Steven Q. Fletcher
* * *
think the impact of this crucial scene lies in that Bertolucci makes it impossible for us to avoid perceiving it on a number of levels. Perhaps our most immediate response is to the excitement of the consummation—seeing the attractive young lovers in all their naked glory, uninhibitedly enjoying the release of sexual tension and their expression of what may be love. If we audience members are awakened sexual beings, then how can we not recall our own early initiations into the mysteries—and ecstasies—of Venus? Despite the peculiar circumstances leading to this particular union, it is still the manifestation of an age-old reoccurrence that is yet new to every fresh participant—and that perception must almost certainly stimulate something in us beyond the merely prurient.
But the bizarre circumstances cannot, of course, be entirely forgotten. Much of the strangeness stems from the presence of an observer; the camera shows us what Theo sees, and we see his reactions to a situation which develops in ways he obviously did not expect. If he had thought he was simply in for a jolly good show, it doesn’t seem to work out that way. Although it appears that he tries to act bored and detached as the scene unfolds, there are several revealing close-up shots of him that expose his surprise at the revealed passion of the lovers, and show his apprehension that here is a relationship in which he is not, and will never be, an integral part.
The camera tracks down along the bodies of the groaning lovers, and then keeps going (frustrating—at least for the moment—our voyeuristic desires) until we are eventually observing the actions of Theo, who has improbably chosen this moment to take food from the refrigerator and engage in the commonplace act of preparing breakfast. So, instead of the act of love, we are instead shown what amounts to a cooking lesson—and as to the montage of eggs being carefully broken and fried, you may propose your own sexual analogy here if you simply must (all those which occur to me seem just a tad heavy-handed).
As if Theo the Galloping Gallic Gourmet isn’t distracting enough, the urgent moaning of the lovers are echoed by an aural counterpoint from the equally urgent moaning of police sirens coming up from the street below. As the lovers loudly climax, we see Theo’s bemused expression—and it is a point of interpretive ambiguity as to whether his expression is a response to the sounds of the lovers, the sounds from the street, or to both—and see him walk to the window and fling it wide, revealing a boulevard of fleeing protestors (the symbolism of their red flags becoming explicit in just a few moments) and pursuing gendarmes. One point at least is being made here: Sex is—or can be—a kind of revolutionary act. As we will see dramatized clearly later in the film, perfect love is perhaps only possible on the silver screen our protagonists revere: you can dream in the dark, or behind closed doors, but eventually light invades, and mere windows and doors are not strong enough to hold the world at bay forever.
Theo, glancing back and forth between the street and the now exhausted pair on the floor as if trying somehow to reconcile the two unruly events, now kneels down possessively, and curiously puts his fingers in the blood of Isabelle’s lost virginity—creating another kind of red banner—thereby echoing her own actions with his semen on the film poster. There is a moment when he looks down over her in a pose of classical adoration, with both hands outstretched, beaming at her with what can only be described as conspiratorial pride—a shot followed by a close-up of Isabelle, who responds to this uncomfortable (for her) moment in their Game with a smile of strained complicity. This brief, tentative expression vanishes the instant Theo turns away, and she bursts into tears as Matthew, stunned by the fact that she had been a virgin, takes her in her arms and kisses her passionately, knowing how similarly intimate and shattering the experience had been for her as for himself. For Isabelle and Matthew, the emotional consequences of The Game have become a means of sabotaging The Game itself. Sex, like any form of revolution, cannot be controlled, cannot be contained within predetermined limits.
* * *
As if to emphasize this point, Bertolucci immediately uses the most revolutionary technique (the jump-cut) of his most revolutionary peer (Jean-Luc Godard) to pitch us into the next scene—where once again Isabelle and Matthew are noisily coupling. We learn from their love talk that this has become their favorite pastime: the fruit of the forbidden tree has been plucked, and the eating thereof is, for the moment at least, pretty good. And as the camera pans up to reveal the lovers clinging to each other, it would be easy to miss the tiny figure of Theo dimly perceivable out through the window, off in another wing of the apartment, looking just for a moment in the direction of the lovers before disappearing in a blur of white curtains (here one cannot help thinking of the infant Charles Foster Kane seen in the snow outside the window of his lost boyhood home, tiny and ignored while those in the foreground make their plans without him). The point being made visually is unmistakable: the relationships between the three have shifted in ways that threaten to change the lives of them all—even if the brother and sister still say and do things to show that their thinking has not quite caught up with the new reality.
