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Film: Last perversion in Paris

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Las Vegas Mercury

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Film: Last perversion in Paris

Bertolucci wows boomers and buffs with The Dreamers

By Anthony Allison

It's been more than three decades since Bernardo Bertolucci leapt to worldwide notoriety with his succ de scandale, 1972's Last Tango in Paris, in which grieving widower Marlon Brando grabbed the butter and anally raped a disquietingly youthful Maria Schneider on the floor of a large, empty apartment.

So it was high time for the 63-year-old Italian iconoclast to return to the city and the theme--of disturbing sexual manipulation--that cemented his already stellar reputation (as the director of 1969's The Spider's Stratagem and '70's The Conformist), and belatedly made him a bona fide surfer of the French New Wave.

Set against the backdrop of the "events" of 1968, when student demonstrators felt they were ushering in a new French Revolution, The Dreamers, like Last Tango, is set almost totally in the claustrophobic isolation of a sprawling Paris apartment where timid American student Matthew (Michael Pitt) enters the hermetic world of twins Isabelle and Theo (Eva Green and Louis Garrel). With their parents (Anna Chancellor and Robin Renucci) away on vacation, the siblings gradually embroil their repressed houseguest in their bizarre mind games, involving incest, homosexuality and sadism. (Despite this seemingly provocative theme, the film presumably earned its box-office poison rating, NC-17, not due to its extensive female nudity but because of a brief and, in context, non-gratuitous close-up of a flaccid penis.) When they eventually emerge from their navel-gazing isolation, the trash-strewn, riot-wracked city they find is practically unrecognizable.

Pitt, the Leo DiCaprio lookalike who played Tommy Gnosis in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, is credibly gauche as the expatriate from San Diego who's first horrified, then intrigued, by the unhealthy intimacy of his newfound friends, whose casual nudity and insouciant air of intellectual superiority mask thinly veiled insecurities.

Venerable English critic Gilbert Adair based the script on his 1989 novel The Holy Innocents: A Romance, itself a typically erudite homage to The Holy Terrors, Jean Cocteau's novel about incestuous siblings and the androgynous stranger who enters their world (filmed by Jean-Pierre Melville as 1949's Les enfants terribles).

Adair's impeccable cinephile credentials (he penned an exquisitely titled essay collection, Surfing the Zeitgeist, and the pop-culture spoof Love and Death on Long Island, masterfully filmed in 1997 by Richard Kwietniowski) allow Bertolucci to indulge his aging intellectual's nostalgia. Against a musical backdrop including standards like Charles Trénet's "La mer" and Franãoise Hardy's "Tous les garãons et les filles," Matthew and the siblings engage in intense debates about the merits of Chaplin and Keaton, Hendrix and Clapton, and the war in Vietnam. And Bertolucci peppers his film with evocative clips of Chaplin in City Lights, Dietrich in Blonde Venus, Garbo in Queen Christina and Astaire and Rogers in Top Hat. He also pays his dutiful respects to his Nouvelle Vague forbears, with nods to Jean-Luc Godard's A bout de souffle (Breathless) and Bande ?part (Band of Outsiders), and Franãois Truffaut's Jules et Jim.

The result is a film steeped in the heady excitement not only of Adair`s "freemasonry" of film buffs, but the youthful exuberance of an entire, counterculture generation of Europeans who, inspired by Mao's Cultural Revolution, really believed they were going to change the world. The fact that subsequent events turned out to be somewhat less Earth-shattering only adds a frisson of poignancy, as Edith Piaf's signature hit, "Je ne regrette rien," crescendos over the closing credits.

In its setting, tone, sexual frankness and overall intellectual pretensions--or pretentiousness--The Dreamers' striking resemblance to Last Tango will doubtless strike a chord with aging boomers yet may bewilder viewers too young to recall, or comprehend, the heady excitement and idealism of the late 1960s. But it'll also enchant any fan of provocative filmmakers who can serve up such a banquet of emotional, political and intellectual food for thought.

Copyright © Las Vegas Mercury

Further Reading:

Freemasonry in France, Belgium (E.U.), Monaco and French Africa