“With my memories I have lit a fire.”
“It was our very own cultural revolution,” Matthew (Michael Pitt) says near the beginning of Bernardo Bertolucci’s new feature The Dreamers (2004). But just how limited a microcosm do the words “our very own” mean to designate? Does the revolution belong to an entire disaffected society, a generation, the students, the cinephiles or only the single American and two half-French siblings whose intense relationship occupies the claustrophobic core of the film’s narrative? There have been many reviewers of the film who have mistaken the revolution for Bertolucci’s own, an exercise in nostalgia — “heroic solipsism … and applied cinephilia” in the words of J. Hoberman of the Village Voice — a reel cast by the director to fish a self-indulgent valentine out of the past. Paying no heed to the French title of the film, “Les Innocents,” critics have decided that the old man has gone soft, relinquishing the trademark depictions of tragic alienation that distinguished Bertolucci’s high style in films such as Before the Revolution (1965), The Spider’s Stratagem (1970), The Conformist (1970), Last Tango in Paris (1972), The Last Emperor (1987), and The Sheltering Sky (1990) in favor of a head-first dive into the beautiful wreck of 1968’s starry-eyed, youthful idealism. Alienated cinephiles finding their cloistered delight in the darkened cinemas demand the stark realism of their own solitary predicaments from the great directors; starry-eyed idealism is for the Hollywood star factories. But The Dreamers has given them, and all of us, everything we could want and more. Far from being part and parcel of their naïve moment in time, the trio of ingenuous dreamers captured in the film are a study in alienation, framed off from the revolution outside by four walls and a dense tapestry of images. In their refusal to grow, to move on into the uncertain future, and remove the screen that shields them from a world unfiltered through the compact and gorgeous eloquence of processed images, Bertolucci has left for us a vision of alienation as great and profound as any he has ever mustered.
If Bertolucci’s goal is to create a mere nostalgia piece for the glory days of student activism in May 1968, why does the film focus on these three particular protagonists, these committed cinephiles who spend their days watching old films in the Cinémathèque Française, then, after it closes, talking and arguing about films, vexing the relative merits of Keaton and Chaplin and challenging each other to identify re-enactments of memorable scenes from their favorite movies, even as Bertolucci interpolates the treasured objects of their imitation into his mise-en-scène? In fact, The Dreamers is (and not trivially) as much or more about cinema as an art and an obsession — and more generally the attachment to images and the way they act as both a means of access to the world outside and a shield from it — as it is about “the revolution.”
Very early in the film Matthew, as narrator, tells us that the images in the cinematheque were so powerful, “it was like being hypnotized.” He tells us that he and the other “cinephiles,” as he refers to himself and those like him, would sit in the front row. Why so close? “Maybe,” he offers, “it was because [they] wanted to see the images first,” before they were “worn out, second-hand.” Matthew’s “maybe” invites our skepticism. When we consider that the films they were seeing were largely old ones, so that the images had been seen and re-seen by thousands of eyes before ever reaching the protagonists, we are forced away from the most obvious interpretation of Matthew’s statement. When he and Isabelle (Eva Green) go on their conventional date, Matthew insists on sitting in the back of the theater because “the first row is for people who don’t have dates.” Perhaps, we are meant to conclude, the front row is for the alienated, the lonely, the perverts, the masturbators, for those who want to re-see the images of old movies like crumpled old photos over and over again but not have others come between them and their fetishized objects of affection. Such a theory finds support elsewhere in the film. We think of Theo (Louis Garrel), in the course of the high-stakes movie trivia game the protagonists play, being forced to re-enact his masturbation to an image of Marlene Dietrich taped to the back of his door after he fails to identify Isabelle’s reenactment of Marlene Dietrich’s gorilla dance from von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus (1932). He sits up close to the photo, with the back of his head to Matthew, Isabelle, and us, just as if he were sitting in the front row of the cinematheque. He presses his head against the image, knocking his head against it, as though he were trying to enter its world. We think of the photo of Isabelle in a swimsuit that she and Theo find concealed in Matthew’s boxers, as if appended to his genitals, another depiction of masturbation, with the image as close to the source as possible. And suddenly the word “cinephilia” takes on a not-so-savory air.