Isabelle relates to Matthew that Theo has never penetrated her sexually, yet mystically asserts that he is “always inside me,” and confides that if her parents knew how close the two siblings really were she would have to kill herself. After this significant revelation, Matthew wanders to the kitchen and back, to find that Theo has taken Matthew’s spot in bed beside the naked Isabelle. From his seat on the floor, Matthew warmly thanks them both for allowing him to “feel like I’m a part of you.” But in a voice barely short of actual menace Theo sets him straight: “It wasn’t always meant to be the three of us.” Isabelle appears to be blissfully asleep during this unveiled warning. The message is clear to Matthew, at least as far as Theo’s position is concerned: There is no question of equals here, no Blessed Trinity. We then see Theo turn his back on Matthew and snuggle closer to his sister, leaving Matthew to stretch out by himself on the floor.
After this scene depicting the thorniness of their emotional situation, there follows one showing the decay of their living conditions, brought on by the exhaustion of parental funds, now just as absent as parental authority. (It is worthwhile to note that the increasing disorder inside the apartment is a microcosm of the disorder beyond its formidable—but ultimately not impenetrable—enclosing walls.) As the culinary challenged Isabelle serves Matthew a helping of the charred detritus she has concocted (the ratatouille?—or is it the fondue?), she says helpfully, “Just eat it as if you were in some exotic country you’ve never visited before and this is the national dish.” Of course, he is in some exotic country he’s never visited before—and I’m not referring to France—and what he is being served will become increasingly harder for him to swallow (you remember, of course, that it is the French who invested La Nausée with its metaphorical and philosophical aspects).
For by now all three have drifted into an exotic country, a private realm inhabited by their own imaginings and longings. It is a place of newly discovered sexual feelings, with an ambient backdrop consisting of the popular music of independence and the cinema of change. Its natural resources are an inexhaustible wine cellar, a supply of good dope, and a bathtub full of effervescent bubbles and post-pubescent flesh. Matthew tells us, “We hardly left the apartment anymore. We didn’t know or care if it was day or night.” We are even given a brief exterior scene to make us understand that Theo has abandoned his protest activities because of things he can’t explain to his former comrades—after which he cuts short an encounter with a beautiful and inviting girl to rush back to the apartment.
And so, the twins and their adopted guest have become the dreamers of the film’s title. In the spacious tub they blow smoke into each other’s face, and argue without any hope of resolution about musicians and politics and the oh-so naughty voyeurism of cinema.
It is not until Matthew speaks of love that Isabelle characteristically replies (quoting the French poet Pierre Reverdy), “There’s no such thing as love. There are only proofs of love.” Once again she has reverted to The Game, with its juvenile competition and apparent safety rooted in the long established habits of infancy. Once again, she and Theo are co-conspirators ranged against Matthew. Once again, he must submit to another trial in order to prove his love.
* * *
In a crucial act of confrontation, Matthew makes his stand. He has already been given notice by Theo that Two will never truly be Three. Perhaps, Matthew reasons, if they are not really going to accept him as “one of us,” at least not permanently and unequivocally, he would be better off as his own genuine person. Or perhaps he is just one of those people who can only let themselves be manipulated by others just so far until having to reassert his true colors. At any rate, he sees that what they want to do now—to shave off his pubic hair—is clearly an attempt to infantilize him, to subordinate him within their Game, their ritual of domination. So instead of becoming like a little boy for their pleasure, he challenges the two of them to grow up. He exposes their games as such, and in a moment of heroic honesty—for he truly loves them and knows he would suffer deeply to lose them—he says, “You won’t grow like this. You won’t. Not as long as you keep clinging to each other the way that you do.” It is a wonderful scene to watch, with Matthew’s righteous anger and concern blazing forth with such ringing honesty that the studied, too-cool demeanor of the twins is shattered—at least for the moment.
