Thoughts on The Dreamers

by C.J

Revolutionary Worker #1235, April 4, 2004, posted at

Any movie with that title, that setting (Paris, May 1968) and that soundtrack (Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, the Doors) would have me sit up and take notice. And Bernardo Bertolucci's new film does not disappoint, but it's best to leave any pre-existing expectations at the popcorn stand.

The Dreamers takes us back to a time of rebellion and exhilaration in the streets of Paris. Outrage over the Vietnam War was calling millions into motion around the world, and in France the suffocating regimentation in academia and society at large provided a major spark.

"As April turned to May, no one would have believed that in a matter of days the suffocating atmosphere of De Gaulle's Fifth Republic would be tossed into the air; the influence of the phony communists of the PCF (French Communist Party) would be challenged; and the entire society would be in the middle of a revolutionary upsurge." ("France '68: The Wild Days of May," Revolutionary Worker #961, June 14, 1998, available online at

As the film opens, a struggle has erupted over the government firing of legendary founder and curator of Cinématheque Francais, Henri Langlois, who turned one of Paris' ancien palaces into a movie theater--with the aim of creating a school of the cinema for the youth of Paris who were seeking new ways of looking at the world, and new ways to change it.

We first spot Théo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green) at the center of a demonstration for Langlois. They are tight, partners (twins, we find out later) --and the kind of intense and appealing individuals who attract admirers. They quickly fasten on a fellow film-lover, Matthew (Michael Pitt), an American, and the action begins.

Seducing Matthew into their scene becomes part of the twins' quest to cure him of sycophancy towards authority and bring him into the world of the new adventurous people coming onto the stage. Their first test for Matthew: a flat-out foot race through the Louvre museum, risking arrest while re-enacting a scene from Jean-Luc Godard's Band of Outsiders and chanting a famous line from Tod Browning's Freaks , "One of us, one of us, you are one of us!"

This is the first film in a long time to give a flavor of what it was like to live on this planet when Mao Tsetung and the exuberant millions of workers, peasants and intellectuals in China were changing how people everywhere looked at everything and lived life. A quarter of humanity was making a reality of serving the people and rebelling against the old order, and this revolution had an impact from Vietnam to Tanzania, New York City to Paris. Images of Mao and posters from the Cultural Revolution turn up all over in this film, from the city walls to Théo's bedroom, and questions of revolutionary strategy, the relationship of leaders to the people and what a new society should look like, get debated right alongside which film or song holds secrets for how to live, who to love and what to do that afternoon.

As someone who came awake in the late '60s, I'm here to tell you this was what it was like--and miraculous new things were spawned from this rich brew. As one who remains a Maoist today, I am gratified that Bertolucci chose to make a movie that stands inside that moment, without cynicism or the tedious and ignorant verdicts on the communist revolution that dominate the arts and intellectual life today.

The way he understands and depicts what was happening at that time is a poetic mixed bag, but I went to the film partly based on hearing what is on his mind today:

CNN's Paula Zahn: "So this film takes place in Paris in 1968, a time and a place that you're very drawn to. Why?"

BERTOLUCCI: "Because it was a very special moment. In '68, there was this great capacity in the youth to put together, to mix together, politics with cinema, with rock-and-roll, with sex, with philosophy, and everything would incredibly be harmonious all together. In '68, we would go to sleep at night thinking, when we will wake up, it won't be tomorrow, it will be the future, and a kind of sense of hope. What was the hope? To be able to change the world. And I wanted to tell the kids of today that just not much long ago, kids like them were able to dream, to dream fantastic things."

The Dreamers, with its unusual NC-17 rating, has been treated by some reviewers as a teenage sex romp, which is unfortunate, since I think it has limited the audience. But more interesting to me has been the mixed and sometimes volatile responses to the film among thoughtful viewers, including some revolutionary-minded friends. It brings to mind Bob Avakian's comment on such film controversies that: "Sometimes things are more or less immediately clear, but many times there will be disagreements because by definition art is often complex and involves symbolism, imagery, etc., that is open to different interpretations. This is not to say that art is an exceptional sphere in which there is no right and wrong, no good and bad, and everything is simply subjective standards and interpretations. [but ] that it takes time, patience and work to sift through things."

