Sometimes it's nice to be wrong. The Dreamers is a real humdinger, at once an intimate romance, a glimpse into an unconventional friendship and a beautifully focused celebration of cinema itself. We'll address the capricious and abundant nudity and sexuality -- Bertoluccian elements organic to the story that shouldn't be taken out of context -- in a bit.
What we have here is a love story, told with frank playfulness, good ol' ardor and homages to classic movies. Southern Californian transplant Matthew (Michael Pitt, Murder by Numbers) meets French twins Theo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green) at the Cinematheque Française, and soon they're clicking. Matthew, a student, is crashing in a crappy hotel, but soon the initially mysterious Theo and Isabelle invite him first for dinner and then for a prolonged stay in their home. When their left-of-center parents (Anna Chancellor and Florian Cadiou, both splendid) depart for a month's holiday, the siblings weave seemingly staid Matthew into their weird, wild world.
It's potentially nauseating to experience yet another dusty boomer blathering about how great the '60s were, but Bertolucci breathes fresh air into the concept. He wrings life from the breaking of a few eggs -- a visual metaphor as rudimentary as they come. It's the spring of 1968 outside, the Cinematheque's Henry Langlois has been sacked after contributing inestimably to the French New Wave, and political riots are breaking out all over the place. All are significant, but, much as in the recent Kent State-era drama The Year That Trembled, the power and poetry lie in the close-ups. Like his beloved geeks who insist on sitting in the front row, Bertolucci wants us to receive his characters as directly as possible, and we are there. It's probably the finest revisiting of the era since the wonderful Withnail & I.
Screenwriter and former London Independent film critic Gilbert Adair (adapting his 1988 novel The Holy Innocents) deserves credit for crafting scenes that challenge both the audience and the actors. At first, all is merely jovial as the three emulate scenes from their favorite films and rock out to the Dead-at-27 Club: Janis and Jimi and Jim. But soon Matthew finds himself a catalyst for metamorphosis in his friends' perversely symbiotic relationship, with unpredictable results. He's a product of American puritanism unleashed in bohemia, and when all three share a bath and steep in Isabelle's monthly bill, the connotation is clear: These kids crave each other on a primal level.
The movie is fun, too. Particularly amusing are the pop-culture tiffs between Matthew and Theo -- when the latter praises Chaplin as superior to Keaton or takes on the impossible task of defending Eric Clapton's existence, it becomes clear that the French lad has no idea what he's talking about. As an engaging stranger-in-a-strange-land film, The Dreamers also perches head and shoulders above cute but absurdly overrated sketches like Lost in Translation or L'Auberge Espagnole. And unlike those attempts, it doesn't feel constipated or implausible in its sexual dimension.
And yes, the film is horny as all get-out. Unabashedly honest about youthful sexuality, it depicts just about everything in fairly graphic detail. When Fox Searchlight President Peter Rice recently defended The Dreamers as "an audacious and original film for intelligent critics and discerning adult audiences," it sounded patronizing and off-putting. But the movie is just the dose of mainstream art the U.S. cinema desperately needs.