We must not miss the somewhat humorous irony of what comes next: a naked Matthew asking a naked Isabelle, with whom he has been engaging in frequent and passionate sex, on her first date. She is defensive at first and typically looks to her brother for her cue, but Matthew is determined to separate the twins for their own good—and, we have to think, so that he can have a more traditional relationship with Isabelle. This means getting her away from the apartment, getting her away from Theo. There is another jump cut, and suddenly we are in the French equivalent of a fifties malt shop, with the lovers sharing a soda from twin straws while romantic music throbs in the background. Bertolucci ends the scene comically with a nostalgic transition—an iris slowly closing, framing at first the lovers’ starry-eyed faces, and then just their pair of straws.
At the theater Matthew eschews his customary seat close to the screen, where, he had told us earlier, the “insatiables” like himself always sit because there the images are newest and freshest, “before they’d been relayed back from row to row, spectator to spectator . . . until [becoming] worn-out, secondhand, the size of a postage stamp.” But now he tells Isabelle they must sit in the back, and we see the pair become smaller and smaller as they move towards the back wall of the cinema, until suddenly the camera is behind them (presumably shooting through the wall) and we see, over their shoulders, the image on the theater screen is indeed diminutive and distant—no longer a giant presence poised to overwhelm and shock, but one much more easily assimilated, even ignored. And so, while the movie plays, the pair do what most young lovers do—lose themselves in each other.
Ironically, it seems as if onscreen impresario of Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) really wants to draw these lost members of his audience back: with two snaps of his fingers he widens the screen into “the grandeur of Cinemascope” (a widescreen format chiefly utilized between 1953 and 1967, with an aspect ratio of 2.66:1—different from The Dreamers utilizing today’s standard ratio of 1.85:1). And although the film begins in black and white, it quickly makes a grab for the viewer’s attention by dramatically morphing into highly saturated color. Even if Isabelle and Matthew are fairly well caught up in each other’s fleshly proximity, what Bertolucci has provided for them—cynically, I suspect—is a near perfect example of the “date movie.” This one unleashes plenty of good old rock and roll amidst a setting of schmaltzy comedy, with sexual titillation supplied by Jayne Mansfield, whose own oversize milk vessels supposedly cause real milk bottles to ejaculate whenever she jiggles by. Oh, what fun! However, we know that whenever Bertolucci invokes a film there are hidden depths to be sounded. The Girl Can’t Help It is on one level just mindless froth, but it also functions as a scathing, if furtive, send-up of Hollywood and the superficial mass culture that its products pander to and help to perpetuate. We find scenes of young concert fans mesmerized to the point of stupefaction by their stage idols, and depictions of tinsel town executives with hyperbolic egos imposing their empty values upon a gullible culture.
The central irony in The Girl Can’t Help It is that the “product” which all the moguls are trying to exploit—Ms. Mansfield’s character with her milk jug popping jugs—doesn’t want to be objectified into a poster princess inevitably suffering the same sticky fate as the one hanging on Theo’s door (“I’m domestic” is the half-plea, half-manifesto the embattled blonde finally confesses). The movie, then, has some basic elements in common with The Dreamers: it privileges certain cultural forces while presenting them in a questionable light, and it shows its central character (the exploited starlet) at odds with the actions and attitudes of her acquaintances—just as we will see Matthew ultimately rebel against the philosophies and the actions of both his friend and his lover.
