Incest, New Butter In Bertolucci’s The Dreamers

Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers , adapted from the novel The Holy Innocents by Gilbert Adair, is set against the backdrop of the 1968 student riots in Paris, though without making much visible effort to reconstruct the look of the period. Mr. Bertolucci was probably wise not to immerse himself in the period details of dress and sidewalk-café ambiance. Still, at a reflective and still romantic 63, Mr. Bertolucci pays heartfelt hommage to Henri Langlois’ famous theater, Cinémathèque Française, with references to its scattershot exhibition policies and copious clips of the auteurist classics screened there. This makes The Dreamers the kind of movie I should recuse myself from reviewing on the grounds of a nostalgic conflict of interest: Not only do I have a more-than-passing acquaintance with the filmmaker, but I also once shared his hard-core addiction to the Cinémathèque and the director-spawning film magazine, Cahiers du Cinema .

But whereas Mr. Bertolucci arrived in Paris shortly after making his first film, The Grim Reaper , in 1962, I’d already had my life and my luck changed-having worked briefly for Langlois and his formidable life partner, Mary Meerson-by the time I spent a year in Paris in 1961. And though I’ve been to Paris several times since (though not in 1968), I have no special expertise to evaluate the authenticity or even the plausibility of the fictionalized account by Messrs. Bertolucci and Adair, both of whom witnessed the student uprisings firsthand. Mr. Adair’s previous novel was Love and Death on Long Island , which became a well-regarded 1997 film version directed by Richard Kwietniowski. (And whatever happened to Mr. Kwietniowski after this stunning feature-film debut?)

To make a digressive critique a little shorter, let me say up front that The Dreamers fails to connect its dots to form a coherent and convincing narrative. This isn’t to say that viewers at all familiar with the onset of movie madness in the late 50′s and 60′s should miss this affectionate tribute to the period and its passionate enthusiasts. And I would add-albeit reluctantly-that the assorted film clips that Mr. Bertolucci has adroitly assembled are almost worth the price of admission alone. Then again, you can see my problem (as a willfully ardent auteurist) when the first clip in the film is that of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963). My comparatively kind review caused me to be pilloried at the time by the New York critical establishment for my allegedly trashy taste. Ah, but I digress again ….

The story of The Dreamers begins with a voice-over in English eventually attributed to Matthew (Michael Pitt), a young American student from San Diego who is befriended-at a demonstration for Langlois, ironically, after he was fired by the government-by a couple named Theo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green), who turn out to be brother and sister. Matthew is immediately attracted to Isabelle, but gradually begins to suspect that she and Theo are unusually close-possibly even incestuous-siblings.

After the first meeting, Matthew is invited by his new friends to the spacious Left Bank apartment owned by their well-to-do parents, a British-born mother (Anna Chancellor) and a French-poet father (Robin Renucci). With the parents about to leave the city for a country vacation, Isabelle and Theo persuade Matthew to move in with them.

Most of the rest of the action is confined to the apartment, in which a bizarre ménage à trois , impervious to the world outside, begins to take form. Full frontal nudity, both male and female, becomes so casually commonplace that the erotic excitement inherent in the situation begins to diminish amid the soporific, Eden-like atmosphere. Though Theo keeps edging ever closer to Matthew, the disturbingly sadomasochistic proceedings play out as more unisexual than bisexual. Isabelle and Theo habitually share the same bathroom, and soon Matthew-originally a paragon of straightness-begins to shed his inhibitions, along with his clothes. But only up to a point: When Isabelle “playfully” starts to shave his pubic hair with Theo’s assistance, Matthew angrily calls a halt to the proceedings and tries to pry Isabelle away from Theo. The effort is foredoomed, however, when Theo locks himself in his bedroom with another girl; Isabelle goes berserk with grief and jealousy, while Matthew stands by helplessly.

Mr. Bertolucci has not pushed the envelope of explicit sexuality this forcefully since his internationally scandalous Last Tango in Paris (1972) more than 30 years ago. For his efforts, The Dreamers has received an NC-17 rating from the increasingly irrelevant industry censors, who merely send out a signal to the hordes of Internet-porn patrons among us. Unfortunately, in my own depraved expert opinion, Mr. Bertolucci has failed to ignite another revolutionary erotic explosion, partly because there is much more competition in the realm of cinematic sensuality than there was 30 years ago, and partly because the actors lack the necessary chemistry with each other. Messrs. Bertolucci and Adair keep leading us up the garden path and then down again, without resolving any of the issues so teasingly dangled before us.

