Previous advisor had this one on the syllabus of an undergrad film theory course, and for good reason (although many of us would never put it on any syllabus). It doesn’t take a critic or a scholar to see that Bertolucci’s obsessions with politics, sex, and cinema all collide here. This film is worthy of consideration from numerous vantage points. A study of its spaces would be worthwhile, for example. The apartment functions in a new way from that of the apartment in Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. Here, it’s loaded with Freudian imagery and phenomenological implications. This apartment is a nest, as Gaston Bachelard would probably have it. It’s a safe haven for idealists who pretend to be political while being ignorant of real politics. They are on a backwards journey, returning to a womb-like state at the phase in life when they should be growing up. The two French siblings, Theo and Isabelle, are twins, so their need to be together in a shared fetal state makes some sense. Only an outsider like Matthew could offer an alternate point of view and insist that they need to “grow.” Isabelle’s fractured psyche, split into multiple selves, comes out most overtly when we see her for the first time in her bedroom. She first appears as Venus di Milo, presenting herself as a sex object with no arms (i.e., no agency). This hearkens back to a subtle early scene in which her father displays frank affection to Isabelle with his hands. Once Isabelle approaches Matthew in her bedroom, she is captured by three mirrors, illustrating her different selves precisely at the moment when one Isabelle (the carefree hedonist) is interrupted by another (the little child incapable of maturing), as she hears music from the room next door where she knows her brother is being intimate with another woman.
It’s also a study in France during the late, politically revolutionary days of the 60s. Unlike other, more mythological 60s films, The Dreamers doesn’t take a simple, nostalgic route. Something tragic is present from the beginning, largely due to the obvious idealism of the young characters and the background political dissension. The characters love cinema, so the film uses cinematic tricks to connect those issues in the 60s with the film before us. The twins’ failure to recognize their own political idealism (read: ineptitude) is part of the film’s tragedy, and Matthew’s failure to recognize his unique brand of American idealism is another part. Bertolucci examines modern film theory with a reverse lens. Rather than a study of spectators in a theater imbued with life experiences and sometimes mistakenly seeing reality in the screen, these youths see the screen everywhere in the real world. They talk and move as if they are in films, and Bertolucci intercuts the film with other, older films. They inhabit a fantasy world inside an apartment and escaping mostly just to visit the cinematheque. They get just as riled up over whether Keaton or Chaplin is greater as they do regarding the Vietnam War. It’s not that they don’t care about the war to some extent, it’s that they care about movies just as much.
Then there’s the poetry vs. politics element. Theo and Isabelle decry their father’s political ambivalence on account of his status as a poet. He prefers to write what he writes and let his poems do the rest of the work. His children, on the other hand, love filmmakers like Godard who infuses all of his films with political ideals (incidentally, political ideals of the sort that did not ultimately cling to the cultural fabric in a lasting way). The film seems to present the youngsters as something like naive hypocrites discovering their own way in life and failing; it is called The Dreamers, after all. Their existence is an affluent one in an apartment removed from the political goings-on of the real world. Their own misguided voyage of self-discovery brings them into a little tent, a fascinating picture of three adolescents desperately trying to rebuild a womb to reenter. Once they’re back in, who else discovers them but their parents, confused and saddened. Once Isabelle realizes they were caught, she attempts a murder-suicide, one of the more dramatic attempts at creating an identity and legacy that history has known. Even a gesture such as this, however, fails. A part of the political demonstration outside the apartment literally invades their intimate and doomed space via a broken window. They wake up and Isabelle quickly covers up her attempt to kill herself, her brother, and Matthew. Now that the political realm is right outside their window, Theo and Isabelle take up arms in the futile cause. Matthew is at least consistent enough to know he shouldn’t take part in a violent demonstration. The twins, however torn from the womb they are, participate in an outside cause based on convenience and ease. Their attachment to each other becomes a mobile womb, since the womb in the apartment has been compromised, violated. Matthew’s previous inclusion is perhaps to blame, so when they’re given the chance to part ways with him, they seize it.