After the movie, the couple strolls rapturously arm-in-arm down the lamplit boulevards, stopping to kiss in front of shop windows, in a scenario familiar to young lovers everywhere. Except that during one such embrace the camera pans away to show us what the televisions in an electronics shop are displaying—another riot in progress, and not just film buffs are involved, but seemingly the whole nation. When the lovers notice they are taken aback, but Isabelle quickly rejects the images because they are from a mere television and not a proper movie screen. But Matthew’s distress is not so easily appeased, and a moment later they encounter a giant rubble heap left by a recent confrontation between demonstrators and authority. We seem them contemplate this mountain of disorder, and in a shot poignant and disturbing, see them draw closer to one another protectively as they walk past it. For a brief moment they are only a small dark outline at the edge of the gleaming pile; just another instance in the long succession of lovers dwarfed by the violent struggles continually recurring somewhere in every age. One could publish a large coffee-table book of similar stills from a thousand movies—each picture different, yet each one archetypal in that it portrays dreaming lovers overshadowed by a chaotic world that will not allow their dream of an idyllic future to endure. There is—alas!—a reason that the story of Romeo and Juliet endures and arouses such powerful emotions in each new generation.
* * *
When they arrive back at the apartment, Isabelle is taken aback to realize that Theo is not alone. Trying to take her mind off this development, Matthew begs to be shown her room, significantly pointing out that “I don’t know how long I’ve been here,” but in all that time he’s never seen her room because she always stays in Theo’s.
She refuses again and again, but he is persuasive, for we soon see him exploring that very room, accompanied by Jim Morrison confessing, “I’m a spy / In the house of love.” We realize why she didn’t want anyone coming in to see her little shrine to female adolescent bourgeois conformity: Matthew is reminded, as he peruses guilt-edged family pictures, old toys, toiletries, and stuffed animals, of “my sisters’ bedrooms in San Diego. I thought of our house, and our neighbors’ houses all alike, and their green lawns and their sprinklers and their station wagons parked outside the garage door.” Isabelle is here revealed to be not significantly unlike the protagonist in The Girl Can’t Help It who ultimately confides the damning truth, “I’m domestic.” The taunting lyrics of the soundtrack underscore this scene of intimate espionage:
I’m a spy in the house of love
I know the dream, that you’re dreamin’ of
I know the word that you long to hear
I know your deepest, secret fear. . .
So we discover that Isabelle’s fear (perhaps not her deepest, secret one: it shall be manifested shortly) is that she will stand revealed as someone other than one of the glamorous characters from one of the scores of movies she has internalized, revealed as someone more prosaic, someone with a fixed history and address. Despite Jean-Paul Sartre’s claim that we are at each new moment completely free from our past behaviors and identity, most of us do not experience this autonomy except in our fantasies. The Game she plays with Theo is part of her adolescent dream of freedom—it is a shared construct of possible identities and destinies, unhampered by the limitations that dawning maturity puts on our conceptions of ourselves and of our place in the world. Their Peter Pan-like idea of freedom is becoming more and more threatened by their growing apart into their own adult identities, by the demands of the world outside their apartment, and by the penetration by outsiders of their once exclusive little bande à part.
The Game is attempted yet again—Isabelle dons the gloves of Theo’s unseen guest, and posing alluringly against a shadowy doorway (a blackness soon to consume a disillusioned Matthew), she asks Matthew once more what role she is playing. “I always wanted to make love to the Venus de Milo” he answers, and she glides regally to him, about to fulfill his desire. We then see three of her grinning gleefully in the vanity mirrors, as she purrs “I can’t stop you. I’ve got no arms.” The smiling triple reflection emphasizes her obsession with multiple roles, even as her words demonstrate her identification with her assumed character. At this point Matthew, ablaze with lust, is no longer playing any kind of game but simply engaging in sexual foreplay, while she continues in her own mind a goddess, accepting his actions as those of a worshipful devotee.
Yet now there is a soundtrack adjustment, and the music of The Doors, music that presumably only we have been hearing, changes abruptly into the low crooning of Charles Trenet’s “La Mer,” that Isabelle and Matthew can hear: we’ve gone from a non-diegetic to a diegetic soundtrack. It may strike you as familiar, and it should—it was the music Isabelle played while disrobing before she and Matthew first made love. Now the same song is emanating from the room where Theo is entertaining his female guest. But for Isabelle, it might as well have been the sound of the seventh angel blowing the seventh trumpet—it is both a revelation and an apocalypse, but it certainly does not provoke any kind of rapture for her; indeed, it does just the opposite.
