The next Tango: Two men in a tub
From The Conformist to The Sheltering Sky and 1900 to The Last Emperor, Bernardo Bertolucci has never been about the pursuit of trivia. He even made sex seem weighty in Last Tango in Paris.
Yet Trivial Pursuit fans will form a definite niche market for The Dreamers, another Parisian tango that shows Last meant no more than the "Final Chapter" of Friday the 13th or Cher's "Farewell Tour." I'm talking about lovers of film– the French New Wave and all that inspired it, not Star Wars and LOTR.
The film's teasing hints of incest and bisexuality may attract aficionados of kinky sex, who will likely leave disappointed when they find there's no payoff.
Perhaps the largest audience for The Dreamers is that portion of the "aging hippie" population that's hungry for nostalgia and not in denial about the way things were.
Adapted from his novel The Holy Innocents by Gilbert Adair, The Dreamers is the story of an American student in Paris in 1968 who spends a month with a twin brother and sister in a relationship so insular they must eventually rejoin the world or die.
Matthew (Michael Pitt of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Murder by Numbers) meets Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel) at a demonstration protesting the government's firing of Cinematheque founder Henri Langlois. They recognize each other from having attended many of the same screenings there.
The siblings invite Matthew to dinner at the apartment they share with their bourgeois parents, then to stay the night, and in the morning to move in while their parents are away in the country.
Being film buffs, all three are inclined to quote and recognize actions or bits of dialogue from classic films. Having already discovered the twins sleep together mostly or completely nude, Matthew finds they make a game of their movie quotes with "Truth or Dare"-like consequences for the one who fails to recognize the film. Theo, for instance, has to masturbate in front of the other two for missing a dance step from Blonde Venus. Once Matthew is pulled into the game, the sexual stakes are raised.
They argue as passionately as the three of them love each other, all in different ways. The twins' closeness becomes increasingly disturbing to Matthew. Anyone who's been around one or both members of a set of twins will recognize the syndrome, though it's rarely so extreme in real life.
It's not all sex. Matthew and Theo argue the relative merits of Chaplin vs. Keaton and, while sharing a bathtub, Clapton vs. Hendrix. Theo's Maoist views are also a subject for debate.
The Dreamers captures many hallmarks of the late '60s: young people crossing sexual frontiers their parents never dreamed of, spoiled products of capitalism comfortably discussing theories of alternative government, and always the demonstrations going on outside.
Bertolucci conveys the period credibly. His use of film clips is fun, but his casting is uninspired. Pouty-lipped Pitt is okay as the American who's naïve by French standards. Garrel nails Theo's anger but fails to indicate any warmth he may have inside. He seems to be channeling Jean-Pierre Leaud– who cameos as himself in a clever combination of old and new footage– but without that actor's sense of wonder.
Green is sexy and mysterious but lacks the charisma of, say, the young Jeanne Moreau, who was in the middle of a threesome in Jules and Jim– or even Jean Seberg in Breathless, with whom Isabelle identifies.
Perhaps the director had trouble finding young actors willing to go along with the extensive nudity he required. (Jake Gyllenhaal is known to have turned down the part of Matthew for that reason.) In any case he's done what he could with what he had to work with– although, considering the film was guaranteed an NC-17 for nudity anyway, the story seems unusually timid in restricting sex to the unrelated male and female. Such, perhaps, was life in the country that invented the menage a trois, or at least named it.
Watching The Dreamers, I kept thinking, "Americans are so not going to get it." But that doesn't mean some Americans won't find it as captivating as I did.