The Dreamers - Cinema as a role model
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The Dreamers: cinema as a role model

It’s February in 1968 and a social revolt is brewing – a movement that will lead in May 68 is organizing itself. In this context, Henri Langlois, founder, and director of the Cinémathèque Française – the place that had as its aim the preservation, collection and screening of world film heritage, is removed from his post upon request by the French Ministry of Finance. This event outrages tons of young cinema lovers, and also many well-known directors such as Robert Bresson, Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette, Éric Rohmer, y François Truffaut, among others, and incites them to conduct protests.

The Dreamers: Bernardo Bertolucci´s most disruptive film

It is at this monumental time that The Dreamers is situated, which may be Italian Bernardo Bertolucci’s most disruptive film. Isabelle (Eva Green) and his twin brother Théo (Louis Garrel) spend their days in the cinematheque, and it’s at its gate where they meet Matthew (Michael Pitt), an American student of the same age, who is in Paris doing an exchange program. The siblings invite him to live with them since their parents are going away for a few days and will leave the house for themselves.

The film starts to develop at this moment and, as spectators, we understand what it is about: it’s not a historical film, it doesn’t have to compromise with the truth of the times, the social revolts of the moment. The social conflict is just the background of the relationship that will develop between the three main characters.

When Matthew moves in with the siblings, he learns that they are Siamese twins. Moreover, he starts to discover the strange attachment between them, as if Isabelle and Théo were still intertwined, a type of symbiotic relationship in which they share a similar way of thinking, living and expressing themselves.

Apart from their loving feelings for each other, they also share a sexual bond, which first strikes Matthew as surprising, even shocking. He sees them having sex and feels like an intruder in the house as if he was interfering with an intimacy in which he has no place. Nevertheless, as days go by and Matthew gets used to living with the siblings, he eventually naturalizes their relationship and gets involved in their unique and strange dynamic.

The Dreamers - Bernardo Bertolucci - Cinema

The element that the three of them share is their love, passion, and even fanaticism, for films. In The Dreamers, cinema is a character of the plot in the form of the movie references thrown around constantly the cinematic tradition that precedes it, either with clips taken from other films or in the conversations and games between the characters.

They are obsessed and intoxicated by cinema: one of them acts out a part of a movie and the other two have to guess which one it is; they challenge each other with riddles, debate who is the best in silent comedy, Chaplin or Keaton. The three of them run across the Louvre, trying to break the record established by the trio from Bande à part (1964) by Jean-Luc Godard.

They live in a reality in which cinema is their role model, and they are the actors in the films; they are isolated from the outside world and their life is an imitation of what they have seen on the screen growing up. Paradoxically, their existence is a representation of something that is already a representation –films– and cinema is contagious, a disease hard to cure, a vice that they share. They breathe cinema, think about it, discuss it: their lives revolve around it. Bertolucci mixes the scenes of the three of them with fragments from the movies that they evoke and love intensely.

The social protests of that time in France don’t exist for them – they are just the background, something that they can hear from a distance. The real context in which their relationship develops is the state of intoxication and obsession that they are going through. The film doesn’t try to depict or expose what young people who were protesting went through at that time: in the film, the protests work only as means to understand the disconnection from the outside world that the characters are feeling.

Without the Cinematheque, without films, the three of them lose the link to the reality that surrounds them, they shut themselves in the big apartment and dive into a series of sexual games with rites that can be regarded as religious. As if they were in a movie, they perform different roles to the extreme, and they explore their sexuality and test the conventional boundaries within familial relationships. They feel like transgressors of the established, they laugh at their parents – and all adults – for maintaining a sexual relationship among the three.

There are times when that relationship is harmonious, there’s a balance between them. Other times, it seems more like a love triangle where jealousy, competitiveness, and envy emerge.

What’s singular and exceptional about this film is that it isn’t ashamed to show, with great detail, the strangeness of the relationship. The camera examines it up close, it immerses itself in the awkward places. When the characters are experiencing intense exaltation, or in a scene in which Isabelle and Matthew are having sex, and Théo is watching them with jealousy, the camera doesn’t go away, it stays there, fixed on the thing that doesn’t want to be seen, in what other movies were reluctant to show.

Bertolucci, in the beginning, shows the utopia in which these characters live, as if it was a dream that could be realized, and reached. A dreamed reality in which cinema is intimately linked with sex and politics, and the three elements live together in a symbiosis-like state, like Isabelle and Théo’s. However, when the end of the film is near, Bernardo Bertolucci shows the spectator, and his characters, that a utopia is, by definition, unattainable as a consequence of the perfection it longs for. They are not the exception to this. That dream-like state, of unreality, has to end at some point, and it does so tragically, which is expected throughout the whole film.

The social conflict reached its peak on February the 14th when police forces started to repress young people who were protesting in front of the Palais de Chaillot. The reality, all of a sudden, manifests itself fiercely, unavoidable. The streets are calling Matthew, Isabelle, and Théo, demanding their presence and telling them: that this is cinema too. The three of them get ready and go out, invigorated by anger and the need to express themselves, to make their voices heard.

In the midst of the confrontation between the police and the protesters, the relationship between the three of them ends abruptly: Matthew decides to leave, but before he does so, he tries to convince Isabelle to go with him and fails. The siblings submerge themselves in the protest together and the dream of infinite representation ends, leaving them alone in a reality that is as violent as it is oppressive.