I think if you look beneath the surface of The Dreamers,you can see the relationship of Isabelle, Théo and Matthew as a metaphor for different contradictions that pose themselves to the youth in times of radical social upheaval.

Théo and Isabelle enter society as an intoxicating package and see themselves as a kind of twin-soul. For me, they come to represent the intertwining of the radical strivings of the youth all over the world and the sexual revolution and passion for cinema which arose at the same time in the West. They would like to bring Matthew into their fold, to free him from San Diego small-mindedness. As it turns out, he comes to stand for the forces intent on breaking them up. His calling card: an appeal to love and pacifism.

The film deals with the intense push-pull on youth seeking to break out of moribund bourgeois social relations who constantly face being flung back into spirit-crushing traditions. Isabelle's relationship with Theo is both taboo-breaking and a train wreck in the making. The two are engaged and incredibly free with one another, but we also get to know Theo's macho side, from barking at Isabelle to turn off Janis Joplin to orchestrating some hurtful sexual scenarios. Matthew at first seems to be the "sensitive" one, but after becoming Isabelle's first lover, he tries to drag her into conformity, insisting on taking her on a "real" date, yanking her from the front row of the cinema--which has been a door for her into a new world of cultural criticism--to the back row for a necking session. They end up sipping Coke (one glass, two straws), Matthew all the while exalting this Pleasantville-worthy courtship ritual as something missing in Isabelle's life. He then prowls her bedroom (a secret preserve filled with mirrors, ruffles, and the ready-for-med-school microscope) in search of a way to capture the good-girl side of her persona.

The drama that ensues was reminiscent for me of how the '60s sexual revolution often played out. At the beginning of the film, Isabelle is an inventive and fierce spirit; near the end, she lies in the dark-- having discovered that their permissive parents are hip to their sexual adventures --suicidally desperate for a way out.

This does come, as the sun rises and the "street" flies through the window in the form of a rock hurled from the great demonstration passing below. Théo leads the three of them off to join the massive actions which were then shaking French society to the core.

As Théo, Isabelle and Matthew race out into the street, two paths are presented: rush to the barricades to fight the riot police because the liberation of the people of the world requires it, or indulge in middle class self-preservationism in the name of love and peace. As Matthew wavers on the sidelines, Théo and Isabelle rush to the frontlines.

Bertolucci does not feature characters who are consistent frontline fighters from the "days of May." He looks instead at the whole ball of contradictions in play at that time, including the dramas, conversations, and "typical contradictions" of those who lived more on the edges of the action, but who were also profoundly touched. Théo has been active in the student protests, then right as the movement explodes he temporarily checks out to spend a month in an apartment with Isabelle and Matthew, arguing politics and testing beliefs in the midst of intense sexual explorations. Did such things happen, do they still?

Bertolucci traverses this territory with an optimism that is rare these days about the ability of the youth to sort through all this, persevere, and transform the world. I had my own little déja-vu as Théo hung up on his folks with the hilarious pronouncement: "Parents should not just be ignored, they should be arrested, they should be sent to the country and re-educated!" This is an uncommonly positive reference, as I read it, to the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution then taking place in China.

The film is filled with pungent political debates on revolution, Mao Tsetung, the Red Book. This has tempted some viewers to lift out one exchange or another and declare it to be the film's "verdict" on big social questions. But art doesn't work in this linear, literal way, and I think these verbal duels invite the viewer to explore what's been tried with an eye to imagining the future.

I do not know Bertolucci's current views on revolution or how he looks at the people's prospects of turning the world right side up, but I found his fresh take on these people and the whole '60s upheaval to be a great night at the movies. One leaves the theater swimming in Hendrix and the final track, a soaring Edith Piaf ballad, " Je ne regrette rien " (I regret nothing).