Judge Brett Cullum warns you not to fear the wang.
Isabelle: "I entered this world on the Champs-Elysees, 1959. La trottoir du Champs Elysees. And do you know what my very first words were? New York Herald Tribune! New York Herald Tribune!"
The Dreamers is the latest from acclaimed director Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor, Last Tango in Paris), a tale set in Paris 1968 of three decadent and revolutionary kids entering the twilight of their adolescence—discovering sex, film, and politics. It's sweet, poignant, and a stab at respectability for the dreaded NC-17 rating. Fox releases a deep DVD for a pretty artistic film that deserves the insight. Just beware—there are two versions to be found.
The Dreamers was released in 2003 with much fanfare and controversy. It garnered the dreaded NC-17 rating in America, and the distributor agonized over cuts to make it more R friendly. Bernardo Bertolucci scoffed at editing his latest film, and it was subsequently released uncut to art houses. Critics such as Roger Ebert championed The Dreamers as proof NC-17 could be a viable rating. Unfortunately, the film never found the right audience, and Fox has released the DVD in two versions—an R-rated cut and an NC-17 original version. If you rent the film from a major chain such as Blockbuster, chances are you are getting the R version. What's the difference? About three minutes of sex scenes. So if you're purchasing the film, check your box carefully. I would recommend the NC-17 version over the R simply because it is a more powerful movie with the love scenes intact.
Facts of the Case
Paris in March of 1968 was in terrible turmoil with students and cinephiles protesting the dismissal of Henri Langlois from the Cinematheque Francais. The government removed him as curator because he was showing what they considered subversive films. Citizens rose up, and France was thrown into a chaos similar to civil rights demonstrations seen in America during the early '60s. There was violence and rioting in the streets. It was an era where sex, cinema, and politics had merged to create social change and radical ideas pioneered by the New Wave film artists of the time. Matthew (Michael Pitt, The Village, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) is a 19-year-old American studying in France. Sucked into the cinematheque's hip scene, he finds himself sitting for hours watching "revolutionary" films in the front row. At a protest for Langlois, he meets Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel)—twin brother and sister who take a shine to him. Soon he finds himself meeting their parents and staying in their spacious apartment on the Left Bank. Isabelle and Theo share his passion for film, and the three act out scenes from key movies in a game where the others must guess what famous sequence they are portraying. Eventually things heat up, and Matthew finds himself the center point of a strange incestuous love triangle with Theo and Isabelle. They hole up in the apartment while outside the streets rage with social change. They have created their own world in cigarettes, wine, talk of movies, playing records, and making love. How long can it last?
This all seems similar to Bertolucci's masterpiece Last Tango In Paris. Both pieces concern people sealed up in a Parisian apartment engaged in copulation to avoid the real world. 30 years ago, that was revolutionary, but here in the 21st century it seems quaint. The whole affair recalls an art house 9 ½ Weeks with a younger cast. Michael Pitt even reminds me of Mickey Rourke in several sequences, even though I suspect he was shooting for James Dean. The story is sweet and charming, and often it is interrupted with filmic exclamation points—scenes from classic cinema pepper the film to illustrate what the characters are referencing. Film geeks will rejoice in guessing them. The characters debate Keaton versus Chaplin, and the dreaded Jerry Lewis conversation comes up. It's a valentine to anyone who loves film.
Everyone talks about the sex scenes in this movie, and they don't take up much time but they do leave their mark. Casual male or female frontal nudity is not taboo here, and we see all of our main cast. I read there was a debate on if body doubles were used for Pitt's scene, but from what I can tell it's all him. Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko) was in the running as Matthew, but the extensive nudity scared him off. And the thing is, the director shoots these scenes intrusively close. You are a third party to the scene! When Isabelle removes Matthew's pants, the screen is tightly focused on his groin area revealing his flaccid penis. The incest is never consummated in the story—Theo and Isabelle use Matthew as sexual surrogate for each other. Quite a bit of the source novel's homoerotic scenes were excised for this film version, but author Gilbert Adair wrote the screenplay—no harm or foul. It's a film about growing up. Yeah, that includes sex! But The Dreamers also questions our childish attachments, and our ability to change the world. The incest angle is more about Theo and Isabelle's refusal to let go of each other as children. It's not kink. Eventually, the real world catches up to the trio, and those sequences provide the meat and meaning for this masterful film. Some won't see past the childish dialogue, pranks, and sexual antics. The Dreamers is an art film through and through.
Fox has provided a great collection of supplements to support the film. Two features depict the making of the film and the history behind it. The "making of" portion clocks in at an exhaustive fifty minutes, while the history lesson is much shorter. Also included is a stunningly well done three-way commentary (oh, the irony) between director Bernardo Bertolucci (he of the thick Italian accent), writer Gilbert Adair, and producer Jeremy Thomas. They move quickly through thematic and technical elements. The anamorphic widescreen transfer is a bit soft; however, I suspect this is on purpose by the brilliant photographer Fabio Cianchetti to give the film an appropriate dreamy look. There is hardly any edge enhancement, and the print is pristine and free of artifacts. I noticed some minimal halos on car lights. Night and cinema scenes have great black levels and little grain. Audio is a generous 5.1 mix for a movie that rarely needs it. Menus are animated and in the style of the film. There is a trailer for The Dreamers and the upcoming Garden State. Also included is a video of Michael Pitt doing a pretty good cover of the Hendrix classic "Hey Joe." I don't understand the need for an R version except to get into large family friendly chains such as Blockbuster or Wal-Mart. Avoid it if you can.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is an independent film, and it is helmed by a man whose career peaked in the 1970s. It's hardly shocking today, and many will seek it out for the sex scenes. They are in for a long plodding two hours where the characters pontificate on films and politics. It won't be to everyone's taste. The incest angle will repulse many people, the nudity will make them squirm, and the history of politics and film will bore them. If you want graphic sex in an NC-17 movie, I hear Showgirls has a new VIP Edition! I found the movie charming and sweet, but it didn't change my life. I enjoyed my evening with Theo, Isabelle, and Matthew and they left me with a smile. But some people will see them as irritatingly childish (that's the point), and may get bogged down in the sexual freedom they aspire to. The movie itself wants to be revolutionary, but often feels quaint. The real revolution never happened anyway. Sex and cinema didn't change the world like big corporations and violence did.
The Dreamers is a nice way to spend two hours in a Bohemian world. It has many rewards—beautiful people in a beautiful city, fun film discussions, nicely photographed, and the courage to not shy away from nudity. It's a shame Americans find male genitalia more offensive than graphic violence. In an age where Uma Thurman can lop off any number of heads to Kill Bill and get an R rating, it seems silly to brand The Dreamers NC-17 for some frontal nudity. I highly recommend this movie for anybody who thought they could change the world through art and sex. Or anybody who appreciates a thoughtful, well-photographed film about growing up.
The Dreamers are free to come out of their apartment as long as they put some clothes on first. They're a delightful bunch with a lot to share. Fox delivers another nice package to film lovers. The court would like to remind visitors we're naked under these flowing black robes! It's our own private revolution…so deal.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Bernardo Bertolucci, Writer Gilbert Adair, and Producer Jeremy Thomas
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