Last week, I read an interesting opinion piece in a Norwegian weekly, arguing that this year’s 40th anniversary of the protests of 1968 should mark our final goodbye to this mythical milestone of political and cultural opposition. Even though the fight for gender equality and sexual liberation has come a long way (in Europe) since then, the political impact of ’68 is not immediately evident. The global world order is as unfair as it ever was, market fundamentalism has long since been the gold standard, our global environment is seriously threathened, and basic liberties are under attack from a seemingly never-ending and ever deepening War On Terrorism.
But, if it was so unsuccessful, why are we still obsessing about it? I believe it has something to do with longing for idealism, and an inherent sense of sadness stemming from all the hopes that were dashed by what came after. Not only did little change in Europe, in places were actual change occured, as in China, it was for the much, much worse. Until now, when Barack Obama has been elected on a promise of a new progressive politics, and the financial crisis seems to have dealt everybody a new hand (politically speaking). Just as much as they were about protesting the existing social order, the protests of 1968 were about what should replace it.
And so, this seemed like as good a time as any to revisit Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003), a passionate and playful drama about the other side of Paris in those fateful months. Amid political turmoil, the American student and cinephile Matthew (Michael Pitt) bonds with French siblings Theo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green) to create what he calls our own cultural revolution, in response to the government shutting the Cinemateque Francais, a temple for film buffs like them. And to me, regardless of the erotic drama that unfolds later, The Dreamers first and foremost is a film about the love of cinema. I love it for exactly that reason.
Every once in a while, I need somebody to tell me that my passion for movies is worth while, that’s it’s not simply a waste of time, and The Dreamers has exactly that effect on me. Not only because of it attempts to write the moviegoing experience into the social fabric of the protests of ’68, but perhaps more importantly, because it also works on a less explicitly political level. Our three conflicted protagonists are well-versed both in American and French cinema, and in scenes of poetic beauty and tasteful hommage, they re-enact classic movie moments, like the scene where they run through the Louvre, just like it was done in Godard’s Band Of Outsiders. Some might find this to be a sentimental trick by a director past his prime, but to me these symbolic tributes are both visually endearing and an expression of intellectual honesty and curiosity.
The critical reception of The Dreamers centered to a much larger degree on its sexual under- and overtones. I do not disagree that they’re critical to understanding the movie, but I think it takes some of the attention away from the cinematic and political elements of the story. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t find them interesting. The deep emotional bond between Theo and Isabelle, complicated further by Matthew’s presence, have definitive incestuous undertones, but it can also be seen as mainly the provocative way to portray a relationship that is mostly about a deep personal connection. While the charisma and unpredictability of the three main roles is enough to keep us interested, I get a sense that this is where Bertolucci tries to create some distance between them and the viewers. Their isolation in sexual games and power struggles, philosophical arguments and recital of highlights in movie history cannot help but seem a little (too) self-centered at times.
Its only fitting then, when the political realities outside their lavish residence finally catches up with our three friends (“The street came through the window!”). Suddenly their discussions of who were the better comedic actor of Keaton or Chaplin, or Theo’s urging Matthew to view Mao’s cultural revolution through the lens of of movie – only with real people – no longer seem so relevant. In the closing scene of the movie, Bertolucci beautifully captures the moral ambivalence of young people that may broadly share the same goals, but who differ on what are the appriopriate means to achieve them. Likewise, it not all clear where the sense of restlessness and wanting to be part of something bigger ends and actual political convictions begin.
This sharper focus is what lifts The Dreamers above Regular Lovers (2005), the three-hour French drama also starring Louis Garrel that’s said to have been inspired by Bertolucci’s movie (at one point, he even gets a shout-out). The movie has an episodic structure, and through Francois (Garrel) and his diverse set of friends and associates, an ambitious portrait of the culture and politics of 1968 is presented to us. Though delicately filmed in black and white, and with the stunningly beautiful Garrel an absolutely magnetic lead that proves that the praise he earned for The Dreamers was well-deserved, Regular Lovers is not as emotionally powerful as it perhaps could have been. Because it’s so hard to get to the actual core of it, at times I felt that this was exactly the somewhat introverted nostalgia trip that Bertolucci steered clear of. It’s still a good movie, but The Dreamers succeeds in being every bit as rich while proving that a tightly knit plot is no enemy of the artistically ambitious. That’s why I would call The Dreamers a masterpiece.