A similar air of perversity in conjunction with the attachment to images is evoked when Isabelle first asks Matthew to join her and Theo in their race through the Louvre. “There’s something we’ve been meaning to do for a long time, but we’ve been waiting for the right person to do it with,” she says suggestively. Many of the previews released for the film include these lines out of context, so that we think that the film will include a ménage à trois. Instead her words are the prelude to an innocuous if eccentric jaunt through the Louvre, as the trio attempts to break the record set by their cinematic ancestors in Godard’s Bande à Part (1964). The visual juxtaposition — reminiscent of Alain Resnais’ Mon Oncle d’Amérique (1980) — between the endeavor and its illustrious predecessor makes the scene that much more riveting, and we are carried along on the mad rush of doubly charged energy emanating from the screen. When they succeed in besting the old record and embrace in celebration, Isabelle and Theo begin to chant, “We accept him one of us!” This is yet another overture to cinematic history, as Bertolucci shows us in the counterpart scene from Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), its deformed monstrosities pounding the table and proclaiming their more sinister-sounding equivalent to the dreamers’ incantation. We are reminded of the first film we see within The Dreamers, Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963), where the protagonist initially conceals himself within an insane asylum and eventually goes mad. Something about Matthew’s acceptance into the twins’ narrow circle of acquaintance is distinctly ominous. We begin to think: Was the suggestion of perversion (sexual or otherwise) broached by the open-endedness of Isabelle’s initial proposition not a red herring after all? Did the preview pull a double switch on us? We suspected a ménage à trois, then we realized that we were just in for some innocent fun, and then the tables were turned on us again.
Later in the film Matthew will refer to Isabelle and Theo themselves as “freaks.” There is something about them, about their relationship to each other and to cinema, to images, that evokes the same air of perversity we have already noticed. For one thing, just as the protagonists are fetishistically attached to cinematic images, Isabelle and Theo are no less unwholesomely attached to one another, and this very attachment is yet another attachment to an image. A twin, after all, is a kind of mirror-imaged doubling. Bertolucci has many ways of emphasizing this point. Most obvious are the mirror-imaged scars on their shoulders, a suggestion that they really were Siamese twins separated at birth, and not just metaphorically connected by their sharing of a brain, as Theo tells Matthew. Both twins are put in an erotic mood by the same song, “La Mer,” the lyrics of which speak of the sea’s reflective properties. We think of the sea, like twins, as a kind of primordial, primal mirror, before humanity invented the reflective glass or the film projector. It is no surprise, then, that when Matthew feels close to one of the twins, he feels close to both. As they soak in the bathtub, reflected in a tri-partite mirror like a triptych hanging on the wall, Matthew says “I love you” to both Isabelle and Theo at once.
But, as Bertolucci will stress repeatedly as the film progresses, for all the glorious, glamorous celebration of cinematic imagery that The Dreamers displays, and for all the meaningful fulfillment that the protagonists find within the splendid confines of their image-soaked world, there is also something decidedly ineffectual, decidedly incestuous, regressive, and masturbatory about the way the film imagines the attachment to images as a whole, whether they be cinematic images or Theo and Isabelle as images of each other. This is why in the bathroom scene, when the twins mirror Matthew’s heartfelt phrase, telling him, “I love you too,” he spots the inadequacy. He demands more than a mirrored response, which necessarily lacks the emotional conviction and originary force of his spontaneous expression. Why must he always be the one to say it first?, he wonders. Later, when Isabelle dresses up as the Venus de Milo — already a suggestion of powerlessness since she has no hands, as she herself observes — she is briefly able to enjoy her sexual contact with Matthew, but she soon catches sight of herself in the mirror, even as she hears “La Mer” emanating from the room next door where her brother is in the midst of a sexual encounter with another girl. And Isabelle immediately loses her ability to feel pleasure with Matthew.
Moreover, the twins, though terribly close to one another, have never consummated their desire for each other. This is forbidden to them. They can enjoy watching each others’ sexual experiences, but that is where it must end, like two mirror images that can touch but never penetrate beyond the surface. Theo orchestrates a fulfilling sexual moment for Matthew and Isabelle as their punishment for failing to identify his reenactment of Hawks’ Scarface (1932) during another episode of their movie trivia game when he compels them to have sex. But, as Garrel’s nuanced acting in this scene conveys, the experience is not nearly so orgasmic for Theo, as he casts conflicted, uneasy glances their way while frying eggs with his back seemingly turned to them. He commands them to have sex under the Delacroix painting with the Marilyn Monroe head in place of the personified Liberty, joking that “one reproduction will inspire another.” Perhaps he means something else, something less obvious. Perhaps he is hoping that their reproduction can inspire the same feeling in him, that he will be able to reproduce it vicariously. If this is his intention, he clearly fails. His expressed goal when he demands that they have sex is to “see everyone happy,” but while Matthew and Isabelle are happy, Theo only sees.
