Whenever I hear the sentiment “imitation is the highest form of flattery,” spouted in response to some manner of emulation, I’ve always reverted immediately to the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said, “imitation is suicide.” Two seemingly polar observations, and yet neither strictly cancels the other out. Take for example Shakespeare's Romeo, who lavishes compliment upon Juliet’s brilliant slumberous corpse in the Capulet monument, even as he takes a deadly drum of poison to his lips in an effort to imitate her “unsubstantial death,” which is itself an imitation, for Juliet is but slayed of senses, not of life. Bertolucci’s THE DREAMERS is a playground for these varied sentiments, a blended but always uneasy mixture of fatalism and homage lacing every moment of tiered imitation. Emerson’s concise cautionary words are of a figurative urgency. They infer that sacrifice of principle, not flesh, is inherent in the adoption of guises, or that facilitating one’s identity through the medium of another’s constructed means, which subverts one’s own pre-existing model, is at the very expense of that model. The existential tailspin of the three principal characters in THE DREAMERS, toward its final minutes especially, is evidence enough of this truth, and further highlights that the refusal to grow, in the emotional case of the characters of Theo and Isa, is an analogous form to suicide; that of suicide by stagnation. Or put by another, “Not busy being born is busy dying” (Dylan).
Bertolucci’s triumph of unconventionally sexual cinema is a poetic and sensual exploration of the lives of three young adults; twins Theo and Isabelle, and their newly made friend Matthew, at the cusp of great personal and social upheaval in Paris. It is a film about simultaneous wars, and about refusals, both ideological and manifest, drawn with a mark of rare, and for some, a somewhat affronting intimacy. While the film speaks of social war and the unrest of the May ’68 demonstrations (a year that saw analogous uprisings the world over, such as the US’s strife against its own participation the Vietnam War), it is not a film about ’68, but rather one that takes place in that moment in history, and utilizes its intensity and its feverish embrace of the possibility of change, as an informing backdrop, if not catalyst. The film is, quite insularly, about the three main characters’ blossoming and shifting perceptions of “self” and the mechanisms of emotional identity, over the span of an exceptional month in self-imposed house arrest. Gilbert Adair, author of the novel and screenplay, explains that the actual telling of the story holds no intended or implicit irony. However, within its framework, particular and telling ironies which inform deeply on each character’s changing or unchanging personhood.
The “wars” in THE DREAMERS, as they may be termed, swell between action and inaction, between the public and the private, the political and emotional, between the teacher and the taught, between impressions and actuality, and between imitation and embodiment. Bertolucci acknowledges that each of these “combatants,” as it were, has a vested interest in its opposition in order to thrive, , and from this basis he symbolically threads the film together with a palate of red and green, termed “complementary colors” but opposites just the same. Bertolucci stems from that symbolic language of opposites, into the narrative’s physical course; for instance, The stagnation that occurs within the closed-off apartment during a month of seclusion requires the punctuation of social upheaval raging in the streets to inform its own qualities. The twins, Theo and Isabelle’s increasing isolationism teaches Matthew an ironic universality of boundless love, however Matthew’s reversion of this principle towards the twins, that is to say, his efforts to instill in the twins his own learned broadness, is refused almost outright. Timid but ponderous Matthew, brimming from the first shot with boyish enthusiasm and an overly apologetic naïvete, is so complexly and confrontingly engaged by the Twins during this pocket of isolation, and yet it is they who choose to stunt their own emotional growth. It is no mistake that this attitudinal war fought behind doors unfolds as a war of ideology and principle is fought “dans la rue,” and that these two fronts should meet in the end with so much breaking of glass.
