No Joy but Lots of Sex

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They meet cute: Isabelle (Eva Green) is seemingly chained to the door of the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris in 1968 when she begins chatting up Matthew (Michael Pitt), a naive young American student. She's protesting the firing of Henri Langlois, the institution's founder. Matthew is lost without an old movie to light his lonesome days.

Not to worry, Matthew. Isabelle and her saturnine brother Theo (Louis Garrel) have a sort of home movie — no camera but lots of sex and nakedness — that they think might be fun to make in their parents' apartment. After the clueless mother and father depart on vacation, the kids shed their duds, their inhibitions and such political consciousness as they have. The demirevolution of the spring of 1968 begins to gather riotous force outside their windows while they play mainly degrading sexual games indoors. Eventually they find themselves eating garbage. Eventually Isabelle flirts with suicide. Eventually a revolutionary rock, tossed through their window, awakens the dreamers from their dream, and the French pair is last glimpsed throwing Molotov cocktails at the gendarmes. Eventually you begin to wonder what in the world has got into Bernardo Bertolucci.


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He has set aside the spacious visual elegance of The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky, The Conformist. This is a deliberately cramped and ugly film. The only Bertolucci film it somewhat resembles is Last Tango in Paris — you know, people shutting themselves away from the world to indulge their sexual fantasies. But that film, which was rated X, had an authentic sexual charge. This one — which carries an NC-17, the modern equivalent of an X — is grim and joyless, though it is far richer and more casual in its display of both male and female frontalia.

That leaves the viewer plenty of time to contemplate the film's fundamental irony. While the youngsters are inside quite realistically acting out their fantasies, real life (and death) is running riot in the streets. A lot of the threesome's games are inspired by the movies they saw at the Cinematheque, and these passages, energized by memorable clips, are the movie's best. They have wit and some satiric edge. But, possibly because of budgetary restraints, the film pretty much scants the revolution. It is a vague presence but never a persuasive dramatic force. One gets the feeling that Bertolucci, who was in Paris during the 1968 May events, feels duty bound (or nostalgia bound) to celebrate them. But as with sex, so with politics. His heart doesn't seem to be fully in it.

And in fairness, why should it be? He's a man in his 60s, entitled to a certain ambivalence about, say, Chairman Mao and his Little Red Book. Or, for that matter, movie madness and sexual triads. That standoffishness (or objectivity) intermittently marks The Dreamers, which is adapted by Gilbert Adair from his novel The Holy Innocents. But it also renders the film dispassionate, curiously lifeless, lacking the energy of either youthful commitment or a deeply engaged re-examination of the past.