Dreamers, The (2003): Bertolucci’s Erotic Melodrama, Starring Michael Pitt and Eva Green

As a member of the Fipresci jury at the 2003 Venice Film Festival, I attended the world premiere of Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers,” which got more enthusiastic response from Italian and European critics than from their American counterparts.

Grade: B (***1/2* out of *****)

The Dreamers
The Dreamers movie.jpg

Theatrical release poster

Almost everything you need to know about director Bertolucci as a young man can be found in “The Dreamers,” a companion piece to his seminal work, “Last Tango in Paris,” three decades ago. Though the new movie invites comparisons to the 1972 movie that Bertolucci shot in Paris, the ideological and artistic climates in which the two works were made are vastly different.

If “Last Tango in Paris” is overestimated and doesn’t hold up particularly well, I am willing to predict that the underestimated “The Dreamers,” a sort of “First Tango in Paris,” would gain in stature with time. On another level, “The Dreamers” is Bertolucci’s response to the genre of American youth movies, specifically the James Dean starrer “Rebel Without a Cause,” a film that questions the whole notion of rebellion and causes, both personal and political.

Reflecting Bertolucci’s own passionate, insatiable love of movies, “The Dreamers” is about a triangle of film-loving students, who are all around 20.  A naive American and a disconcertingly intimate French brother and sister. Matthew (Michael Pitt) is an American film student in Paris for reasons that are never fully explained. Isabelle (Eva Green) is a darkly nubile young French woman, and Theo (Louis Garrel), her twin brother, is also darkly nubile.

The three meet outside the Cinematheque Francaise during the 1968 demonstrations, which protested the dismissal of its director, the legendary Henri Langlois. The “Langlois Scandal,” as it became known, is the setting for the story, which Bertolucci adapted from “The Holy Innocents,” published in 1988 by the British novelist Gilbert Adair.

The tale begins with the siblings’ simple invitation of Matthew to dinner at their luxurious apartment when their parents are out of town. They enter into a ménage-a-trois, a sexual and fraternal idyll, during which they rarely leave the house, and which lasts about several weeks, though never established clearly. The story ends with the May riots that had dramatic effects on French politics and culture.

Evolving in intense and unpredictable ways, the trio’s tangled relationships become as rule-breaking and as tumultuous as the politically rebellious times outside the apartment in which they experiment with all kinds of sexual and verbal games. Bertolucci depicts the games, which involve masturbation and voyeurism, with enough graphic sexuality for the film to be slapped with NC-17 from the Rating Board. There is a good deal of nudity in the movie. Eva is naked most of the time, and there are also brief glimpses of frontal male nudity.

The ménage-a-trois is not consummated in all its possible combinations. In Adairs novel, Matthew is homosexual, and Isabelle (named in the novel Danielle) is described as physically boyish, whereas actress Eva Green is voluptuous. Nor is there incest in the film, as there is in the book, though the relationship between the twins is uninhibited. Isabelle and Theo sleep naked in the same bed and have sex in one another’s presence. Matthew doesn’t have sex with either Isabelle or Theo, apart from masturbating in front of them, and Theo doesn’t have sex with either Matthew or his sister.

Was Bertolucci afraid to be more faithful to the book and to carry the tangled web of interactions among the trio to its logical extreme In my view, it’s one of the film’s shortcomings for here is a yarn that should have no restrains or constraints.

The book tells the story of an innocent American (Based on Adair’s coming out), falling in love with androgynous ideal, male and female halves of a metaphysical one. In the end of the book, the twins can’t be parted and they leave Matthew and join the revolution. However, as depicted in the movie, the ending is abrupt and dissatisfying

But “The Dreamers” also operates on another level, as a remembrance of films past and of time past. Bertolucci intertwines his movie with scenes from old movies and vintage clips that sometimes comment on the story, sometimes explain his characters motivations, or simply function as free-association reverie. Bertolucci has said that, the clips are like the dreams of the film; as if the film itself was dreaming, positing the referenced work beyond the film’s characters and plot.”

Among the scenes to be seen are images from Sam Fullers 1963s “Shock Corridor,” about a journalist trapped in an asylum, a film that was discovered by the Cahiers du Cinema critics but dismissed at the time by their American counterparts. There is also a sequence from Frank Tashlins campy musical, “The Girl Can’t Help It,” with Jayne Mansfield. These are clips watched by the characters at the Cinematheque, which serves as a church with all the religious meanings and intense feelings involved.

There are also clips in the narrative itself, as when the trio acts out their favorite movie scenes. In one scene, Isabelle touches objects in her bedroom as she wakes up, a tribute to Garbo in similar position in “Queen Christina.” Scenes from Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” and Buster Keaton’s “The Cameraman” are juxtaposed so that Matthew and Theo (and the audience) can debate and determine which silent clown was funnier. The zeitgeist of the late 1960s, arguably the best era for movie lovers, was so intense that it called for radical fundamentalism as a cineaste, you had to be totally for one and against the other, you could not like both clowns.

Bertolucci claims that two movies have changed his life and shaped his aesthetic sensibility: Godard’s “Breathless” (1959), which he saw at the age of 17, and Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” (1960). Bertolucci uses Godard’s 1964 seminal film, “Band of Outsiders” to create a parallel construction, a mirroring of shots. The iconic scene of the trio of youngsters in Godard’s film racing through the Louvre Museum is reenacted by the trio in Bertolucci’s film.

“The Dreamers” would have been a much more compelling picture if it were better acted. But, uncharacteristically, Bertolucci is defeated by the casting. While Pitt looks right and gives an adequate performance as the American in Paris, Green and Garrell don’t capture the essence of their roles, and neither is particularly appealing, which is a problem when playing such demanding and unconventional characters.

Even so, beautiful in conception and execution, with sensual cinematography, “The Dreamers” is equal measures intense and languid, gritty and surreal, sexy and silly, sentimental and pretentious, ideological and subjective, in other words, pure cinema and pure Bertolucci.  And there’s no denying that it is a personal film, expressing the director’s nostalgia for his own youth and revolutionary fervor.

End Note:

In the end, The Dreamers comes across as a lavish, elegantly shot sexual reverie, a rather pretentious chamber piece that trivializes the outside political reality by reducing its role in the story. In many ways, the erotic games and nudity are more explicit here than in Las Tango in Paris. But Bertolucci seems unable to reconcile the intimate scene with the outdoor scenes, which lack any recognizable reality. They seem to impinge on the intimate drama, and when the trio finally leave their secluded headquarters and join or walk through the protesters, it’s both too little and too late.


The NC-17 rating and mixed critical response resulted in a commercial flop stateside. The U.S. gross amounted to only $2.5 million, though the picture fared better, both artistically and financially, in Europe.

Michael Pitt as Matthew
Eva Green as Isabelle
Louis Garrel as Théo
Anna Chancellor as Mother
Robin Renucci as Father
Jean-Pierre Kalfon as Himself
Jean-Pierre Léaud as Himself
Florian Cadiou as Patrick
Pierre Hancisse as First buff
Valentin Merlet as Second buff
Lola Peploe as The Usherette
Ingy Fillion as Théo’s girlfriend


Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Produced by Jeremy Thomas
Screenplay by Gilbert Adair, based on The Holy Innocents by Gilbert Adair
Cinematography Fabio Cianchetti
Edited by Jacopo Quadri


Recorded Picture Company
Peninsula Films

Distributed by TFM Distribution (France)
Fox Searchlight Pictures (US)

Release date: 10 October 2003 (Italy)
10 December 2003 (France)
6 February 2004

Running time: 115 minutes
Budget $15 million
Box office $15.12 million