The broiling but optimistic scene of social tensions of May ’68, between the powers-that-be and Parisian youths and intellectuals, is set immediately as our backdrop. At the tail end of the first shot, a descending close-up pan of the Eiffel Tower’s framework, into which the title sequence is integrated, we meet Matthew: the blonde, wide-eyed, un-spoiled American studying French in Paris. He is walking towards the Cinematheque Francaise, wearing a neutral palate of khaki, grey and white, revealing retrospective details about the time and place, and about himself, through voice-over-narration. Soon he is amidst one of the first organized public outcries against the deposing of Henri Langlois, the creator and curator of the Cinematheque Francais, for his reputedly slapdash handling of his resources (film, ephemera). To many Langlois is the father of cinema preservation and programming, if not the encouraging rebel uncle to the elite cinephiles who would become the famed New Wavers; Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, Chabrol, etc. Matthew’s self-enacted immersion into the film subculture becomes a vastly more affecting avenue of education than any of his institutional schooling. “Here is where I got my real education” he says. Though not French, Matthew is a member of the universal culture of cinema and has every right to embroil in the demonstration. This organized public uprising of principle and of personal objection taking place at the Palais Chaillot, which seemingly begins as something subcultural, is merely one aspect of what will expand into a near-formal city-wide movement. This tenuous moment fatefully brings together Matthew and the twins, Theo and Isa, though it is intimated by their smiling glances to one another that the twins had been discreetly pondering him at film screenings. “He’s American, just like I told you,” Isa says to Theo while introducing Matthew. The two young men bond over the name of Nicholas Ray.
This opening scene also sets the stage for THE DREAMERS’ most prevalent and outspoken visual motif; inter-splicing archival footage and film excerpts into sequences, virtually frame by frame reenacted, or content reflective. Immediately, by virtue of this meta-motif, we are confronted with a melange of concepts that are subliminally crucial to understanding the impending identity epoch that will unfold between our three protagonists. One might define the overlapping of archival and “modern” footage as a kind of surrealism, or even a symbolic temporal confusion, because separate realities deign to be of and within the same moment. Bertolucci says “In cinema you are allowed to conjugate only one tense, the present. Because when you shoot, you are contemporary to what you shoot and to whom you are shooting. This prevalence of the present is something we cannot forget or ignore. Even if you shoot a character in ancient Rome dressed up like Julius Cesar, the people in the theater are contemporary to Julius Cesar. This is really a privilege of cinema. The three kids who are acting the part of three kids from ’68, they, in their bodies and experiences carry the present.”
THE DREAMERS is a complex but elegant exercise of this temporal aspect of cinema. Actors of the present (Michael Pitt, Louis Garrel, Eva Green), are posing as fictional people (Matthew, Theo, Isabelle), in a fictional scenario placed within an actual past, who, to compound things further, imitate, almost as a second language, scenes from past films, which are themselves merely documented imitations of scenarios and feelings by other actors and filmmakers. Take for example the black and white newsreel images of French New Wave poster child, actor Jean-Pierre Leaude speaking out at the actual ’68 demonstration, juxtaposed with his own self-reenactment in the present, as it were, via the filming of THE DREAMERS in 2003, which is itself a restaging of ’68. Neither the archival Leaud nor the Leaud of today are in the proper time (the former pulled forward, the latter thrust back), yet they are both in the present, contemporary to each other, and to us as we view. On many occasions we are confronted with moments of the archival past and the immutable present-in-imitation of the past, compounded in singular moments. The twins constantly reenact film scenes as a game to test film knowledge and to subvert a grasping of “reality.” Their imitation games are a kind of manufactured twin-speech, a language that is both distilled in its specificity, but also diluted by several generations of removal. Even if one doesn’t dissect these ideas very intently, it still carries wind of the pervasive action of imitation that propels the story, that defines and ultimately destroys the trio, and in a way, highlights the inherent sensual tactile nature of the film’s world. The Dreamers makes no shallow predication of its relationship to the lineage of cinema, doesn't rest contentedly on the fact of simply being a film, or a film about cinephiles, but revels in its nature as a film in love with film, and creates a synthesis of itself into the family of cinema, and vice versa. Bertolucci borrows imagery from other films and weaves it into the lives of his characters (by their imitation of said imagery, and by the seeming nature that it is a phenomenon of their own conjuration), as well as into the literal fabric of the film itself, spliced into scenes regarding a material process. THE DREAMERS manifests this dynamic integration through abstraction and through a literal materiality yielding an inextricable poetic tangle.