He attempts to compensate for the inadequacy of his purely visual experience by wiping a bit of Isabelle’s pudendal blood on his finger. This is not the first time we have seen a necessarily unsatisfying externalization or exchange of fluids substitute for an actual sexual experience. After Matthew’s first exhilarating meeting with Isabelle and Theo, he does not want the day to end. But he is left alone, and he returns home, bounding through the halls of the hotel where he is staying, feverish with newfound passion, bursting with sexual energy. Sitting nearly naked, looking into a mirror, he writes a letter to his mother, encapsulating his experience, making a kind of image out of it. We see him spit in front of the mirror. The sterile oral secretion is a regressive displacement of an unconsummated sexual or, at the least, masturbatory desire. Matthew wants to achieve a fitting culmination to the night, but he is unable to do so. We see a similar indication of an infantile regression, a confusion between genital and oral release on the part of “little Matthew,” as Isabelle refers to him, when he urinates in the sink instead of the toilet.
He repeats this same act when he spends his first night at Theo and Isabelle’s apartment, but this time, the oral/genital confusion is made even more explicit when, standing by the sink, looking in the bathroom mirror, he accidentally urinates on Theo’s toothbrush and conceals the act. His misplaced secretion is circulated to Theo when Theo brushes his teeth the next day in the same place. Theo then asks Matthew, “Do you want to use my toothbrush?” “No, I’ll use my finger,” Matthew responds, in yet another indication of a sexual displacement. When Isabelle wipes the sleep from Matthew’s eyes, she asks him, “Did you enjoy it?” “Was I supposed to?” he responds. Some time later, Isabelle articulates a childishly expressed desire to touch Matthew’s lips in the same bathroom, and she does so while he has toothpaste on them, so that her craving for sexual contact is displaced into the touching and smearing of an oral excretion. Matthew smells Theo’s genital or anal excretion on Theo’s underwear just before he looks at a photo of Isabelle stashed away in Theo’s wardrobe. Later, Isabelle wipes Theo’s semen off of the Marlene Dietrich image on his door and holds it to her nose. Then Theo wipes Isabelle’s blood on his finger after she and Matthew have sex after failing to identify Theo’s Scarface reproduction. Finally, as the three soak in the bathtub, with a mirror hanging just above it, Matthew catches sight of Isabelle’s menstrual blood in the water. It is shortly after this scene that Matthew lashes out at the twins when they want to shave his pubic hair, calling them “freaks” and telling them that they are “never gonna grow.”
Thus far we have seen that The Dreamers represents a strong association between the attachment to images and ineffectual regressive sexuality. This attachment to images includes everything from the arrested development inherent in the attachment between the two twins to the almost fetishistic attachment of the protagonists to the images projected onto screens in the dark. The very re-enactment of cinematic moments becomes itself a kind of retreat into the dark womb of the cinematheque, a regression into the past, a masturbatory repetition, a refusal to grow up and come to terms with the world outside, to move forward into the uncertain future which, in May 1968, promised something dramatically different from everything that came before.
But if the proliferation and reproduction of images inside the apartment is disturbingly plentiful, what goes on outside the apartment is of a different order entirely. We see the same revolutionary slogans written on all the walls. We see, as an image through the apartment window, legions of identical communist flags held aloft by the people below. Theo tells Matthew to think of Mao as a great director with a cast of millions, but Matthew, by this point revolting against the twins’ regression, condemns the idea because each actor in the cast holds the same book and becomes a mere extra in a film consisting entirely of extras. And yet this is exactly what we see when the trio finally leaves the apartment to join the revolution below. The crowd chants as one: “Dans la rue! Dans la rue! Dans la rue!” Theo and Isabelle join them seamlessly. We recall Browning’s freaks chanting in unison: “We accept her one of us! We accept her one of us!” This is an image of the revolution as abdication of thought, as collective delusion. “Think! Think!” Matthew repeats to the twins when he calls them freaks in the bathroom. If the manner in which the twins mirror each other provides the comfort of thoughtless solidarity to each member of the pair, then how much greater is the comforting mindlessness of the groupthink outside! If there is a regressive, sterile passivity in the twins’ imitation of cinematic images and of each other, there is something even more enormously slavish and ineffectual about the image of an epidemic of imitation on the street, thousands of people mirroring each other, herd-like, repeating revolutionary ideas imported from abroad.
