In terms of plotting, 'The Dreamers' is much like an incestuous version of Truffaut's menage a trois classic 'Jules and Jim,' with the new film's subject matter as shocking today as was the earlier film's in its own time. Time and culture sure do march on, and it always seems to be the French leading the way. In 'The Dreamers,' Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel) are twins who have developed a rather 'unnatural' attraction to one another, becoming 'one' in virtually every way imaginable - physically, spiritually, psychically. Matthew (Michael Pitt, who looks for all the world like Leonardo Di Caprio) is the young American in Paris whom they pull into their strange little world of sexual intrigue and emotional games. Matthew is a product of his time, a young man who is not very experienced in the ways of the world but who is willing to partake in the moral relativism that is permeating the culture. Thus, he becomes the perfect candidate for Isabelle and Theo to work their magic on. Their power of attraction proves overwhelming and irresistible for Matthew, for they are both exotically beautiful creatures, seemingly in tune with the trendy radicalism swirling around them. Yet, Mathew eventually discovers that they are really only passive observers paying little but lip service to the cause, too obsessed with their own twisted relationship to actually step out and participate in those grand social movements they talk so freely about. Isabelle and Theo are 'radicals' to be sure, yet their radicalism seems to be channeled in a self-destructive, ultimately futile direction. Only over time does Matthew awaken to this realization.
Due to the extremely sensitive nature of the subject matter, Bertolucci often seems more interested in shocking than enlightening us. Isabelle, Theo and Matthew are so insulated and cut off from the outside world that the points Bertolucci seemingly wants to make about the times - as reflected in protesters marching in the streets, the references to Vietnam, Mao and Jimmy Hendrix - feel tacked on and superfluous, not particularly integral to the film as a whole. He is never quite able to bring these background elements and the foreground story together in any meaningful way. What Bertolucci does capture well is the obsessive love the French have always had for the cinema as both entertainment and art form. His characters live, breathe and think films, often acting out favorite scenes while the director intercuts snippets from the movies themselves. The beautiful thing about the French is that they have always had such an eclectic taste in film, embracing both American studio and French New Wave products with equal passion. And this artistic open-mindedness Bertolucci captures with gleeful abandon. The film, in many ways, becomes an homage to Chaplin and Keaton, Astaire and Rogers, Samuel Fuller, Truffaut, Godard, Greta Garbo and many other icons of movie history.
'The Dreamers' doesn't entirely hold together and the sum of its parts is better than the whole. Still, the acting is excellent and Bertolucci has lost none of his skills as a director, making each beautifully composed shot stand for something - a real treat for audiences bored to tears by the kind of by-the-numbers film-making we get so often today. Bertolucci is a true film artist and it is a joy just to sit and watch what he does with his actors and his camera, like a master painter working wonders with his canvas.
As for the much-vaunted sexual content of the film (it is rated NC-17), certainly those who are easily offended by nudity and provocative sexual themes had best avoid subjecting themselves to this film. Those, however, with a more open mind will find little that is overtly offensive about what is shown here. In fact, if Isabelle and Theo weren't brother and sister, there would be little controversy at all generated by the film. My suspicion is that Bertolucci and writer Gilbert Adair made their film about incest because an ordinary love triangle would have seemed just too commonplace in this day and age to serve as a successful plot device for a film whose very theme centers around radicalism. They really needed to shake the audience up and this was as effective a way as any to do that. Whether it repels more people than it compels is something only time will tell.
As it is, 'The Dreamers' is not an entirely successful film, but those impressed by fine film-making had best not pass it up.