These temporally enmeshed moments are but another, if not the initial dimension of THE DREAMERS’ pervading sexuality and sensuality, for they create a bifurcated penetration of films into films, creating amorous relationships between the imitator and the imitated, reflected again through Matthew’s invitation into the twin’s very specific gravity and the chaos he stirs in the displacement as he hopes to integrate. Sexuality in the explicit sense, is therefore a response rather than a motivator to this phenomenon.
Sensuality is indeed a quality present from early on. Matthew describes himself in his Voice Over introduction as “one of the insatiables,” referring to his cinephilia. Small physical gestures build gradually in the opening act and throughout to create a sensual residue across the films length. Gestures like; Matthew spitting into his hand in order to masturbate while writing a letter to his mother about meeting Theo and Isa, Matthew urinating in his sink (instead of walking down the hall to go to the washroom), Isa’s hair draped gently upon her father’s neck as she leans over him to get his attention, as well as her father’s hand sliding slightly along her red-draped waist in a light embrace. And even when Matthew first meets Isa, it is a sensual experience. He removes a red cigarette stuck to her puckered lips, causing both parties to flinch at her moments’ discomfort. Indeed this flinching, at Matthew’s hand, is illustration enough of the “violence” that will result of his later efforts to help and break the twins out of their unified shell, though at this later epoch it will be violence sprung from his lips instead of his hands.
Through a consistently rich and self-reflexive visual language, Bertolucci is able to articulate the complicated nature of his characters and predict the impending arc of emotionality that will be seeded by their meeting, well beyond words (though he uses them to great effect). Bertolucci is able to simplify the apparent arc of the film (the story), and buoy it with a more subliminal and emotional current, through symbols and color. Some of this metaphoric complexity is merely aftermath, but most of it is well forethought, and these two regards converge on many points. Aftermath and happenstance are the lifeblood of cinema. As Godard said, and as Bertolucci regards in the documentary The Italian Traveller, “leave a door open on set” so that the world outside can waltz in and throw it’s self into the mix of staged and premeditated creation; a truly New Wave ideology that transplants to THE DREAMERS both in its making and its finished body.
From the very beginning we are made aware of Isa and Theo’s “deceptions” as it were, or penchant for imitation. It’s fair to say that, by virtue of brilliant economy and subtlety, we are subconsciously aware of almost every propensity and theme within the film from its very first sequence. Matthew approaches Isa at the sunken entrance of the Musee du Cinema surrounded by a crowd of students, chained to the gate in a stoic lean worthy of Vogue Magazine, wearing a tight, deep green, crushed-velvet one-piece and a bright red barret (introducing the pervading color scheme of the entire film)… but she is only pretending to be chained. “Why are you chained to the gate?” Matthew asks softly. “I’m not chained to the gate,” she remarks casually smiling as she unwinds the links from her wrists, hands thrown up as if to say “ta da!” Her convictions, one might infer, are f are façade, a game like so much of her life. Later, Matthew will intimate to her how “cool” he thought she and Theo looked when they were just strangers, and she will say, “We were acting.” The fact that at this moment of introduction Isa and Matthew are below the plane of social action, literally, at the bottom of a set of stairs, is but their first act of extraction from the world, to be followed by several more. Compounding this metaphor is the way in which the camera alternates its coverage from in front and from behind the gate, upon which Isa and Matthew are both playing the scene. It comes across as an ambiguous distinction; from which side do they appear as prisoners behind bars?
Theo arrives and the three of them narrowly escape the violent tide of the days’ demonstration, walking the city streets till late that night, talking and sharing sandwiches (Isa and Theo both giving Matthew 1/3 of their’s). Mathew adheres to the twins rather quickly, and them to him, despite his staggeringly apologetic nature. “…I was already in love with my new friends,” he says to himself. They have activated something within one another and they are each feeding off the potential of this coupling. You can feel their penchant emanating from the screen already. Anyone who has felt close to someone upon first meeting will be scintillated by the same infectious buzz.