That there are parallels in the figuration of the revolution outside and the journey of sexual discovery in the apartment raises the question of the precise relationship between these two worlds. The Dreamers repeatedly suggests that the protagonists are cordoned off from the rest of the revolution. The “screen screened us from the world,” Matthew explains near the film’s beginning, emphasizing for us how the cinephiles’ attachment to images keeps them from growth, from the future, from the revolution outside, even as they depend on those images as their sole avenue of engagement with the world; the world, unprocessed through images, is banal and impure. When the Cinémathèque Française closes, Matthew and his new friends, left on their own in their parents’ home, seclude themselves in these comfortable hermetic environs. “In the future, in my memory, I shall live a great deal in this room,” Isabelle says, quoting Garbo from Mamoulian’s Queen Christina (1933). “You are part of it; you cannot stand outside looking in,” the twins’ father cautions, but the half-French siblings and their American guest do remain outside the revolution. By keeping them imprisoned inside the apartment throughout most of the film, Bertolucci has placed the twins outside a mass movement of outsiders.
At the beginning of the film, the opening credits roll as the camera pans down what appears to be a blue, white, and red Eiffel Tower. Slowly we descend toward the ground, into the site where the revolution is to take place. But when Matthew is invited to dinner at the apartment, Bertolucci’s camera makes a point of showing the elevator, the metallic meshwork of which bears a vague resemblance to the Eiffel Tower’s structural composition, ascending to the third floor even as the twins vault up the stairs and Isabelle yells, “Theo and I are contagious.” We have been taken above the revolution, into a luxurious apartment where the twins are well provided for by the checks their father leaves for them. The point is emphasized again when, after the run through the Louvre, at which point Matthew is formally accepted into the twins’ company, Bertolucci focuses narrowly on the closing of the apartment door behind them when they re-enter it, as though the outside world has been shut out entirely. When they try to use the phone some time later, they find that it is dead. There is no communication between them and the outside world.
Outside there is chaos and uncertainty. Inside, Matthew and the twins create a more manageable microcosm. Matthew’s realization at dinner with the family that the cigarette lighter fits into virtually any frame is a metaphor for the act of framing itself, the neat placement of an object that can generate fire if let loose into the world into a series of screens.1 The siblings’ father refers to Matthew’s discovery as reflective of the “cosmic harmony of shapes and sizes.” “When we look around, we see complete chaos,” he says, “but viewed by God everything suddenly fits together.” The artist can play God with the world, can frame reality to hold its chaos at bay, can discern and reveal the spiritual patterns concealed amid the noise and thereby constitute our means of engagement, of connectedness with the world. For Bertolucci, this act of framing is not only a means of making sense of an otherwise incomprehensible situation but is also, from a psychological perspective, an important way of distancing oneself, of abstracting oneself from a necessarily less perfect reality with which one cannot come to terms. Thus, to be “screened … from the world” by a screen and to “stand outside” are traditional postures of both artists and alienated multitudes. For the young, who have not yet acquired the tools — financial, intellectual, emotional, sexual, etc. — that are necessary to function fruitfully and securely within the chaos of the outside world, the creation of frames, of images, of microcosms within the safer confines of which they may experiment with adult concepts is a virtual necessity. We begin to understand Bertolucci’s choice of these particular protagonists: young, alienated, sexually immature, desperately in need of art, of images, to manage their connection to a world in turmoil outside. In the words of William Hazlitt,
Happy are they who live in the dream of their own existence, and see all things in the light of their own minds; who walk by faith and hope; to whom the guiding star of their youth still shines from afar, and into whom the spirit of the world has not entered! They have not been “hurt by the archers,” nor has the iron entered their souls. The world has no hand on them.2
“A petition is a poem; a poem is a petition,” read the twins’ father’s most famous lines of poetry, a mirror image text that expressly erects a parallelism between an artistic and a political object. What happens in the apartment, then, is a kind of miniature model of the chaos outside. Whereas the spark outside is provided by politics, culture and a whole host of other imponderables, the spark inside is provided by Matthew, whose arrival on the scene penetrates the even more hermetic and infecund microcosm previously erected by the twins on their own. As much as he appears to be energized by them, they may need him even more than he needs them. Without him, their relations would be stale, a series of sterile games that would likely fail to produce anything of value or interest. The two of them are as one, and their togetherness is a mere unity, not a sexual union. Matthew is infantile in his sexuality and ashamed of his body before he meets the twins, but they are just as infantile in their own way, and Isabelle, we are surprised to discover, is a virgin until her sexual encounter with him changes that. The significance of his entrance into their lives is symbolized in the scene right before the first night he spends at their house, when Isabelle leans over to kiss Theo and then to kiss Matthew goodnight. As she inclines her head in Matthew’s direction, her hair catches fire from a candle on the table. The flame is put out harmlessly, but it is a signal to us that Matthew’s presence has injected their lives with something novel and volatile.
