**½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras A
starring Michael Pitt, Louis Garrel, Eva Green, Robin Renucci
screenplay by Gilbert Adair
directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
starring Michael Pitt, Paige Turco, Gale Harold, Matt Servitto
written and directed by Aaron Woodley
by Walter Chaw The danger is getting lost in fantasy, of being consumed by the lunar flame of lamplight filtered through celluloid. And the irony is that directors, the good ones, are already lost and have been for years. There have been pictures about an all-devouring cinephilia before (Cinema Paradiso, say, or 8½), and now a pair of films by two directors at opposite ends of their careers--Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers and Aaron Woodley's 2003 TIFF Discovery Award-winner Rhinoceros Eyes--strive to blur the line between movies and reality in twin tales of sexual maturation, of coming of age in a movie house--of, to parse The Judybats, learning how to kiss watching James Dean movies. Fascinatingly, the two films share Michael Pitt, forging a path for himself as the archon for the modern dreamer raised on lethal doses of popular culture, and weaning himself from that luxuriant udder only with great difficulty.
Matthew (Pitt) is an American in Paris in Bertolucci's film, recalling Marlon Brando's bee-stung, world-drunk expatriate in Bertolucci's own Last Tango in Paris just as the film echoes the intimate microcosmic orbits of the ménage a trois from Bertolucci's 1900. He meets twins Theo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green) at Henri Langlois's Cinematheque Française in 1968, taking in endless revivals of Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, and Robert Bresson from the front rows, swathed in the nimbus of cigarette smoke and pretension of these members of the exclusive, delirious cult of adolescence. As illustrated in the film, when Langlois was sacked as curator in May of 1968, there arose among the buffs such a clamour that grey-suited riot police came to bludgeon protestors like Godard, Truffaut, Jean Marais, and Jean Renoir--film, the medium of our time, for a delirious moment, became the catalyst for a new French Revolution, the Cinematheque a cathedral and Bastille.
But The Dreamers isn't about Paris's 1968 cultural revolution in a literal sense, choosing instead to use its setting as the backdrop for a chamber piece about Matthew, Theo, and Isabelle, left alone in the siblings' parents' flat. Cloistered away in the middle of the conflagration, their obsession with film musters and explodes without the viable outlet of the Cinematheque, manifesting in a series of sadistic, often sexual games centered on movie knowledge and the price of ignorance. Bertolucci cuts these scenes with clips from a wonderful selection of classic cinema: Garbo memorizing her room in Queen Christina, Nadine Nortier's suicide in Bresson's Mouchette, Fred Astaire waking Ginger Rogers in Top Hat, Odile, Arthur, and Franz's sprint through the Louvre in Bande á part, and so on--asking his young actors to mimic these scenes in motions that are part trance, part tango. At its best, without the direct reference, The Dreamers pings off the jubilant energy of Breathless.
The suggestion, and it's one drunk with sublimity, is that our relationship with film transcends articulation, encompassing philosophy, politics, sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, and pot-spiced bubble baths that last a day in one giant, sloppy, beautiful clinch. The memories of the films that we watch are as vivid as (read: more vivid than) the memories of our lives, and, in point of fact, there's no substantive difference between them in terms of their affect on the substance of our selves. The heroes of The Dreamers are stars of their own suspended matinee; when they ultimately join the riots seething along the Champs Elysées, Matthew's chilling observation that the throng is an epic composed completely of extras, not idols, comes to pass.
Disturbingly, Bertolucci, a poet raised on the cinema in Langlois's Cinematheque, a "true artist" now refusing interviews to anyone not associated with a "major daily," has crafted a film that talks about growing out of movie love as something inevitable and to be accepted with resignation. There isn't so much growth on the part of his trio as there is a clarification of the stratified stereotypes in which each of the characters is straitjacketed. Its conclusion makes of The Dreamers standard fare: the death of the dream in the film is the death of the dream outside of the film, and where once Bertolucci would have found fruit in the refuge of illusion, and value in the celebration of cinematic half-life, he can now only find futility in bearing up against the inexorable tide of the real. The Dreamers is a betrayal of dreaming.
