Revisiting Bernardo Bertolucci’s (Vaguely) Incestuous and Queer ‘The Dreamers’
The late Bernardo Bertolucci’s NC-17 film remains as relevant today as the incendiary May 19 summer it depicts.
Michael Pitt, Eva Green, and Louis Garrel in 2003’s The Dreamers. Image courtesy of AF Archive/Alamy Stock Photo
Radical times make for horny people. Perhaps it can’t be technically explained, but it’s felt in the air, as a tingle, as an energy uniting, fighting, fucking. Even if you’re not involved directly, you feel it. The Dreamers (2003), a film infamous for its NC-17 rating by the recently departed Bernardo Bertolucci, has the historic Paris protests of May 1968 as its radical back-drop; the general upheaval would call into question and reinvent—through a month of organizing, strikes, and debates—the whole basis of French society. The student protests, which grew to 10 million people, including workers, were sparked in part by a carnal catalyst: the demand for co-gender visitation in the dormitories so that female and male students could spend the night together.
In The Dreamers, Bertolucci’s attention is completely absorbed by the romanticism of the times and the uncomfortable relationship between politics and sexuality. Where one calls us into the streets, the other begs us to stay in bed with our lovers. It is a temptation always present in love and eros, that of disengaging from the world and creating a private heaven, just for a moment longer, before it is inevitably ruined by life’s dramas.
The love triangle in The Dreamers is (vaguely) incestuous and queer, which proved shocking in America, though the blame was put on the film’s full-frontal male nudity. The triad concerns Matthew, a sensitive American student (Michael Pitt), playing unicorn to a pair of 20-year-old Parisian twins, Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel).
Matthew and the twins first meet at the Cinémathèque Française during a March 1968 protest of the firing of the cinema’s founder, Henri Langlois, who played a key role in preserving censored films under Nazi occupation and kept the cinema free and open to the public.
We first see Isabelle in a red beret, smoking a pink Fantasia while chained to the theater’s doors. It quickly becomes apparent the demonstration is something of a play; after Matthew approaches Isabelle, she throws off her chains, which were never locked in the first place, and introduces him to her twin brother so that the fun can begin. The three share an immediate, buzzing energy. Theo, the Parisian bad boy, playfully quizzes Matthew about films while Isabelle intrigues, peering over her sunglasses with a borrowed Hollywood vintage flair.
Early into the film, Matthew narrates: “It’s like we had our own cultural revolution.” Yet a cultural revolution is still not a real one, and the protagonists are stuck between the pre-’68 melancholia of Gaullist France and the future joys that would spring in May. If anything characterizes them, besides their beauty and youth, it’s how boundless their potential for happiness seems. They love, play, and laugh, and yet their obsession with cinema—their essential geekiness—clues us in to a delicate, sheltered existence, the miasma of a stifling, even if well-meaning, home and education from which they are trying to break out.
The twins take Matthew to their parents’ spacious apartment, which is introduced in a long single take of him wandering along the labyrinthine olive green walls and disorienting geometries. We meet their parents (the father is a famous poet, like Bertolucci’s father, Attilio Bertolucci), but they quickly disappear for a month’s vacation, leaving money for the kids to survive.
With no one to censor their playfulness, the trio create a world of their own making: smoking incessantly, dressing up, drinking red wine, philosophizing, bathing together, and playing games, little competitions wherein the loser must complete a dare, inevitably erotic or perverted. While the novel on which the movie is based includes a sexual relationship between Matthew and both twins, the film eschews this. Gone is the gay sex, and what’s left is the tension between Matthew and Theo, which is mirrored—or maybe diminished—by the incestuous tension between Theo and his sister. The twin siblings sleep together naked, masturbate in front of each other on a dare, and are constant voyeurs. When Isabelle decides to lose her virginity to Matthew, her brother arranges it, cooking eggs as they fuck on the floor beneath him. The outside world disappears as the parental house becomes the map of their sexual liberation.
Bertolucci rented an entire building to shoot the movie, using one floor for the apartment set and the rest of the building for production. As the characters’ passion grows, the home becomes all-encompassing: Cinema and politics disappear, the windows are always closed, and the world passes by the protagonists as they live untouched and innocent.
But outside the apartment, France was coming to a stop. What started as university demands soon became a month-long general strike that completely halted Paris. The workers followed the lead of the Communist Party, who were pursuing concrete changes in wages and job security; and who were initially suspicious of the students, whom they saw as care-less and irresponsibly violent and provocative towards the police. However, once the police began to charge, beat, and arrest the students, everything changed. As Kristin Ross explains in her book May ’68 and Its Afterlives, the student uprisings entered into a narrative that bound together intellectuals, workers, and anti-colonial protesters; there was a saying at the time, which translates as “any dialogue between the beaten and the beaters is impossible.” Suffering at the hands of the authorities unified these disparate political forces.
There was an eros at work in this collaboration, a sexiness born from the camaraderie of millions moving in unison with history, chanting against work, demanding more life, more imagination, and more freedom to love.
In The Dreamers, the young people, too, are pulled from their reverie. A brick comes crashing through the window, and the trio wander from their cocoon to join the protest. In the end, Matthew walks away, but the twins seem more alive than ever, seamlessly transferring the eroticism they’d discovered in the apartment to the movement, a feeling that is eloquently described in this 1968 graffitied expression:
The more I make love, the more I want to make revolution.
The more I make revolution, the more I want to make love.