There are other parallels between the life of the apartment and the revolution. As the piles of trash mount outside, they mount inside as well. The comically bourgeois food shortage inside (Isabelle presents indistinguishably burnt and inedible twin dishes: fondue and ratatouille) parallels the more serious resource shortages (e.g., transportation) outside. The light sadomasochism (“forfeit”) in which the trio engages mirrors the more serious games of power relations occurring outside. Outside the people clamor for true rights and liberties; inside, the image of “Liberty Leading the People” has been replaced by an image of Marilyn Monroe, since Matthew and the twins take their discussions of cinema as seriously as the masses outside might take their discussions of liberty. Theo forcibly restrains Matthew so that Isabelle can strip him, and Matthew protests, “I’m not violent; I’m against violence.” The dialogue is clearly displaced from its proper context and setting, which would have been with regard to the true violence in the streets below, where it ends up only at the very end of the film. When the spark that Matthew lights finally comes to fruition in the form of actual, mature, non-regressive sex between him and Isabelle, Theo sees, framed by the window, the revolutionaries with their banners marching outside, as if both the sexual microcosm and revolutionary macrocosm that it represents are escalating at the same pace, climaxing at one and the same time. Matthew smears Isabelle’s face with her virgin blood, and we are reminded of the real blood that may be shed outside.3 We have a similar association when Isabelle threatens to kill herself should her parents ever discover the nature of the relationship between her and Theo, and when Theo pretends to die in pangs of agony while he is imitating Scarface.
When Matthew and Theo debate Vietnam while soaking in the bathtub, Matthew abruptly changes the subject, speaking excitedly of how he read in Cahiers du Cinéma that a director is like a peeping tom, a criminal, and a film is a crime. The juxtaposition between Vietnam and Cahiers du Cinéma, of which Matthew speaks in equally animated tones, between the trio as peeping toms looking out at the outside world through the frame they have created for themselves (which Matthew graphically demonstrates in the form of a peephole crafted with soap suds) and the true crimes happening outside, is nearly laughable, adorning film directors, films and the three kids with a risqué mystique far in excess of their real-world significance. The bit of Isabelle’s menstrual blood that Matthew finds floating in the tub even more laughably evokes the images of human beings swimming in their own blood in far-off Vietnam.
It is shortly after this point that the trio’s hermetic microcosm begins to disintegrate, as Matthew revolts against the twins’ attempt to shave his pubic hair and turn him into a “little boy.” As he calls them freaks, Theo rather desperately fidgets with the cigarette lighter, but he cannot light a spark. Without Matthew the twins are emasculated and powerless. Matthew convinces Isabelle to go out of the apartment, on a “normal” date with him, without Theo, but Bertolucci, in what, insofar as it fails to rise above the realm of pure caricature, is probably the film’s least compelling sequence, shows the date to be just another film-inspired reflection. In response to the “freaks'” stereotypical notions that one must sit in the front of the theater to soak in the images first, Matthew can offer nothing more than a counter-stereotypical idea that people on dates must sit in the back so that they can “make out.” We get the sense that if, perhaps, Matthew had been able to offer Isabelle something more, a path towards a new and viable future, out of her regressive cinephilic universe, a true and lasting romance, a real engagement with each other and with the world around them, could have emerged. But he cannot. They cannot realize a true revolution. Instead, on the way home, they pass by yet another image of the revolution, televised, and even that image is too down-to-earth for Isabelle. She pronounces, “Theo and I never watch television. We are purists, the purest of the pure.” Matthew wants to go into her room like a normal couple, but she is adamant in her regressive refusals, protecting her private sexless space, declaring that “no one’s making love on my bed.” Then, for the first time, Matthew sees — expressed by the homeliness of her room, a little girl’s hermitage complete with teddy bears on the pillows — her ordinariness, welling up from underneath the layers of flair and pretense, from underneath the childish games, the grand cinematic gestures, and emerging into the light as an image of identical suburban houses in Matthew’s native San Diego, a multiplication of images gone too far. It is as if the spell has been broken, the frame shattered, the romance undone. She enters the room having regressed even deeper into the past, retreating and disappearing into the old and timeless image of the Venus de Milo. Soon thereafter, we see her crying for Theo in the room next door, refusing to recognize Matthew, demanding to know what he is doing in her room.