Isabelle dissolves into tears at this audible proof of Theo’s “infidelity,” while Matthew gently tries to console her as one would a traumatized child—which is pretty much the case. But the sounds of amorous laughter that follow prove too much for her: she leaps up screaming for Matthew to leave, pounds on Theo’s door wailing his name, and finally strikes out physically at the concerned Matthew, shouting, “Who are you? What are you doing in my room! Get out! Get out!” Completely stunned by her psychic breakdown and by her complete rejection of him, Matthew sickly backs away, finally abandoning any effort to communicate with this unknown person before him. There is a nice, even if unintended, photographic echo as he walks out through the doorway through which the Venus de Milo had made her entrance: because he is wearing black, that part of him disappears which on her had been illuminated, and for the briefest moment he is seen as only a pair of arms—a negative image of what had entered before.
The camera then pans back to Isabelle’s still gloved hands pounding desperately on her brother’s door—and we realize, as perhaps she also does, that she may well be from this time on in some real sense an outsider to the more autonomous being that Theo is becoming, even it is only his response to her own “infidelity.” Her old identity of being one half of a pair of twins urgently needs to be shed because it has become an outgrown cocoon suffocating the new being trying to emerge. Matthew has been working all along as an agent provocateur for this change.
But the past is never easy to leave behind. The new being is terrified of being born, dreading a sense of loss which will encompass her unnaturally extended childhood with all of its Technicolor dreams for the future. The final shot in this sequence shows Isabelle sprawled alone and senseless on her bed, seemingly overcome by her catharsis of otherness and loss. It is touching to see that she is still wearing the gloves belonging to the other woman, the gloves that could not effect her transformation into the icon she longs to be.
* * *
Before that shot jumps away, it is linked to the next one by the sound of Theo’s voice, reading from his new bible, the infamous manifesto by Chairman Mao: “A revolution isn’t a gala dinner. It cannot be created like a book, a drawing, or a tapestry. It cannot unfold with such elegance, tranquility, and delicacy or with such sweetness, affability, courtesy, restraint, and generosity. A revolution is an uprising, a violent act by which one class overthrows another.” It is an important set of assertions, statements that get to the heart of what the movie is saying—and is about to say even more clearly—about revolutions: they are, perhaps, in their infancy at least, the stuff of dreams. Yet in a real revolution, the kind that actually changes the status quo, there is almost certainly ugliness and brutality and painful loss, and probably the only kind of sleep involved is the sleep of reason.
But such practical catechisms are wasted on the more theoretically, aesthetically inclined twin. After two quick camera asides in what is partly a sexual joke, partly a commentary on the state of relationships (a solitary Matthew doing pushups in a parody of intercourse, then a solitary Isabelle lying in bed enjoying what might be a post-coital cigarette) we see clearly the only thing that Theo is truly concerned about liberating—his father’s wine locker.
And a few minutes later Matthew calls him on it. As the two drunkenly philosophize over a 1937 Grand Vin, Matthew, having disagreed with Theo’s acceptance of Mao’s soldiers all marching with books, not guns “together into the future,” says to him that “if you really believed what you were saying you’d be out there. . . . Out there on the street.”
We see most deeply into the character of Theo here. He not only acts surprised when Matthew suggests that the real revolution is going on outside, he actually becomes violent when his fantasy of himself as a genuine soldier of the revolution is belittled. It is what often happens when you argue with a schizophrenic person who has painstakingly devised a false self to deal with the world—such people often cannot permit themselves to lose even a casual argument because they feel their very existence threatened by any questioning of their created self.
Matthew says, “There’s something going on out there. Something that feels like it could be really important. Something that feels like things could change. Even I get that. But you’re not out there. You’re inside, with me, drinking expensive wine, talking about film, talking about Maoism. Why?” And of course there is no answer for Theo to give that will not expose his empty mouthing of revolutionary pieties, and so he does what he must do—he tries to shut off the accusing voice by any means necessary. But even his fingers around Matthew’s windpipe cannot prevent the discharge of the last deadly arrow from that quiver: “I think you prefer when the word “together” means not ‘a million,’ but just two.” Matthew knows that in the “revolution” Theo dreams of, the masters of The Game would likewise be the masters of all else, at least all matters cultural (and yet, Matthew’s last gasped words ask the forlorn question, showing his not entirely abandoned hope of inclusion, whether the two might not be just two, but perhaps “three”).
