Too often, sex scenes in the movies are so self-consciously avoidant of nudity that it becomes distracting--one begins to wonder instead where one might find an L-shaped sheet like the one featured on-screen, covering her from the shoulders down but him from the waist down. But here, after viewers gets over the shock--yes, in these Puritan times, the shock--of the full-frontal nudity, both male and female, they can relax into the film because what is unfolding feels considerably more natural. (Although it must be noted that there is at least one moment that ups the ew factor even on Marlon Brando's penchant for dairy spread in Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris," to which, because of its like setting and content, "Dreamers"--marking the helmer's first return to Paris since "Tango"--will likely be much compared.)
But, unfortunately, here the sex is siphoning attention away from "The Dreamers'" most interesting aspect, which is its eloquent elegy to movie lovers--specifically to the young French cinephiles who, upon the dismissal of Cinematheque Francaise director Henri Langlois, stage impassioned protests in the streets of Paris. Among them is American Matthew (Michael Pitt, who, post-"Dawson," continues to choose interesting work such as "Hedwig and the Angry Inch"), in the City of Light for a year studying French. Amidst the chaos, he meets twins Isabelle (newcomer Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel) who, after knowing him for just a few hours, invite him to evacuate his dumpy hotel room for the spare bedroom in their apartment when their liberal-intellectual parents conveniently depart on a month-long vacation.
At first slightly put off by the discomfiting physical closeness of Isabelle and Theo, Matthew soon becomes intricately embroiled in their relationship--and the cinema-inspired mind games they play. One will act out a scene from a film--kind of like playing charades. If the other can't guess, he or she must perform an act at the other's request.
Some of these moments are inspired, as when Isabelle can-cans with a mop, her dance intercut with footage from the film she's emulating, in this case "Blonde Venus," starring Marlene Dietrich. Or Theo reenacts a death scene on a shadow of a cross--"Scarface," 1932. Likewise, it's positively dreamy when Isabelle reenacts a scene from "Queen Christina," starring Greta Garbo, that's spliced in with her homage, and fairly engages in a back-and-forth exchange with Jean Seberg in "Breathless." (Music--Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Doors, to name a few--also plays a central atmospheric role.) But this isn't an innocent game of truth or dare: The consequences of drawing a blank are much more sexually explicit and humiliating than five minutes in the closet.
The dynamic is a potentially fascinating one, especially as Matthew emerges from his wide-eyed American innocence to no longer revere his European counterparts' experience, challenging them to not only act on the political views they so strenuously argue from their cloistered apartment above the violent streets where the battle is being waged but to escape the codependence that will preclude any chance at real, adult relationships. But it all ends oddly, as the political debates that initially seemed to serve merely to set the scene suddenly and inexplicably become central to the fate of this menage a trois.
It's ironic that a film so in love with, well, film has a distinctly theatrical feel. True, the incorporation of classic movie clips demonstrates ingenious editing by Jacopo Quadri, and Bertolucci and cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti's camerawork is lyrically cinematic, tracking fluidly behind the characters as they stroll through the streets of Paris or the labyrinthine halls of the apartment. But, given that it's character-centric, dependent on dialogue and mostly set in the flat--not to mention that the climactic riot looks like how a Broadway musical (think "Les Miserables") might depict a political uprising--"The Dreamers" could just as easily been mounted as a stage production. Starring Michael Pitt, Eva Green and Louis Garrel. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Written by Gilbert Adair. Produced by Jeremy Thomas. A Fox Searchlight release. Drama. Rated NC-17 for explicit sexual content. Running time: 116 min