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Taking Reality by Surprise

The Dreamers

a film directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

The Dreamers

by Gilbert Adair
London: Faber and Faber, 193 pp., £6.99 (paper)


The titles alone of these works set up an air of avoidance and elegy. We can guess that whatever Bertolucci’s dreamers are doing they are not attending to present and practical matters. And although Gilbert Adair’s dreamers were called The Holy Innocents when his novel was first published in 1988, that title scarcely brings us closer to the everyday world. Afterglow, about Pauline Kael, is frankly nostalgic. Godard: Portrait of the Artist at Seventy, with its echo of a famous novel, reminds us that the artist was once a young man, and hints that the young man may be the artist who most matters to us.

The movies go on and on, but mourning for the cinema is everywhere. We find it in the work of film critics looking in vain for something to like, and in the many recent films that evoke their ancestors in the art. Godard put the words “End of story/End of cinema” on the screen at the end of his 1967 film Weekend: “Fin de conte/Fin de cinéma.” It wasn’t the end of cinema, and Godard didn’t think it was. (Susan Sontag once wrote, in a wonderful phrase, that “Godard has the courage to simplify himself.”) But the end was perhaps nearer than even he thought, and Colin MacCabe suggests, in a pair of lucid and complex sentences, that

if video had enabled Godard to see cinema anew, it had assassinated cinémathèques. And if a generation of marginals and deviants had found in cinema an authority and a tradition, the cinema that they had found was now also dead, a victim of the technological and economic advance that had brought it to light.

Not a man for half-measures, MacCabe thinks the film critic is dead too. This personage is still talking volubly, of course, but is “no longer even the tiniest cog in the economic circuits of value.” Now this whole mood may be an error, premature and provincial. But there are a lot of people standing around what looks like a corpse, and this is probably a good time to talk to the mourners.

The scene of mourning is particularly visible in Bertolucci’s recent movie, The Dreamers. It is set in Paris in February 1968, and opens with a demonstration at the Cinémathèque. Henri Langlois, the revered director of the place, has been dismissed by André Malraux, minister of culture—we can read a good account of this event and its context in MacCabe’s book. Matthew, an American student in Paris, played by Michael Pitt, meets up with Isabelle (Eva Green) and Théo (Louis Garrel), sister and brother, and moves in with them while their parents are away. Various rather predictable sexual antics ensue, each triggered by a movie quiz and a forfeit. In which film does the scene occur that Isabelle is miming now? She marches past in overalls, with a mop over her shoulder, staring sideways at us. It’s the chorus line in Blonde Venus, just before Marlene Dietrich is revealed within the gorilla suit. In which film does a character die in a cross-shaped shadow on a city street? Théo falls to the floor to give us a clue. We don’t get it (or at least the people in the film don’t get it). Scarface. The Dreamers has literal quotations from Queen Christina, Freaks, Top Hat, Breathless, Bande à part, and several other movies, and there is a real pleasure to be had from the brief passage of these visions.

At least they keep your mind off all the groping and the fake intensity of the supposedly lived human relations. Is Isabelle attracted to Matthew because he could take her away from Théo, or merely as a means of intensifying her incestuous love? Is Matthew, whatever his heterosexual performance may be like, really drawn to Isabelle or to Théo or to both? Things look bad when the parents step in on a sleeping mélange à trois, and discreetly depart—those were the days—leaving a check so that the children can continue to buy provisions.

Only Isabelle wakes and notices the gift, and since she has already announced that she would kill herself if her parents found out about their exploits, we think we know what is going to happen. Isabelle fixes a long hose to a gas pipe and settles down for the big sleep, along with the two men whose sleep is going to be bigger than they thought. Then the scheme is interrupted by a brick thrown through the window by demonstrating students. Had we forgotten that this is 1968, and that February would one day turn into May? Almost.

Our three heroes dress and rush down into the street, and the film ends with a discussion and a separation among the overturned cars, improvised barricades, shouting crowds, and charging policemen. Matthew argues that nonviolence is the best method of protest, Isabelle and Théo want to throw Molotov cocktails, and Théo throws one. In a dizzying refraction of many recent debates, young Europe, it seems, is dedicated to war, and young/ old America seeks change by other means. Isabelle and Théo fling themselves into the demonstration, Matthew turns sadly away. Fin de conte, fin de cinéma. Except for the voice of Edith Piaf singing over the credits that she regrets nothing.