Theo and Isa live and breathe Cinema. Their thoughts and behaviors are framed around their own filmic memory, and informed, as it turns, by the very nature of film as sequences of documented imitation and selective reality (though all cinema may be regarded theoretically as reality, in that it is the reality of what occurred before the camera). Isa says to Matthew “I entered this world on the Champs-Elysees, 1959. La trottoir du Champs Elysees. And do you know what my very first words were? …’New York Herald Tribune! New York Herald Tribune!’” ushering in the first non-newsreel inter-spliced film clip. Isa is of course referencing a scene from the beginning of Godard’s Breathless, considered the seminal New Wave Film. The twins equate their coming to life with the birth of Nouvelle Vague cinema, and not a moment before.
Matthew has dinner with them the next evening at their home in the company of the Twins’ ex-social renegade parents; a somewhat distracted father, apparently renown for his poetry, and a gentle but utterly strong-minded mother whose domesticity never appears like a submission. Theo calls Matthew quite early the morning after their meeting to place the invitation, waking him from a sound slumber. Subtle details begin to seep in, such as the red wall behind Matthew’s bed, and the dark green quilt he is sleeping under. A sensual, if not sexual, visual relationship is now irrevocably drawn between Matthew and Isa, for the dress she wore tight on her body while “restrained” against the Musee du Cinema gate the day before, is nearly the same color as the quilt that Matthew drapes over his own body as he sleeps, a state most vulnerable. From this connection stems what one could call a story written with color, and culls the strongest and yet most unspoken cinematic reference within THE DREAMERS, which is none other than Bertolucci’s own THE LAST EMPEROR (1987); a relationship that warrants its own dissertation. Notably though, where EMPEROR is a tale told in phases of color, in which individual palates are chosen to preside over specific chapters in the life of its protagonist Pu Yi, THE DREAMERS is a tale of relationships bound with two specific colors that can be traced throughout the entire film. In a sense, it is as Matthew later says of Theo’s aesthetic fascination with Maoism (another of the bold ligatures to EMPEROR), that the socio-political movement’s visualization as millions of people marching, carrying millions of little red books instead of guns, is merely the multiplicity of “one book, A book, just one book,” a singular in vast repetition. The relationship drawn by red and green, as will be discussed, though scattered across the films length, is but “one relationship” shared between himself and the entire universe if Theo and Isa, almost as if their meeting were fated. Again, it is the lessons of color learned by Bertolucci in EMPEROR that help create this dynamic in THE DREAMERS.
We skip the anticipation of the day and cut right to the trio entering the lobby of their flat. Instead of walking up the stairs togetherWe skip the anticipation of the day and cut right to the trio exuberantly entering the lobby of their flat. Instead of walking up the stairs together, Theo and Isa shut Matthew (and the viewer because this is a POV shot) into the elevator and race it to their floor, the camera peering through the mesh screen at the scrambling duo, establishing that they will continually set the condition of integration in their newly expanded circle. Doors recur often as devices of privacy and boundary for Matthew; closing the door while he changes in Theo’s room, hiding in the kitchen closet to avoid paying his forfeit (the penalty for loosing one of the twins’ spontaneous “name-that-scene” games), or peeping through Theo’s bedroom door the first night he stays over to see the him sleeping naked with Isa (a red light saturating the hallway). For Theo, doors equal a kind of control; shutting Matthew out on the street or in the elevator, leaving the door to his bedroom cracked open while sleeping with Isa, coaxing Matthew into his room to change out of wet clothes together and asking “why wouldn’t you open the door?” when he returns with drinks to find a flustered Matthew.
During the intimate meal with the twins’ family, in a kitchen brimming with green and red tones (just as the rest of the house), Matthew shares a rather implicating dialogue with the father… implicating in what it predicts about the nature of his own role in this menage-a-trois of sorts with the twins. While fidgeting with Isabelle’s lighter and not paying attention to the fathers monologue, he discovers that the lighter’s dimensions fit perfectly within the design of the tablecloth in nearly every configuration, and demonstrates, as an apology for his distraction, all the other places it fits as well to the family: between two plates, the length between the knuckles on Isa’s ring finger, etc.
“I was noticing that the more you look at everything; this table, the objects on it, the refrigerator, this room, your nose…the world, suddenly you realize that there’s some kind of cosmic harmony of shapes and sizes. I was just wondering why? I don’t know why that is… I know that it is.”
