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DVD Pick: "The Dreamers"

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Bernardo Bertolucci's English-language "The Dreamers" (2003) is not as deep or resonant as some of his other movies, but I nonetheless found it reasonably entertaining. I was impressed by the film’s beautiful visual style, and I enjoyed its allusions to old movies and the events in Paris in 1968. Also, "The Dreamers" occasionally manages to generate erotic tension, a quality rare in films made over the last several years.

I think most cinephiles will have a ball with the movie's references to old films, particularly American movies of the 1930s like "Queen Christina" and "Top Hat" and French movies of the 1960s like "À bout de souffle" ("Breathless") and "Bande à part" ("Band of Outsiders"). It’s also interesting that “The Dreamers” deals with some of the events surrounding the French government's firing of the founder of the Cinématèque Française, an institution revered by film buffs. The sacking caused protests that led to the cancellation of the 1968 Cannes Film Festival.

The DVD version of "The Dreamers" I saw was rated NC-17. (There is also an R-rated version that is about three minutes shorter.) The MPAA states that it gave the NC-17 rating for "explicit sexual content," but I would describe what I saw as attractive young actors being shown naked in ways intended to tease the audience. It seems to me that if you’re expecting to see something truly shocking in the film, you'll be disappointed.

I see "The Dreamers" as a coming-of-age story about a 20-year-old American named Matthew (Michael Pitt) who is living in Paris in 1968. He religiously attends movies at the Cinématèque Française, but one day he goes there to find it shut down. A political demonstration is in progress, during which he meets a set of French twins his own age, Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel).

Matthew is soon smitten with Isabelle, partly because they share a passion for cinema and partly because of her beauty. Actually, I imagine it would be easy for a man to fall for Isabelle, especially if he has seen her Venus de Milo impression, which she does by donning an ensemble consisting entirely of a cloth around her lower body and a pair of long black gloves (to simulate the statue's missing arms).

However, a problem looms over the romantic relationship between Matthew and Isabelle, namely that she is unhealthily close to and inseparable from her twin brother Theo. Yet, Matthew and Theo become good friends and perhaps even feel a bit of homoerotic attraction. I thought one of the film’s most charming scenes was when the three young people kick back while crammed into a small tub, soaking naked in a state of complete mellowness. It is a moment out of an idyllic dream, and it is impossible that it can last forever.

Eventually the closed world the three youngsters were able to temporarily make for themselves is impacted by external events. An errant brick from a riot in the streets crashes through the window of their apartment, and they rush outside into a crowd of demonstrators. When Theo commits an act of violence, his actions force Matthew and Isabelle to make major decisions.

"The Dreamers" DVD provides a feature-length English-language audio commentary track with director Bernardo Bertolucci, screenwriter Gilbert Adair, and producer Jeremy Thomas. There’s quite a bit of talk about adapting the screenplay from Adair's semi-autobiographical novel "The Holy Innocents." I found the commentary quite interesting because both Bertolucci and Adair have firsthand knowledge of the backdrop to the story told in the film. Bertolucci says 1968 was all about "transgressing authority," and Adair mentions how as a youth he saw "Johnny Guitar" at the Cinématèque Française and felt the French subtitles somehow added authenticity.

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