The relationship between inside and outside worlds, as well as the relationship among the protagonists, reach its emotional climax shortly thereafter. In the next sequence, we see Matthew and Theo arguing about politics. Theo reads to Matthew that “a revolution is not a gala dinner,” not “a book” or “a tapestry.” Then he proceeds to procure and uncork a bottle of expensive wine, making it quite clear to us that if a revolution is not a gala dinner, we are distinctly outside the revolution. Theo then suggests that Matthew look upon Mao as a great film director, with a cast of millions, explicitly figuring the revolution as an artistic image, a book, a tapestry, a film. It is as if Theo needs to see Mao this way in order to frame him, to understand him, to feel a connection to the revolution. But by this point Matthew is all too well aware of the perils of images multiplying, and he rejects the vision, recognizing it to be a film where all individuality is quashed and every actor is just an extra. “If you really believed what you were saying, you’d be out there,” Matthew tells Theo. “Where?” Theo responds, a clue to us of just how far from the actual revolution Theo, Matthew and Isabelle have remained. A trickle of wine leaks out of Matthew’s mouth as if it were blood. For Theo, the word together will always mean “just two,” Matthew explains.
Isabelle enters the room, having prepared a surprise for the boys. She has set up a tent for the three of them to sleep in. It is a kind of ultimate regression, a hermetic universe within a hermetic universe, a pure representation of a desire to return to the safety of the womb. “We used to do this when we were little,” Isabelle tells Matthew. Later she wakes up in a state of great disturbance and turns to her brother. Her tone when she speaks to him is pleading and desperate. She wants to confirm that he will love her forever, that it will always be the two of them forever. Matthew is pointedly excluded, as he must be since the very notion of being together forever with a sibling is an unrealistic and childish separation anxiety. Theo is too sleepy to give Isabelle the sincere acknowledgement she needs, but even if he were awake, his response could only be a reflection, as necessarily unsatisfactory as the “I love you too” he says to Matthew in the bathtub.
When the parents arrive to find Matthew, Theo and Isabelle lying naked and intertwined on the bed — we had last seen them clothed — they likely assume, as we also might, that the ménage à trios the film has long broached but never given us has finally occurred during the night. If it happened, as we are probably meant to conclude, then Isabelle would have likely initiated it and been the only one of the three fully conscious during the process. Matthew and Theo went to sleep drunk, but we have seen her awake and lucid during the night, and that she asked Theo to confirm that they will be together forever suggests that she knew that everything was about to change, that she was going to be the instrument of the change. Much is wisely left unsaid, but after the failure of her “normal” romance with Matthew and her total retreat into childhood longings, she is left to want the impossible, an all-too-adult sexuality merged with the all-too-innocent mindset of children. Realizing that she cannot be separated from her brother, she wants the three of them to experience one perfect night, the impossibility of a perfect three-way sexual union without consequences. This is the closest the Dreamers will ever come to the sex-as-death-wish fantasy that Bertolucci gave us in Last Tango in Paris. There, as a young man himself, he brought to the screen a vision of sexual perversion as the liminal response of a man whose experience of life had left him alienated and exhausted. In The Dreamers, Bertolucci, now himself an old man, gives us sexual perversion as a journey of innocent discovery undertaken by the young protagonists to bridge the gap created by their alienation from the simultaneous madness and drudgery of life outside. But by the end of the film, that same perversion becomes a retreat from life in its entirety, and Isabelle’s act is, therefore, a kind of ultimate retreat from the uncertainty of 1968, from the uncertainty of the future. It is tempting to think, therefore, that even had her parents not arrived to see them there, Isabelle would have had no choice but to turn on the gas in the morning.
