|Bernardo Bertolucci has always been, to me, a director of remarkable talent and immense courage. He is able to create films that are achingly realistic, yet borne of a poetic beauty that transports the viewer to the world being presented on the screen. Yet for all his gifts as a visual director, Bertolucci has always possessed extraordinary talent with his actors, coaching from some of the great performances of this last quarter century.|
Marlon Brando’s searing work in Last Tango in Paris(1973) is without question the actor’s finest performance, and easily among the finest three performances committed to film. Placing trust in the actor, Bertolucci allowed Brando to find purity in his work that had been sadly missing for many years. A few years later he directed a clutch of actors in the under appreciated epic, 1900(1977), to some of the best work of their career. I cannot remember seeing Burt Lancaster so bursting with life as he was in 1900 (1977), or Donald Sutherland as perversely evil as he was in the same film. Jill Clayburgh gave a stunning performance as an incestuous mother in Luna (1979) a film so disturbing it was initially banned in Ontario for a short time.
Bertolucci’s greatest work remains Last Tango in Paris(1973) though he is likely best remembered for The Last Emperor (1987) which won all nine Academy Awards it was nominated for back in the late eighties. The true story of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China and the film is a superb history lesson, a study in the human being as an enigma, and one of the most beautiful films ever shot. Bertolucci won an Academy Award for best director, as well as the Directors Guild Award for this film, which despite the Oscars was something of a box office disappointment. In the years to follow he has made such noble failures as The Sheltering Sky (1990), which features a brilliant performance from the great Debra Winger, and Little Buddha (1993), which was mishandled in release by Miramax and Harvey Weinstein.
With The Dreamers, Bertolucci is back on the centre stage of world cinema with a film that is likely to provoke severe criticism as well as controversy. Never one to shy away from portraying sexuality in his work, Bertolucci may have topped himself here with a frank yet honest portrayal of incest that many viewers will no doubt find disturbing.
Based on the novel by Gilbert Adair, the film explores a popular theme in cinema – an American, apparently an innocent, who is corrupted by Europeans. In many ways the film has a great deal in common with Last Tango in Paris(1973) in that we again have an American corrupted, self-corrupted to a degree by Parisians. The major difference being of course that Brando’s character was already corrupted and perverse when he arrived in Paris, and that his escape from grief came in the manner of an affair with a young woman. To beat back his grief and inner demons, he launched into a purely sexual affair with this young girl, drawing her into his world and bringing with him all of the despair he was living in. The young American in The Dreamers is not corrupt at the film’s beginning, but there is an innocence there that screams “corrupt me!!.”
Matthew (Michael Pitt) is a young American newly arrived in Paris from San Diego, who seems to live at the Cinematheque, fuelling his existence on great cinema. Our first encounter with him takes place in the grand old cinema while watching a film directed by Samuel Fuller from the fifties. Set in 1968, this was an extraordinary time to be a cinephile as the world cinema was on the cusp of great change with films becoming more courageous than ever before. French filmmakers Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, former film critics, were in the process of turning the film world upside down with their innovative new works but also with their own appreciation of the American genres. .
Into Matthew’s life come brother-sister twins Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel), who adopt the young American and introduce him to their world. Little does he know, their world will turn his own upside down, and he will embark on a journey of awakening and self discovery that he will never be able to forget.
Matthew begins to suspect there is an incestuous relationship between the brother and sister, and is brought into their odd game of forfeits. The game consists of a series of movie question, and if you fail the test, you must perform a demand made by the winning pair. Eventually Matthew and Isabelle are involved in a sexual relationship, having sex on the kitchen floor while Theo, close by cooks. In another sequence, Theo is asked to masturbate while the other pair looks on in apparent wonder. There is a dark perversity to the friendship that simmers below the surface and always threatens to burst through forever disrupting their lives. We suspect that Matthew is aware that the end of the relationship is inevitable and while he enjoys the danger and the sex, he cannot but know that the twins will merely move on to somebody else when they are through with him.
The film walks a fine line between being great art (which I think it is) and exploitive (which it will be accused of being). Yes there are many shots of young, naked bodies, but the focus of the film is not about the sex, but rather about how the sex impacts on their lives, taking them into different worlds in the landscape of the minds. The film is about change, both social and cinematic, and I cannot remember a film that has fully explored the obsession with cinema as well, and as disturbing as this. These young people live in the mind set of the cinema, they half believe themselves to be characters in a film, and that their lives are cinema, not necessarily real.
As usual, Bertolucci works wonders with his actors, particularly Eva Green and Michael Pitt, who give excellent performance. What was astounding to me was that they seemed so comfortable during the prolonged nude scenes, as though moving about sans clothing were the most natural thing in the world to them, which of course it is considering the world they inhabit.
There will be critics and audiences horrified by what Bertolucci has put up on the screen, but I defy them to find another director with the courage of this Italian legend. I would prefer to see a film such as this that did make me uncomfortable and uneasy than be spoon-fed drivel such as The Matrix Revolutions (2003). The man is an artist, and among the great artists of the modern cinema.