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…

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