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Friday, February 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Moira Macdonald
Set in the spring of 1968, Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Dreamers" focuses on a most bizarre love triangle, and on the blurry personalities of three young people whose ideas are shaped as much from the movies they love as from the lives they live.
Matthew (Michael Pitt, the ungrateful Tommy from "Hedwig and the Angry Inch") is an American in Paris, a visiting student who meets sultry Isabelle (Eva Green) and her brother Theo (Louis Garrel) outside the film archives Cinematheque Francais. The three are among a large group of cinephiles, blinking in the unaccustomed sunlight, gathered to protest the ouster of the Cinematheque's founder, Henri Langlois. Dark-eyed Isabelle blows her cigarette smoke near Matthew, in the manner of all screen femme fatales, and he's instantly smitten.
Such is how "The Dreamers" unfolds, with a multitude of movie moments blending into Bertolucci's nostalgic tale. Matthew, Isabelle and Theo are obsessive movie watchers; their ideas of romance and adventure come from what they see on the screen. ("The screen really was a screen," says Matthew's voice-over, in retrospect. "It screened us from the world.") The three race through the Louvre in imitation of the famous scene in Godard's "Band of Outsiders" (as Bertolucci cleverly intercuts between that film and this); Matthew arrives home at his shabby hotel room and sings "Born in a Trunk," a Judy Garland-like waif.
All of this is catnip for a cinephile, and were "The Dreamers" simply a love letter to movies, it'd be heaven on a screen. But Bertolucci, who notoriously shook up world cinema in 1972 with the then-explicit "Last Tango in Paris," has another tango in mind, this time with three dancers. Matthew, increasingly enamoured with Isabelle and Theo, comes home with them for dinner one night and is easily cajoled to stay. Their parents leave town, and the three are left alone in a massive, murkily green-walled apartment. Movie-trivia games become sex games as the three become figuratively and literally intertwined.
Like "Last Tango," much of "The Dreamers" takes place in a Paris apartment, but what felt natural in the earlier film seems stifling here. The apartment, a rabbit warren of hallways and bookshelves, seems to have no natural light; it's like the cinemas that these three haunt, where the real world cannot enter. The dialogue has an almost druggy tone to it, emphasizing the unreal quality of the story.
And despite plenty of sex scenes, some of the near-gynecological variety (hence the NC-17 rating), the film has stretches where it's simply dull. There comes a point where you no longer want to be trapped in an apartment with Matthew, Isabelle and Theo, whose vaguely sinister pretentiousness gradually becomes less intriguing than tiresome. It's an ode to youth but strangely without joy; these callow creatures, despite their beauty, can't quite hold our interest.
Eventually, the real world intrudes, just in time for the lights to be raised in our own cinema. "The Dreamers," a rare movie made by and for adults, haunts its watcher for some time, despite its shortcomings. It's a ravishingly beautiful film with Bertolucci and director of photography Fabio Cianchetti finding a lush, velvety quality of light that's reminiscent of an oil painting.
Real life doesn't quite look like this, but movies have the power to transform the ordinary. (Green, as Isabelle, has a face that alternates between plain and exquisite; it's all in how the light catches her eyes and skin.) Bertolucci, the Italian master of color best known for 1987's "The Last Emperor," knows how to captivate our eyes.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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