Rhinoceros Eyes is an embrace of dreaming as Chep (Pitt), cocooned in a decrepit moviehouse, sneaks away nightly to watch the same B-movie soaper, to return, popcorn in hand, the voyeur of the undressed windows along his path home. Matthew says in The Dreamers' best scene that film is a crime, and sure enough, Chep witnesses a crime in a neighbour's framed tableau vivant, only to pass it off as entertainment to be dismissed and forgotten. Repressed at best, strange at least, half-verbal Chep finds a kindred spirit of sorts in Fran (Paige Turco), a prop manager for a local production who has a mania for "real" props and the perfect gofer in Chep and his dream factory. Fran acts as a catalyst for Chep's sexual maturation, inspiring something like an Oedipal split for him from the womb of his warehouse mother, allowing him to be a provider and forcing him to venture into the world. The film is, at its heart, a gothic romance, one that resembles The Hunchback of Notre Dame the most in its tale of a societal freak cloistered away in a cathedral, falling in doomed love with a member of the beautiful people who, herself, and unbeknownst to him, is a member of "the other."
Director Woodley uses stop-motion animation inspired by Jan Svankmeyer and the Brothers Quay to mark Chep's evolution from emotional infant to actualized adolescent, the first manifestation a baby on umbilicus, the second a toddler, the third a child, et cetera, into the final iteration of puppet as mature Chep, ready to leave behind the fantasy of his youth for the promise represented by a shy ticket-taker. Rhinoceros Eyes is a lovely, dark fairy tale told in unembarrassed allegory with verve and intelligence. It's a cautionary tale about the lure of fantasy making of the audience a stolen child, but unlike The Dreamers, its ultimate message isn't one of being deposited into the empty yawp of a sea of teeming extras, but of finding in an infancy of dreaming the seeds of individualism and poetry. When Chep offers a miniature Merry-Go-Round to his new love, it's not a futile gesture of the recently disabused, but an heirloom of sorts, passed down from his celluloid mother to her prospective replacement.
Both visually lush (Woodley's shot entirely on HiDef 24p DV), both about cinema in a way that my favourite films are, and both featuring excellent performances from Pitt, what distinguishes Rhinoceros Eyes from The Dreamers is a naïveté about the enduring power of film that enchants. Where The Dreamers leaves the feeling that Bertolucci doesn't trust in the music the way that he used to, Rhinoceros Eyes still brims with the possibilities of film to be nurse and companion, teacher and confidant, lover and parent. Where Rhinoceros Eyes is about dreaming, The Dreamers is about waking up, and while the conversation about our multifoliate relationship to our art is endlessly fruitful, it's both dispiriting and hopeful that when one of film's brightest lights begins to dim, searching the streets for an angry fix as it were, others are hungry to howl in his place. Originally published: February 13, 2004.
THE DVD - THE DREAMERS
by Bill Chambers Fox issues The Dreamers on DVD in separate R-rated and NC-17 versions, the latter representing the theatrical release and the former a bowdlerization to appease fruitlessly puritanical chains like Wal-Mart and Blockbuster. We received the NC-17 disc for review (as if the R release would receive coverage here), whose 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is unassumingly breathtaking, a smashing success in every conceivable way. The accompanying Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is also triumphant, lending acoustical integrity to each new location; on the commentary track, Bertolucci confesses to fiddling with the volume control to let certain lines sink in, thus the occasional barely-audible passage of dialogue is probably that way on purpose. Said yakker additionally features producer Jeremy Thomas and novelist/screenwriter Gilbert Adair, the three participants recorded individually despite having been in close proximity throughout production. It's a seamless patchwork that expands on points raised in the documentary supplements to be discussed shortly, with Bertolucci and Adair doing most of the talking. (Thomas, a delightful filmmaker in his own right (his directorial debut All the Little Animals is unshakeable), generally expresses himself through what he chooses to finance.) If I have one or more bones of contention, Bertolucci occasionally mumbles to the point of staggering incoherence, while Adair vacillates between reachable and bashful: he alerts listeners to scenes borrowed from his own experiences (such as the infamous cigarette-lighter monologue) yet refuses to detail a scripted plot point that instigated a cast "mutiny" and yielded a major revision to Eva Green's character. Although I suppose this spares both parties some embarrassment, the DVD is elsewhere so eager to involve us in the artistic process that one can't help feeling a little patronized.