Hence, a laborious suicide attempt is thwarted by a rioter’s cobblestone fortuitously thrown through a window; Theo rejoins the revolution by hurling a Molotov cocktail at the heavily armed and well-shielded riot police; and Matthew asserts his skepticism about the value of political activism, defending the United States in its Vietnam War even though he’s clearly ducking the draft with an academic deferment.

During the screening, I noted that I might have been quoted-or even misquoted-in the film regarding my comparison between Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. No matter: The clips of Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” at the end of City Lights (1931) remain eternally luminous, as is the case with many of Bertolucci’s cinematic reminiscences: Robert Bresson’s Mouchette rolling herself down a hill to her death in Mouchette (1967); Garbo caressing the furniture in tactile memory of her night of love in Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina (1933); Marlene Dietrich taking off her gorilla’s head in Blonde Venus (1932); and, of course, Jean Seberg hawking the International Herald Tribune in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960).

Down and Out in Tokyo Anime

Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers , written by Keiko Nobumoto and Mr. Kon, was purportedly “inspired” by John Ford’s Three Godfathers (1948), itself the umpteenth movie version of The Three Godfathers , Peter Kyne’s pulp novel dating back to the early silent era. As it turns out, Mr. Kon’s animated Tokyo is such a long way and a far cry from Ford’s Monument Valley that one wonders why any attribution of a source was deemed necessary. It’s certainly not because the central contrivance of a baby being rescued by three hardened criminals would be too maudlin for Japanese tastes without its being associated with American folk sentimentality: After all, even Akira Kurosawa, the proud samurai director, got all blubbery about an abandoned baby in Rashomon (1950).

In previous versions of this Christmas tale, three bad men undertake the mission of taking an orphaned infant to safety in what passed for civilization in the Old West. In Mr. Kon’s story, the three bad men have been replaced by three homeless derelicts- Gin, a burly, bearded alcoholic; Hana, a flighty middle-aged transvestite overflowing with maternal instincts; and Miyuki, a teenage runaway fleeing from the trauma of having stabbed her father.

Mr. Kon has thus expanded the original plot by giving each of the Magi-like protagonists a backstory. In the end, all is happily resolved after a succession of chases and cliff-hanging brushes with death, ending with the reunion of the baby with its loving parents. Hence, the community in the Hollywood version is replaced in Mr. Kon’s film with the family as the final sanctuary for the endangered baby.

I must confess that I’m not sure at what level of irony and sophistication Mr. Kon is operating, and to what sector of the Japanese and international moviegoing public he has tailored his film. His visual style looks more mainstream-illusionist than that of the more cerebrally stylized The Triplets of Belleville . Yet Mr. Kon doesn’t exploit his down-and-out characters for facile pathos; they are too energetically and vitally mobile for that. Indeed, he virtually preaches to them not to wallow in self-pity but rather to buckle down and make new lives for themselves.

A near-murderous assault on Gin by a gang of teenage hoodlums “cleaning up the neighborhood” serves as a jolting reminder that people who live on the streets in our great cities are easily victimized by a variety of predators. Though all ends well for the threesome, there are long stretches in between when social indifference and injustice plague the protagonists, as well as our own consciences. This may very well be the point of the whole exercise.

Analyzing Analysis

Amie Siegel’s Empathy employs both fictional and nonfictional devices to illustrate some of the quirks, eccentricities and absurdities of the psychoanalytic process unleashed upon the world in the last century. Ms. Siegel doesn’t always indicate the demarcation line between fiction and nonfiction, although she tends to focus exclusively-almost excessively-on the tensions that arise between male analysts and female analysands under the cover of a culturally sanctioned intimacy. This leads to often banal Q. and A.’s in which “analysts,” either real or impersonated, are asked if they’ve ever made sexual advances on their female patients or allowed female patients to make advances to them. Do the analysts ever lie? Do the patients? Two questions arise in my mind: Firstly, how you can tell if they’re lying? And secondly, does it make any difference-since, as Freud tells us, even lies can reveal something embedded in the subconscious?

On a lighter note, Ms. Siegel suggests that the work of the analyst is profoundly influenced by decisions on interior decoration. A particular piece of orange furniture designed by Charles and Ray Eames is the subject of a sustained closeup with no human beings visible in the frame. (We’re told it’s known as the “Billy Wilder couch,” even though it looks like a classic analysts chair to me.)

Despite this, the film flows with a certain grace and smoothness, due largely to the sense of psychic mystery projected by a sweet actress, Gigi Buffington, in the fictional role of Lia, a seeker of truth and self-recognition. And as for the question of intimacy, an interesting item of gossip emerges, implicating a famous British psychoanalyst for crossing the sacred boundary between analyst and patient: “Winnicott had a woman patient whose hand he took in his and held it that way four times a week for months and months-I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that.” Empathy is playing at Film Forum through Feb. 3.