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Paris Is Yearning

Bertolucci’s The Dreamers may be rated NC-17, but its cinephilic ménage à trois is more sweet than scandalous.

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Wet Dreamers: Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel) share more than a bath with Matthew (Michael Pitt, center mirror).  

Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers is his third movie shot in Paris. Its predecessors, The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris, are two of the most stunningly carnal films ever made, and his new one has been billed as a worthy addition to the hothouse. As it turns out, The Dreamers, despite a fair amount of parading about in the nude by its lead actress (Eva Green), and a few requisite risqué moments, is rather sweet. It’s as if Bertolucci, at 63, were trying to will himself into making a young man’s movie. He doesn’t entirely succeed, but the attempt has poignancy: As uneven as much of his recent work has been, Bertolucci’s still in love with the movies, and his ardor—if not always the ends he puts it to—is exhilarating.

Matthew (Michael Pitt) is an American student in Paris during the turbulent spring of 1968, when young people throughout Europe were launching violent anti-government protests. Friendless at first, he hooks up with the twins Theo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Green) and moves into their sprawling family apartment while their parents are on a holiday. A curly-lipped innocent, Matthew dutifully writes his mother back home in San Diego that he is “getting in with the right people,” but when he notices that Theo, who has the severe face of a young Artaud, and Isabelle sleep curled up together naked, it dawns on him just who he’s getting in with. The quasi-incestuous siblings, with their echoes of Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles, are both looking to Matthew to break them apart; drawn to Isabelle’s lusciousness, he obliges. It’s a movie about carnal mind games in which no one seems to possess much of a mind—their wits are too befogged by sex. (Despite the film’s NC-17 rating, don’t expect a meltdown; frankly, the film could have done with less ’68 and more 69.)

The trio are equally befogged by movies. Matthew, Theo, and Isabelle are the kind of film lovers who sit rapt before the screen in the very first row. United by their passion for cinema, they act out their favorite moments from the films they soak up at Henri Langlois’s legendary Cinémathèque—everything from Howard Hawks’s Scarface to Blonde Venus—and consciously turn their lives into a ménage right out of a New Wave classic. In one glorious moment, Bertolucci cuts seamlessly between the threesome racing through the Louvre and an identically staged sequence in Godard’s Band of Outsiders. It’s as if the films of Truffaut and Godard—a poster for La Chinoise plasters an apartment wall—held the blueprints for their own fervid, dissolute behavior. The soundtrack is just as fervid: Dylan, Joplin, Morrison, and, above all, Hendrix.

Much of that behavior unfolds at home—The Dreamers, to an even greater extent than Last Tango in Paris or Bertolucci’s most recent film, Besieged, is a chamber drama. There’s a special irony in this: Although Matthew, Theo, and Isabelle support the activism in the streets, the real activity for them is behind closed doors. (Fittingly, until the end, the only time they demonstrate is to protest the government’s dismissal of Langlois.) Bertolucci was living in Paris in 1968, and so was Gilbert Adair, the screenwriter (and film critic) on whose novel the film is based. For them, movies no doubt were as vital as politics, and surely this explains the sympathy with which they view their wayfarers. By all rights, the trio should come across as decadent, spoiled poseurs, but how, this movie asks, can you hate a cinéaste? For Bertolucci, that would be the equivalent of self-loathing, and he has always had a high regard for his own rapture.


Osama, directed by Siddiq Barmak, is the first film shot entirely in Afghanistan since the rise and fall of the Taliban, and it’s a heartbreaking look back at life under that regime. It’s about a 12-year-old girl, played by a marvelous nonactor, Marina Golbahari, who is disguised as a boy by her mother, a widowed nurse, so she can work to support the family. (The Taliban has ordered all women indoors.) For a while, she pulls off the ruse, working in the grocery store of a family friend. But when she is herded into the local Taliban school, her terror becomes palpable. A cocky local street kid knows her secret—it’s he who calls her Osama—and, between taunts, defends her; but it is only a matter of time before she is found out.

Osama could be a stand-in for an entire generation of suffering Afghan women, and yet she is fiercely individual. Her secret revealed, she shivers in fear; only her eyes show through her burka, but they tell us all we need to know. Married in public to a goaty old man with three other wives, she is dolled up for her wedding night, and rarely has there been so obscenely precise a depiction of ravaged innocence. This young girl has nothing to live for—and an entire life ahead of her in which to live it.


In The Return, a first feature by Andrey Zvyagintsev, a father who abandoned his wife and two young boys a dozen years ago mysteriously reappears and takes his sons on a fishing trip that quickly turns into a test of wills. Vanya (Ivan Dobronravov), now 12, is deeply mistrustful of his emotionally distant father (Konstantin Lavronenko), while his older brother, Andrey (Vladimir Garin), tries to win the father’s favor, causing a rift between the siblings. Their seven-day outing has a doom-laden tone in the metaphysical-mythic manner of Zvyagintsev’s main influence, Andrei Tarkovsky. The beauty of the wilderness is shot through with the threat of sudden violence.

Despite its portentousness, The Return has genuine power. It’s possible to read into it all kinds of allegorical meanings—the prodigal father, for example, could be the reemergence of what, in all its strangeness, had once been suppressed under communism—but it also does very well as a study of riven male lineage. The hurt and rage flying back and forth have primal power, like Russian-flavored Eugene O’Neill. It’s rare for a movie to work as effectively as this one does on such parallel tracks. And somehow, the tracks meet in the end: Isolated by their pain, these people are inseparable from the landscape, which seems to be crying out for something beyond understanding. They share a vast sorrow.


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