But her parents do arrive. They snuff out the candles by the foot of the bed, a symbolic enactment of the burning out of the flame that Matthew introduced into the apartment. Bertolucci pointedly shows us the elevator descending as the parents leave the house, a dramatic reversal of the earlier scene when Matthew first entered the twins’ apartment. It is as though their parents are leaving them behind just as we must, returning to ground level, to the revolution, out of the enclosed environment in which the film has heretofore existed. We see Isabelle wake up and turn on the gas, which is deadly without a flame. As she retreats back into the tent, we see what might well have been the final image of The Dreamers, the hermetic universe in the tent in the apartment drawn in so tight around the three lovers that they must suffocate within it.
And perhaps this is the way it really did end. The rest, after all, is so cinematic that it deliberately strains credulity. A stone from outside shatters the glass in the window frame in the nick of time, before the gas flooding the room can have its intended effect. “The street came flying into the room,” Isabelle says. She, Theo and Matthew awaken, seemingly refreshed by the eruption from outside. They exit the apartment, and Bertolucci again gives us a narrow shot of the door, closing this time, as the occupants of the apartment come out into the open. The revolution is waiting for them. It looks like a movie set. The crowd marches in utter unison, chanting as one. Theo and Isabelle are immediately absorbed into the mass. Matthew tries to hold them back. They pass through to the front, where Theo readies a Molotov cocktail to throw at the police. “This is violence,” Matthew says. “This isn’t violence. It’s wonderful,” Theo responds, inviting us to question the reality of what we are seeing, for where else but in a film can violence ever be wonderful? Matthew speaks heroically, telling Theo and Isabelle that people like them must fight with their brains, with love, not with violence. His speech is as pat and cinematic as the date on which he went with Isabelle, and as there, he can offer the twins no compelling alternative. Theo rejects Matthew. Matthew gives Isabelle a last pleading look, begging her to stay. But her ultimate allegiance is clear. She will be with Theo forever, and she follows him towards the makeshift barricade. We see Matthew turning away and disappearing back into the chanting crowd. Then Theo lights the bottle he is holding and throws it towards the security forces, where the flames burst forth dramatically.
Why is he able to light the fire now? Bertolucci leaves it ambiguous for us. If the scene is meant to be real, rather than purely cinematic, then there are two alternatives. Either he lights the fire because the breaking of the apartment’s hermetic seal has given the twins a new spark as part of the great future approaching — but this is unconvincing given the terms the film has established to this point, as well as the fact that no great future ever came — or else the important thing is not that he lights the flame but that he throws it away, giving up his individuality and the spark of creativity, of originality, of inspiration, of self-discovery, forever to become a mere pawn in the great Maoist collective delusion. If the scene is meant to be cinematic, however, a film within a film, then the difference between these two alternatives ceases to matter. An emergence onto the set of an unfolding film, even a grand one, might as well be a retreat into the comfort of the darkened cinematheque. And Bertolucci suggests that it is indeed a cinematic moment when the police rush forward and their movements begin to transition into stylized slow motion, then fade into black and white. Then the credits run unconventionally from top to bottom, a reversal of the direction of travel in the film’s first scene, so that now we are being taken back up into our world, off the ground, out of the revolution, out of May 1968. We are awash in nostalgia to the voice of Edith Piaf singing “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” yet if we listen carefully, we will hear her tell us that she does not give a damn about the past (“Je me fous du passé”).