What’s interesting in the film is the claustrophiliac imagination of the three characters, and by implication of the writer and director. There’s no place like inside, and the parents’ Paris apartment is a perfect location and metaphor for this preference. Bertolucci exchanges the empty rooms of Last Tango in Paris for a cluttered and intricate warren, corridors crowded with books, doors all seeming to lead to secret places, windows looking across a courtyard on to other windows. It’s a great set, and the real hero of the film. But then fascinating as self-absorption is for the self-involved, it doesn’t provide much visible action or spectacle for others, and Bertolucci and his writer, Gilbert Adair, are driven to the tritest sexual and emotional clichés to fill the screen and the time.

In this context it’s telling that these cinephiles don’t go to the movies, only remember and reenact them. It’s true that the Cinémathèque is closed but there are other theaters. And after a while the very pleasure we take in seeing the clips the characters merely recall turns to sadness, a sort of mourning in spite of itself. The suggestion seems to be that we don’t even have memories of old movies unless we actually see them again.

The Dreamers has other moments of mourning, directly associated with Godard. Isabelle and Théo and Matthew repeat the scene from Godard’s Bande à part where the three characters race through the Louvre. The idea is for the real people (that is, the people in this film) to run the same distance faster than the fictional people in Godard’s old film, and they do. This is charming and funny, and we don’t at once see the melancholy. At another moment Isabelle says she was born on the sidewalk of the Champs-Élysées, and she cries out, “New York Herald Tribune.” The reference is to Jean Seberg in Breathless, and Bertolucci shows us a short sequence from the film to make sure we’re with him. When Matthew briefly parts company with Isabelle and Théo, he is murmuring a line from the song sung by Judy Garland in A Star Is Born: “I was born in a trunk in the Prince’s Theater/In Pocatello, Idaho.” Judy Garland, Jean Seberg, George Cukor, Jean-Luc Godard: it’s all the cinema. But we are supposed to be in 1968, the year of Godard’s One Plus One, and only a few months after Weekend was released. Godard might have become a Mao-ist by then but he wasn’t just a memory, and the foreshortening here, the narrowed line of sight which makes the New Wave and Old Hollywood simply instances of long-lost movie loves, belongs entirely to Bertolucci and Gilbert Adair.

Adair’s novel, The Dreamers, is a new version of his 1988 work, issued to coincide with Bertolucci’s film but not, he says in an afterword, “what is termed a novelisation.” Many, indeed most of the elements of the film are present, but not all, and the ending is starkly different. Caught up in the street battle, Matthew makes a revolutionary gesture he scarcely understands, brandishing a red flag as a way of drawing attention away from Théo and Isabelle, who are being beaten by a policeman. A police officer, who is himself startled by what he does, shoots and kills Matthew. The balance of inside and outside is different in the novel too. In the novel some sixty pages out of 189 are spent on the streets, and an important point is that the triple lovers have missed a piece of history. Théo is shocked to understand what has been happening, and the reason why they were left alone in the apartment for so long, “why they had been able to live so long in a misrule of isolation and disorder.” In the film, because of the intense scrutiny of the geography of the apartment and the articulations of human flesh, the events of May are just noise in the streets, a continuation of scandal by other means.


Godard is probably not the first name we now associate with the film criticism of Pauline Kael, but it was her writing on Godard, we learn in Afterglow, that brought her to The New Yorker in January 1968, not long before our dreamers got lost in that Paris apartment:

Yes, Godard was one of the reasons [William Shawn] hired me…. I had been writing very lovingly about Godard, and Shawn was very unhappy that The New Yorker‘s critics had been panning movie after movie by him for years.

A discreet footnote tells us that this claim isn’t true: “In fact, several different New Yorker critics had reviewed Godard’s early movies enthusiastically—though perhaps not as enthusiastically as Pauline thought they deserved.” Shawn, presumably, believed his critics but thought (correctly) that he had found an even better one. Kael liked the story of the lonely champion. Of someone else’s piece on Breathless she wrote, “If you hold the Chronicle‘s review…up to the light you may see H-E-L-P shining through it.” “Reviewers often complain that they can’t take him seriously,” Kael wrote of the early Godard. “When you consider what they do manage to take seriously, this is not a serious objection.”

Francis Davis’s Afterglow is a rearrangement of an interview he conducted with Pauline Kael over two days in July 2000. Kael died a year later, on Labor Day 2001. Davis says he thinks of his book as “a keepsake of [his] friendship with Pauline,” and we may think of it as a mild memorial, full of flickering intelligence and wit, but mainly appealing because we get to see the ghost of the younger critic—it is her ghost and no one else’s. A sadder note is struck by Kael’s sense that something awful has happened to the movies. They are not dying, far from it, but they have become creatures that hardly anyone can love. Kael remarks that she had Parkinson’s Disease during her last ten years at The New Yorker, and worried a lot about her “recent memory.” Davis says, “I assume that your Parkinson’s was the reason you retired from The New Yorker,” and Kael says,

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