When released theatrically in February of 2004, The Dreamers got lost in a culturally and politically charged climate where its frank depiction of sex, worthy of the NC-17 scandal-brand, was overshadowed by heated prime-time news-show debates over a film most people in the country (and, often, the pundits engaging in said debate) had not seen. Six months later, The Passion of the Christ had loudly come and profitably gone, but, more than any other film in recent memory (with the possible exception of Fahrenheit 9/11), it has restored the threat of proselytization to the seemingly innocent act of moviegoing. Suddenly, buying a ticket for a movie can not only be construed as a statement of principle and a reaffirmation of belief, but a declaration of openness to potential social upheaval; thus, recalling the heady days of international near-revolution of the late-1960s, when waiting in line to see Godard's La Chinoise or cheering Truffaut's defiant statement in support of ousted Cinematheque Francais founder Henri Langlois at the outset of Stolen Kisses felt, according to those who experienced it, like enlightened protest against an ignorant and self-destructive warmongering world. It was a genuine rebellion fueled by idealistic outrage, but expressed largely as flower-child optimism ("Peace, Love, Dope!"), taking hold via a (pun a-comin') grassroots movement not marketed, as is so often the case today, by massive corporate conglomerates. It was a conflagration fanned by the populous Baby Boom generation collectively losing their innocence, and not liking what they saw on the other side of adulthood. It was a time lived by Bernardo Bertolucci, who, 35 years later, has appropriated Gilbert Adair's 1988 novel The Holy Innocents as a means of reexamining his own participation in the erstwhile cinematic insurrection.
Adair's narrative, which appears to have been suggested by Jean Cocteau's Les enfants terribles (itself made into a very good picture by Jean-Pierre Melville), concerns an unholy Franco-American union forged between three young university students during the turbulent protests touched off by the French government's removal of Langlois from the Cinematheque as punishment for his allegedly feckless stewardship. Matthew (Pitt) is the lonely American seduced into the queasily incestuous inner-world of siblings Theo (Garrel) and Isabelle (Green) through their mutual movie habit, from which they're forced into a cold turkey withdrawal now that their church of a moviehouse has been shuttered. One would think the trio would be inspired to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their celluloid idols (the entire New Wave was out in force during this protest, as were giants like Nicholas Ray and Marcel Carne), but when Theo and Isabelle's parents take a brief trip to the country, leaving the kids the run of their spacious apartment, they opt instead to block out the din of revolution by getting lost in their love for film. At first, they're content to simply reenact their favorite movie moments, be it bellowing out "New York Herald Tribune" on the streets of Paris with the brassy zest of Jean Seberg in Breathless, or sprinting through the Louvre a la Brasseur, Frey and Karina in Band of Outsiders. But their game playing quickly becomes erotically charged when Theo loses a dare and is forced to masturbate to a picture of Marlene Dietrich in front of Isabelle and Matthew. Humiliated (or turned on; it's hard to tell), Theo returns the favor by forcing Matthew and Isabelle to make love on the kitchen floor while he watches (they comply, but he turns away and cooks eggs instead), allowing his new American friend to take his sister's virginity, and likely lose his own, in the process. Suddenly, Matthew and Isabelle are lovers, having sex all the day long while Theo stews alone in his room. When Theo eventually reinserts himself back into the dynamic, all has been irrevocably altered. The adult world, and all its corrupting complexities, has wrecked their idyll, leaving them to either move out into it, or recede and die.
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Thematically, The Dreamers is most interesting for the way that, particularly in its final moments, it seems to reveal Bertolucci's disillusionment with his politically radical past. Much like the games played by his main characters, rebellion, he appears to be saying, is for the young, existing only for its inevitable trampling down by authority. When these kids are finally jolted from their suicidal, cinema-induced stupor to join in the protest raging outside, the viewer can't help but shake our heads at the outdated Maoist slogans being chanted by the marching mob. Ultimately, the options offered by Bertolucci and Adair love or fight are both doomed. All is futile. Now, apply this wizened commentary to the raging pop-cultural wars being fought on behalf of conservative Catholicism (The Passion of the Christ) and virulently anti-Bush liberalism (Fahrenheit 9/11), where films are, once again, threatening to mobilize the public, who, in turn, are hoping to effect a seismic measure of change in the world around them. It's a contentious atmosphere unseen since the era depicted in The Dreamers, with the difference being that both sides of the political spectrum now have a deftly constructed weapon of propaganda propelling their protests. Of course, much has changed in the media landscape since then the news is now disseminated 24 hours a day, and pre-spun to lessen or remove completely the burden of critical thinking on the viewer as has the quality of ideologically charged art. Using Godard as the influential touchstone of the 1960s (no filmmaker so aggressively addressed America's involvement in Vietnam and the youth culture's resulting love affair with Maoism), the new protest cinema seems parched for thoughtfulness. These films lack the open-endedness of their precursors, which, while directed by avowed radicals, always left room for the audience to hash out their message for themselves. Such is a luxury afforded the viewer by Bertolucci's poignantly languid The Dreamers, a modest film by an ex-revolutionary that now feels significant if only for how sadly out-of-step it is with these bombastic, spell-it-all-out times.
Fox presents The Dreamers in a superb anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with fantastic Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras on this very impressively assembled disc include an adroitly edited feature-length commentary from Bertolucci, Adair, and producer Jeremy Thomas, where they individually discuss, among other things, the departures from the novel, and the acrimonious climate of the bygone, romanticized era. Also on board is "Bertolucci Makes The Dreamers" (52 min.), a BBC-produced documentary that offers worthwhile insight into the director's process, and a featurette entitled "Outside the Window: Events in France, May, 1968" (14 min.), which places the peripheral events of the film more firmly in context. The only regrettable inclusion is the Bertolucci-directed music video for Michael Pitt's back-alley beating of "Hey, Joe." Rounding out the disc are two theatrical trailers one for this film and another for Garden State. Keep-case.