It is a marvelously ambiguous ending, one that demands to be interpreted. Whatever the best interpretation will be, we can say with some confidence that the film is not just an old man’s exercise in nostalgia, thinking back to his youth in 1968, when idealism, sex and cinema were all that mattered. There is something very odd about the way the revolution is figured, and the oddness goes beyond the closing scene.4 Even early on in the film, when we see energized students rushing by, their screams sound more like those of kids at a party than like expressions of revolutionary fervor. We remember Matthew’s line: “Only the French would house a cinema in a palace.” We recall how during the opening credits, the names of the actors appeared intertwined with the blue, white and red steel girders of the Eiffel Tower, as if acting and cinema were indeed built into the very fabric of France. The revolution began with the firing of Henri Langlois, director of the Cinémathèque Française; it began as a revolt of students complaining about what they thought were deteriorating classroom conditions such as overcrowded classrooms and indifferent teachers. Their heroes were men like Jean-Pierre Leaud, of whom Bertolucci shows black and white footage juxtaposed with his present-day self, repeating the speech he then delivered. There was no shortage of food. There was no real bloodshed. Not a single person was killed. The revolution failed. There was no revolution! But when Godard was asked, “At what exact point in time did the break from bourgeois to revolutionary filmmaking occur?” he replied, “During the May-June events in France in 1968.” A revolution in filmmaking? Was this what May 1968 was about? As Bertolucci himself has said, “There was a moment in ’68 when everybody doing movies thought cinema was like a machine gun to do revolution. I didn’t believe that.”5
When Communist China or Vietnam is mentioned in the film, the stark contrast between real human suffering and a mere battle of ideas becomes apparent. Just as Matthew, Isabelle and Theo in the apartment are a synecdochical image, a microcosm of the revolution outside, so the France of May 1968 is figured in its entirety by Bertolucci as a mere image of the world’s true revolutions. All France seems like a mirror that reflects more violent developments beyond its borders. The people repeat Maoist and Trotskyite slogans and make revolutionary films, all a far cry from the real thing. Just as the three students spend their days idly debating the relative merits of Chaplin and Keaton, so all France was caught up in arguments among the gauchistes (Maoists, Marxists, Trotskyites, students) the PCF (the official French Communist Party) and the CGT (Confédération général du travail) and, more (or perhaps less) peripherally, in arguments among film collectives such as SLON (Société pour le lancement des oeuvres nouvelles), Dynadic (aligned with the PCF and CGT), Révolutionaires prolétaires (Maoists) and the Dziga Vertov Group (Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin).6 To say this another way, a petition may be a poem, and a poem may be a petition, but neither a poem nor a petition is the revolution.
We are finally in position to return to the line with which we began: “It was our very own cultural revolution.” We stop to note, first, that it was a cultural, not a political, revolution. Bertolucci makes this quite clear. But whose cultural revolution was it? It was the revolution of the dreamers, not dreamers in the sense of idealists, but dreamers in the sense of all the alienated, the ones who live through the images they love, the ones who cannot but return to these images over and over again, the ones who refuse to grow up, the ones in love not with the uncertain future but with the glorious past. The political is a movement of masses. The cultural — which is really the aesthetic — is far smaller in scope. Such dreaming is nearly always solitary. Sometimes it can happen in twos and threes, as with the central image of youthful alienation The Dreamers presents, but in the end these dreamers will diverge like Maoist factions parting ways, over matters that are truly not political but aesthetic in nature. Sometimes it happens to an entire crowd at once in a transcendent moment felt in the darkened cinematheque. And sometimes, but so very briefly, it takes hold of an entire culture like a grand collective delusion or like a collective orgasm, as compelling as it is frightening.
There is something so compelling about the past, after all. “Avec mes souvenirs / J’ai allumé le feu” — “With my memories I have lit a fire,” Edith Piaf sings at the end of The Dreamers. There is something so comfortable about regression into a golden age, which for so many of us is our childhood, or the childhood of our culture, which may be, in either case, the childhood we always wanted but never had. When we see Isabelle maneuver around the room where Matthew sleeps, retracing Garbo’s movements, it is as if she is enacting a classical pose, as if her very life — and that of those who see her — becomes, at that moment, as elegant and elevated as art. When we see our three beautiful young protagonists — themselves an echo of Bande à Part, or Jules et Jim (Truffaut, 1962), or Les Enfants Terribles (Melville, 1950) — rush through the Louvre in juxtaposition with their no less beautiful predecessors, how much greater the gesture becomes! To live in the constant memory and imitation of beauty is to live a beautiful life. To live in the thrill of constant recognition is to see perpetual art perpetually come alive. How crazy indeed someone would have to be not to be tempted by a life like this, not to want to retreat from the drab and frightening banality of today and tomorrow! And how great The Dreamers is for allowing us to feel this temptation in all its glory and all its danger, and both at once.
- Fire is a motif throughout The Dreamers, and we will have occasion to discuss it later. [↩]
- Hazlitt, William. “Mind and Motive.” Winterslow, Essays and Characters Written There. Oxford University Press, 1906. [↩]
- We will return to the issue of what blood was or was not shed outside later. [↩]
- Many unsympathetic reviewers have characterized Bertolucci’s depictions of the revolution as somehow fake or otherwise unsatisfying, and indeed it is, though deliberately so. [↩]
- Interview with Bernardo Bertolucci by Ulricke Kock, 1987, reproduced in Bernardo Bertolucci: Interviews (University of Mississippi Press: Jackson, 2000). [↩]
- See Donato Totaro, “May 1968 and After: Cinema in France and Beyond” (May 22, 1998), available here [↩]