Matthew might well have paid a dearer price for playing Tiresias had Isabelle not intervened. She wants to show them her grand surprise—she has put up a tent in the salon! It would be hard to think of a more obvious way to dramatize infantile regression (this was also in Cocteau’s novel). Soon they are all a tangle of limbs, and Matthew and Theo quickly drift off to into a wine drenched slumber.
Isabelle, however, is troubled by the events of the evening. She demands a profession of love from the barely conscious Theo, who mouths it in the same perfunctory way he once did for Matthew’s asking of the same question. Isabelle asks him why Matthew had once called them freaks, but Theo is too wasted to respond. Desperately she asks for eternal vows from her longtime Game partner and co-conspirator, but his mumbled responses have just the opposite effect from her desires. We see her staring miserably alone, seemingly lost, into the gloom of the filtered candlelight, with the tent another symbol of the cocoon of adolescence she is unable to outgrow.
* * *
In the middle of the night, reality enters the apartment in the form of the twins’ parents. They discover the disconnected telephone, the devastated kitchen, and the tent with its colorful fabrics looking like a sheik’s harem encamped by an oasis. They peer inside and see a tangle of naked sleepers. Mother and father just sit and stare, unable to speak, unable to move.
And then, amazingly enough, they blow out the smoldering candles, draft the children a check, and leave. As they leave, Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun” jumps out from the soundtrack, precisely as it had in the film’s first moment where it signaled the beginning of the dream as the camera glided down the steel architecture of the Eiffel Tower into Paris and our story. Here the same music signals another beginning, the beginning of the awakening, the beginning of the end of our story as the camera follows the parents down to the street in the old elevator whose metal frame unmistakably suggests the famous tower.
Why do the parents flee? I think it is because they know they cannot deal with this outrageous situation in a “civilized” way, and hence they don’t deal with it at all. If the revolution is against parental authority, the revolution seems to be over. The enemy has conceded the field. To extend the earlier metaphor, the inmates who have taken over the asylum have now been granted the deed outright.
However, parents—and thus symbolically the always active legacy of the past—wield great influence even in absentia. Isabelle wakes to find the check on the table beside the tent. Shock overcomes her when she realizes what it means. Her parents have seen her in bed with Theo! This is her worst fear come true—recall Matthew’s earlier question: “What would you do if your parents found out?” and her answer: “I would kill myself.” This is precisely what she now attempts to do—and not only herself, but both of her “lovers” as well.
Some reviewers argue that a ménage à trois has occurred and that this accounts for Isabelle’s suicidal remorse. I think this is an error, for we see no evidence of this. The last we saw of Theo he was passed out from wine—and we have been told that the twins have not been actual lovers before this. No, it seems that the shame comes from what Isabelle imagines her parents think, and from the guilt of feeling that perhaps she is capable of—or has fantasized about—what they must think. At any rate, she uncoils a hose of lethal gas into the tent, her actions intercut with scenes from Robert Bresson’s 1967 film Mouchette.
The excerpts from Mouchette are illuminating if we take them to be analogous to Isabelle’s romanticized sense of her own suffering. If anyone could ever serve as an example of justified adolescent suicide, it would certainly be Bresson’s beleaguered waif. Mouchette lives in dire poverty in a rural French village with an alcoholic father and a dying mother, so she alone has to take care of her younger brother and try to keep the household solvent. Nevertheless she is tormented at school, and eventually raped by a drunken poacher she tries to help. When the villagers see her scratches and disheveled clothing, she is labeled a whore. Unjustly disgraced, without any support or prospects for a better future, she takes her own life by rolling down a hill into a river—it takes two attempts—and so escapes from a world that has bequeathed her only sorrows.