The father, genuinely engaged by Matthew’s aptitude, adds to the conversation. “We look around us and what do we see?...Complete chaos. But, when viewed from above, viewed as it were, by god, everything fits together. You have a very interesting friend here,” he declares to his children, “more interesting, I suspect, than you know.” The father goes on to say to Theo, on the topic of the street demonstrations and the Twins’ appeal of their viability, “before you can change the world you must realize that you yourself are a part of it. You can’t just be on the outside looking in.” Before Matthew ever pries into Theo and Isa’s own world, we realize that the twins’ parents have likely already recited some version of everything Matthew deigns to say in the second and third acts of the film, a relationship stated in the father’s wearing deep but muted shades of red and green, expanding the affiliation of color ever further. After dinner Theo and Isa invite Matthew to stay with them for the subsequent month of their parents’ absence, and he indeed assumes the role of observer, however not from above or outside, but from within. In these almost mythical weeks, Matthew slowly realizes his objectivity in the palpable claustrophobia of the twin’s winding flat, much like the rather claustrophobic dinner table, where all the details came together first.
During he and Matthew’s first debate, Theo comes quite close to understanding Matthew’s significance in his and Isa’s lives. Their debate is over the incomparability of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton (who actually star together in Chaplin’s 1952 film Limelight), Matthew siding with Keaton, Theo with Chaplin. Theo describes as his arguments’ evidence, the final shots of Chaplin’s CITY LIGHTS (1931). “If Chaplin wanted a great shot, he knew how to get it… better than anyone. …Remember that the blind woman is seeing him for the first time,” Theo says, “…and it’s as if we’ve never really seen him before. This is Charlie Chaplin, the most famous man in the world, and it’s as if we’re seeing him for the first time.” In that citation (which inter-splices the actual Chaplin scene), Theo touches on the very inclination that Matthew will adopt, both in looking at himself, but also in revealing to the twins a new self-perception… a vision of themselves as connected, but sovereign; two as two, rather than two as one. This theme is continuously compounded by the motif of mirrors throughout the apartment in virtually every scene.
““One of us! we accept him!, One of us!” Theo and Isa chant these words, a quotation from the film FREAKS, to Matthew after their triumphant reenactment of the race through the Louvre from Godard’s BANDE A PART (1964), beating the standing record by 17 seconds. “We’ve been meaning to do something for a long time, but we’ve been waiting for the right person to do it with,” Isa says suggestively to entice him to the challenge (this being just after he and Theo’s debate). Matthew concedes to the plot but not before expressing his innocent and exaggerated fear that if caught he anticipated deportation. The reenacted race is spliced with the original, crating some near-magical alignments, the sounds of THE DREAMERS sequence presiding over the clips. The ensuing post-race sequence, which follows them back to the apartment, is overflowing with compound metaphors and foreshadowing. From the shot of the ebullient trinity, skipping arm in arm alongside the Louvre in sunlight, we cut to Theo and Isa ducking into the glass-walled lobby of a street-side restaurant, leaving Matthew to walk on the sidewalk in-step with them in the rain, his once vibrant red REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE-esque jacket soaked to a deep burgundy. He shouts their names in the rain, and all the while, his reflection in the glass is superimposed on and beside them. This image speaks to both the transitory, or fractional inclusion Matthew will experience with the twins, as well as the fact that in observing them so fervently, he discovers a great deal about himself. After exiting the opposite end of the restaurant lobby onto the sidewalk again, Theo and Isa duck into the lobby of their apartment building and slam the grand entrance door on Matthew’s face. They open the door and let him in after a moment’s fun, chanting once again, “We accept him!” and swallowing him through the door. a microcosm of their relationship.
