adair's novel The Holy Innocents (1988), it's wonderfully shot and acted, capturing a decadent world of privilege toying with Maoist idealism juxtaposed with the action out on the street leading up to the Paris riots. I loved it, made me realise that with all the recent Hollywood blockbusters I'd almost forgotten what a fine film was all about, forgotten a few people were still making works of art that could also be popular at the box office. It's got a feel of Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita, though not quite as symbolically rich.

Films set against a backdrop of political unrest have a fascination for me, maybe one of the greatest being Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine, which perhaps isn't truly appreciated unless you understand some of the Chinese literary and historical allusions woven into it. I haven't seen The Unbearable Lightness of Being for years, but at the time, despite some critics too-cleverly dubbing it 'The Unbearable Longness of Watching', I have good memories of the film and how it evoked the Prague Spring not as subject matter but as setting. Somehow though some stories need their setting to evoke the feeling they are dealing with.

I think people may just rave about this film, there is sufficient nudity and sexuality of a distinctly European kind for the film to actually be popular, despite being, well y'know, intelligent, not-Hollywood, and not-The-Matrix.

Bertolucci has a fine grasp of grand scale, even though most of it takes place in an apartment. A friend of mine was costume consultant on The Last Emperor and tells a good pub story of having a flaming row with Bertolucci on the set. He'd been hired to advise on Qing Dynasty Imperial costume, having written the definitive work on the subject, but Bertolucci decided to make the film historically incorrect by dressing everyone in red.

'But the Qing hated red!'

'Red looks great on camera!' insisted Bertolucci.

Bertolucci has been concerned The Dreamers may be thought too sexually explicit in the US and have to be cut. This has held up its release in the States, which may not be until the spring of 2004. Be a damned shame to cut it, like taking a knife to a gorgeous painting. But it looks like American audiences will get a cut version simply so that the film can be released as an 'R'. Eva Green's cute labia probably won't make it to America.

The left-wing press in France have not been kind to the film. Libération called it 'monstre kitsch', but then they have to be 'knowing' when it comes to something like les événements, have to see a film that might just be popular as some kind of sell-out. Reviewers who employ such professional disdain no longer know whether a film is actually enjoyable to watch any more, they're too busy noting down things to sound clever about. And perhaps there's something about an Italian doing the French so well that they really didn't like. The father, incidentally, is a wonderfully played caricature of the French intellectual poet.

Maybe if you expect the film to have some biting insight into rebellion you'll be disappointed and find things to criticise, but if you see it as a tale of a few people in the weeks before a Molotov cocktail seemed like a better thing to throw than a party then maybe you won't have to worry about loose ends, you can just enjoy the evocation of a time and the beautiful way it's captured.

There's echoes also I thought of Nicholas Roeg's Performance, in the way the three of them are set adrift in an apartment, voyaging, the sense in which a fixed place can become a vessel for travel. But also that an idyll like this comes to an end, and something forces you outside. Anyone who's taken an acid trip in a house must know this sense of the great big outside, when the adventure in a few rooms, as gigantic as it seems, becomes transplanted outside. This theme, if anything, is probably where The Dreamers has it's more satisfying depths.

I can understand I think why some left-wing intellectuals might criticise certain aspects of the political dimension of the film as clichéd, but then again wasn't the entire arena of revolt just a little clichéd then anyway? Remember hippy chicks in American newsreels inserting flowers in rifle barrels after all. So I don't see anything wrong with presenting a stereotypical political youth idealism here, or the kind of political conversations you might have in student rooms smoking your first joint, since those things are naive and stereotypical looking back, so I can't really identify with criticism of such a masterly film on that kind of level.

Overall the film has a flow to it, through camera angle, architecture, likeability of the people, pace of the story, that just carries you along. It gave me a taste of the time that made me wish I had been there, been a part of that 'vibe'. If a film can do that, who cares whether it is a fantasy or a true historical portrait? The last thing I was thinking as I sat watching the rather innovative typography of the end credits was that I had just watched an encapsulation of history, no, an encapsulation of life more like, of the brief times when everything is how you want it to be, how everything is a dream come true, and the moment at which you know that has just come to an end.

Like choosing red in The Last Emperor, Bertolucci is clearly after something else than true history. As he said in the Telegraph last year:

I had the idea of making a movie about Paris in 1968, but I wasn't interested in historical reconstruction. What really intrigued me about that time were the young people, who were animated by enthusiasm, excitement and fantastic hope. It seemed then as if all young people felt it. Today, nobody has it. Ambitions today are much less noble and interesting.

Yeah, it's a film about something that was lost and how nothing took its place, not overtly at least. Now in many ways it feels to me like the world is dying, like its life is draining out of it, reality is less real or something to care about, we're sinking into cyber-coma and find it hard to concentrate on anything for very long, our memories are fucked and we let all sorts of crap happen without lifting a finger, save in an uncommitted kinda way, while the uniform buttons of the fascista are brightly shined, they have many more weapons, and life for most ordinary people is boring, a feeling of having given up without even having had a chance to try, of resigning oneself early to not being able to succeed, and not even knowing what there was to succeed at anyway. For all we know about it or care, we could be slowly and silently dying. Somewhere it all went wrong, and we mistake our cynicism for clued-up knowledge rather than recognising it for what it really is: habit and routine.

Access to information far exceeds demand and we don't know where we are going any more. We are bitterly fragmented. Raoul Vaneigem's The Revolution of Everyday Life, which was first published in France in 1967 and was said to have played a big part in the gestation of the Paris '68 events, and was one of my favourite books in the 80s, seems to me now as if it couldn't possibly have been addressing the kind of naive people around in the 60s, it seems to be addressing people now. This is possible, even Nietzsche said something to the effect that there may not be a single person alive yet who could understand what he was writing. It is possible to be ahead of your time by that much. Just flicking through Vaneigem again, I think I must sit down and re-read this work. The first paragraph of the introduction:

My aim is not to make the real experience contained in this book comprehensible to readers who have no real interest in reliving it. I fully expect this experience to be lost – and rediscovered – in a general alteration of consciousness, just as I am convinced that the present condition of our lives will one day be no more than a memory.