Although Mouchette’s story is relentlessly tragic, the humanity that still seeps out of her, despite her world’s single-minded attempt to destroy it, leaves many viewers of the movie with an impression of something that might be called Mouchette’s spiritual integrity, which somehow endures through all her trials. She enlists the pity and terror of catharsis in the spectator because she truly is a victim destroyed by overwhelming odds.
It is easy to see why Isabelle, pulling the death-delivering hose into the tent, would want to believe herself in a similar condition, and therefore worthy of compassion and forgiveness for something that she has obviously been forced into by odds just as implacable. And of course, she would believe that conflating her own death with a movie character’s is the only way to do it, if one must.
This imagined pathos is all quite laughable, of course—or would be laughable if hers was not a fairly believable example of how an immature mind can conceive itself and others as hopeless victims, even to the point of seeking death. The imagery of the scene is clear: there is a camera shot where the hose Isabelle brings is made to look exactly like a great serpent slithering into the little paradise she had made for them all to play in. But just like Eve, she too has been deceived.
Yet for a moment it looks like the devil may have won—we see all three dreamers lying in the womb-like opening of the tent, and then Isabelle imagines the final rolling away of Mouchette. We hear the splashing of the killing waters, and see the void where Mouchette had been. And then we are back in the apartment, looking again at the opening of the tent—but the dreamers are gone. The Great Womb, it seems, has taken them back in. Is this, we are given a moment to ask ourselves, how the dream is to end?
* * *
It is then, with a shattering crash, that the final awakening occurs. Here is where we remember Matthew’s words about the night he met the twins amid the protests outside the cinema: “But there was one evening, in the spring of 1968, when the world finally burst through the screen.” Now, just as the poison in the apartment—literally and figuratively—is about to lull the dreamers to sleep forever, the reality on the street has broken through into the emotional and psychological prison they have created. Life—abundant, noisy, messy, and irrevocably complicated—has arrived to dethrone the fantasies of youth, those juvenile desires long nourished in the hothouses of theaters and the imaginative voyages inspired by books. As Isabelle describes it, “The street came flying into the room!”
And immediately the three go flying out of the room into that street. There is some palpable symbolism as the camera zooms up on the closed doors to the apartment that have for so long kept the world at bay but are now to be flung wide. The question is, what does this opening mean? What does it signify that Matthew, Isabelle, and Theo will finally come out and join the chanters, the marchers, the masses of humanity in chaotic flux? More important to consider, perhaps, is who exactly are these people now stumbling out of their long hibernation into the midst of conflict already engaged—that is, plunging into battle in medias res, not unlike the Homeric heroes of antiquity?
I believe that the final clash between Matthew and Theo helps us to put these final moments of the film into some kind of context. It is useful to recall that “revolution” as a idealized concept has always been a subtext of much that went on in the apartment. There were Theo’s arguments with his father, the painting of Liberty leading the people by Delacroix along with other revolutionary posters and paraphernalia, and the constant political disagreements between Matthew and Theo. Also, many of the conditions in the outside world brought about by the national unrest were duplicated in the apartment—the phone line was disconnected just as many public means of communications were disrupted by the strikes; there was a lack of food both in the apartment and in many urban areas cut off from regular deliveries; and the debris in the streets was mirrored by the mess produced by three self-absorbed adolescents.
Nothing inside the apartment walls, though, constituted a genuine revolution. Theo, for all his verbal fomenting, was ultimately content to lounge on his bed and dream of being in Chairman Mao’s great movie of the future (the perfect solution for Theo—a film and a revolution) while cradling a bottle of Château Lafite in his hands. If there was any genuine revolutionary activity occurring at the apartment, surely it was in Matthew’s attempt to separate the twins and help them to grow into autonomous beings.
But despite their sham revolution, it seems that now a real revolution has found them out. After a few minutes on the street, Theo is chanting right along with his long-ignored comrades, and although ignorant of what has caused this particular confrontation, unhesitatingly exchanges his wine bottle for one filled with flaming gasoline.