Produced for the BBC, "Bertolucci Makes The Dreamers" (52 mins.) distinguishes itself from studio fodder almost immediately through smoking interviewees and an unspoken assumption that we're familiar with the subject matter of The Dreamers itself. The highlights of the piece, directed by David Thompson and narrated by Zoë Wanamaker, are, without question, the glimpses of Bertolucci at work. Anyone who's visited a movie set will tell you it's the small stuff that winds up taking the longest to get right, and it's fun watching someone as highbrow as Bertolucci grow progressively sarcastic ("Am I speaking Russian?!") as Green repeatedly neglects the cue to step away from a jukebox. As a window into the auteur's late-career preoccupation with adolescent angst, "Bertolucci Makes The Dreamers" is illuminating, bookended as it is by telling quotes ("When I'm with these kids, I feel the same age" and "Maybe I didn't talk enough about young people when I was young") that make one wish Bertolucci would do a film about the vanishing act of youth rather than these pitiful attempts to trap it in a jar. Three Legged Cat's "Outside the Window: Events in France, 1968" (14 mins.) expands on the last chapter of the previous featurette by recounting, in Godardian fashion, the events leading up to and the aftermath of the real-life student riots that play such a pivotal role in the final few minutes of The Dreamers. Bertolucci and Professor Robin Blackburn (editor of NEW LEFT REVIEW) appear to have a less negative take on the outcome of the revolution than the returning Adair does, but that's splitting hairs--in the end, the three viewpoints are more complementary than contradictory. Michael Pitt and the Twins of Evil's curious video for "Hey Joe," helmed by Bertolucci (working in a medium that doesn't flatter him), rounds out the platter alongside trailers for The Dreamers and the upcoming Garden State (yeah, the one with the Frou Frou song).
*½/**** Image B+ Sound A- Extras D+
starring Jeremy Irons, Liv Tyler, Sinead Cusack, Jean Marais
screenplay by Susan Minot
directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
by Bill Chambers Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty is basically auteur-slumming at The WB: If "Dawson's Creek" had ever done an episode abroad, I can't imagine it being that far removed from what we have here. Opening with a mixed-media montage of Liv Tyler in transit that ebbs and flows to the faux-grunge strains of Liz Phair's "Rocket Boy," the film takes a page from the television-pilot handbook by introducing each character with the expositional thoroughness of a tour guide's spiel. While this is justified from a storytelling standpoint, with Tyler's 19-year-old Lucy arriving in Italy at the beginning of the picture and greeting her cohabitants for the summer, the film takes forever to achieve narrative momentum as a result.
Her mother having recently committed suicide, Lucy has been sent to stay at the villa of a family friend's, ostensibly so that he (Donal McCann), the artist, can do her portrait, though she brings with her a private agenda that includes finding out who her real father is, sussing out the author of an old secret-admirer note, and getting her cherry popped. Stealing Beauty's correlations with the later The Dreamers--a ripe lead with bee-stung lips; a moment in which the 19-year-old protagonist nestles a paramour's photograph against an erogenous zone (a gesture Jonathan Rosenbaum called in his review of The Dreamers "the perfect encapsulation of Bertolucci's idea of a turn-on"); scatological punchlines; an unlikely virgin; shock nudity--are numerous and sundry, so much so that one would like to call the newer film an apologia. Trouble is, The Dreamers isn't good enough to do anything but reinforce Bertolucci's current fetishes; he's working hard of late to prove there's nothing more unseemly than precociousness in reverse.
If Stealing Beauty is shot with a painterliness by Darius Khondji and possessed of scattered nuggets of actual wisdom, not just the kind you get from leaning on coming-of-age clichés (I'm especially fond of dying writer Jeremy Irons's frantic search for what he considers one of his finest pieces of work ("I would think that since I can't find it," he qualifies)), it's also rife with shallow performances (Tyler's is particularly impenetrable, pardon the pun--the camera loves her, but she doesn't love it back), perfunctory soundtrack cues (the use of Nina Simone is as uninspired here as the use of Edith Piaf is at the end of The Dreamers), and fizzling payoffs.
THE DVD - STEALING BEAUTY
Fox presents Stealing Beauty in a tantalizing 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer; the disc came out in 2001, and though nothing about the image screams "dated," black levels aren't very steep (at a cost to shadow detail) and there is sporadic print debris. Generally lacking in nuance, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix takes a wall-of-sound approach to the song selections, which have a slightly more immersive character here than they would on CD. Extras-wise, Tyler, Bertolucci, and other members of the production lend soundbites to a 7-minute promotional featurette in which Tyler casually reveals something she has in common with Lucy (her well-documented misadventure in paternity), while the international trailer and three TV spots for Stealing Beauty plus trailers for Drive Me Crazy, Ever After, French Kiss, Love Potion #9, Never Been Kissed, The Object of My Affection, Romeo + Juliet, Say It Isn't So, Someone Like You, and Where the Heart Is round out the disc. Originally published: June 27, 2004.