* * *
It is here that we come to the unambiguous line that Matthew will not cross. He pleads with Theo not to return violence with violence. But with the mindless adrenaline of youth speaking through him, Theo rejects Matthew, declaring, “It’s not violence, it’s wonderful!” Matthew implores him again, asking him to use his head. In a last ditch effort he expends whatever emotional capital he may have accrued, kissing both Isabelle and Theo to dramatize his heartfelt entreaty to Make Love, Not War.
His efforts are unavailing. Theo has indeed become one of the extras in Mao’s insidious little book that Matthew had so feared. He now has no mind of his own: dreams of glory along with peer pressure and the hatred of authority—any authority—have transformed him into just another member of a faceless, hysterical mob.
Matthew’s cup of bitterness is not yet complete, for there is one more betrayal to come. As Theo fiercely pushes him away, Matthew turns to Isabelle, his lover, for support. For her it will be an ultimate test: choose Matthew and autonomy and the stated noble ideals of the youth revolt—or fall back into The Game, into the unnatural relationship with Theo that had brought her to the brink of suicide, and follow her brother into complicity with the maddened herd.
It is the final dramatic crisis of The Dreamers. Bertolucci could have held the moment, stretched it out, made us think about it longer, could have let his characters dance on the edge of the knife-edge of destiny for a few more beats. But it is completely realistic, and so completely tragic, that he does not.
For Isabelle does not hesitate at all. The final, fleeting glance she gives Matthew is not in the least apologetic; I would describe it as a mixture of both scorn and disgust. The twins take what we have to believe is their final leave of Matthew and his revolutionary ideas that they should grow up and take personal responsibility for their actions. In their case, at least, it seems that the past is not merely prologue, and that biology really is destiny.
We are left for a moment looking at an anguished Matthew, staring bleakly as his friends disappear into the smoke and flames of a manmade hell. It is hard not to perceive him just a little bit Christ-like, a little bit Gandhi-like—or at least a little bit like some minor prophet scorned by the multitude. We see as much pathos on his face as we can possibly credit in such a comely youth.
And then Matthew turns away, walking into a red sea of flags that do not part easily before him. In the novel of The Dreamers, he is killed in the riot; here he simply vanishes, a more understated kind of martyrdom. When he is gone, the violence erupts with sound and fury—the masked, faceless rioters battling the helmeted, faceless gendarmes.
In the end, as the last black-clad warriors float off the screen in a slow motion dream that has become a nightmare, we are left with some of the characteristic images of revolution—street fires and tear-gas canisters and a barricade of police vehicles. From the soundtrack issues the defiant voice of Edith Piaf, singing the deeply ironic “Non, je ne regrette rien” (“No, I regret nothing”). Fittingly, the song—the unofficial anthem of the French Foreign Legion—is sung more as a stubborn assertion than as a statement of fact.
What is left to say? The Dreamers is a polarizing work. Peruse the Internet Movie Database entry for the film and you’ll find some of the most scathing reviews ever given to a major work by a major director. It has been denounced as pornography, as political trumpery, and all too often as the perverted excesses of an old man mourning his lost youth. It is, however, none of these, as many other reviewers, amateur and professional alike, will be happy to assure you. It is instead a masterwork of the cinematographer’s art, attempting (and in my view succeeding) to evoke a certain mood, a certain sense of the possibilities that may have existed for people of a certain age group who lived in a specific time and in a specific place. It is not an essay in politics, or a sensationalistic appeal to the prurient instincts, or even a history lesson. It is instead an invitation to remember what it is like to be young, to be in love, to feel in your whole being that life is full of magical things, and to believe that the world can be changed if you really want it strongly enough. And, sadly, it also shows how the world typically responds to such beliefs.
And yet I think that the loving way in which the movie is filmed permits us to ask some important questions: Where would we be, and who would we be without our dreams, irrational and perhaps unachievable as they inevitably are? An earlier lady of Paris, Anais Nin, once wrote, “The dream was always running ahead of me. To catch up, to live for a moment in unison with it, that was the miracle.” What Bertolucci’s film The Dreamers does is to capture that shining, all-too-brief moment when three beautiful young people had their miracle, and it lets us share it with them.