THE DREAMERS is a film that thrives by its sensual inclinations, but it is by no means slave to them. And in that vein, there are a number of moments that boast an elemental connection between the trinity and their looming fates. By ‘elemental’ I’m referring, of course, to the elements; fire and water, and as has been suggested already, color. Water is the first element to speak of foreboding, for it rains the very night that the three meet and plant their seeds of intrigue in one another with conversation. It also rains as Theo and Isa playfully lock Matthew out on the street after the race through the Louvre. Rain has a certain classical implication of foreboding, or heightening drama, so one can leave it well assumed. What creates the most striking prediction of the trinity’s future is, ironically, in a completely unscripted, but wholly critical moment. Isa, wishing goodnight to Theo and Matthew after the dinner with their parents, kisses each boy on the lips gently. But when she leans in to kiss Matthew, her hair catches fire for an instant on the candles she lit on the table. The flare is extinguished by her swift hand, which Matthew is now touching softly. The two of them barely move during the flare up, just their hands, and Isa leans in further to give him the intended kiss. “Are you ok” he asks. “I’m ok” she replies. It is important to note that Isa has lit these candles just after the heated existential discussion at dinner, and in a casually acted but directly indicative action, Isa is attempting to create an isolation in response to any light being shed on their condition. She turns the kitchen lights off and shrouds the three of them in darkness, offering only enough light to cast the visage of their bodies. She (Is and Theo being eqal and interchanagable) chooses the degree to which conditions are exposed. But the scene means even more than that. The flame evokes the impending flare of passion that will burst between them at he behest of Theo. It is also a kind of impressionistic foretelling of the film’s conclusion; combining the element of a kiss and a flame. In the final scene Matthew uses a kiss as his plea to the Twins, urging them to walk from the heated street riot to choose “love, not war.” But the twins refuse Matthew’s plea and resort to violence, tossing a malatov coctail (the flame) at the police in their frenzied and ignorant participation in the street riot. Lastly, the ‘hair catching fire’ scene is a surprising and unintended evocation of one such scene from JULES ET JIM (1962) by Truffaut. In that scene, Catherine (played by the inimitable Jeanne Moreau), catches fire to her dress while burning love letters in her apartment. Jim (Henri Serr), helps her to extinguish it. What the flame represents for Catherine and Jim is much the same as what it represents for the twins, for Catherine is the lover of Jim’s best friend Jules (Oskar Werner), and Theo may as well be Jules at this moment. These two scenes curiously carry the same heightened and concise kinetic energy, energy that extends the timing of an ostensibly brief moment, even though the one in JULES ET JIM is rather quickly edited with several cuts, and the one in THE DRERAMERS is only cut once.
From the candlelight mishap onward, we are steeped in the experience of these three orbiting characters, who, in their parents’ absence, nearly refuse to leave their bourgeois self-interested seclusion. Things commence calmly enough, but little by little, Matthew becomes privy to the peculiarity of Theo and Isa’s unconventional closeness. Sexuality concretes itself as a staple element in these ensuing scenes. What’s interesting about these rather vivid and unmitigated sexual moments, which seem to structure most of the vehement popular disapproval of the film, is that they are captured visually and emotionally from within, rather than from without, in which case our gaze becomes inclusive rather than voyeuristic, much like how Matthew is an invitee rather than an intruder. This is partly to do with how the camera, in these moments, behaves the same as it does in capturing all other details of the flat and characters. Cinematographer Fabio Ciancetti laces the entire film with a consistent kinetic fluidity and closeness that is informed, if not dictated, by the tight, tall, almost labyrinthian architecture of the flat itself. The same is to be said of the editing of these scenes, never rushed and never bashful. Scenes from without the house; such as the ravishing crane-to-steadicam shot of the university courtyard, are lent longer, more sweeping and waltzing movements, again utilizing opposites to inform one another.
Matthew, despite his own shattering of personal sexual boundaries, doesn’t graduate much beyond a conduit for Theo and Isa’s unrealized dimensions of affection. “You’re a nice boy and I like you a lot… but it wasn't always meant to be the three of us,” The says to Matthew late in the film. The twins’ tangential actions towards one another lay in admission to the fact that they have a rudimentary sense of the “wrongness” inherent their closeness, that is to say, in terms of the greater societal realm. They even liken themselves to freaks in their own cinematic imitations, by quoting from the film entitled FREAKS, “we accept him!” Theo and Isa’s sexuality towards one another has always been conditional, if not childish; sleeping naked together, bathing together, spying on intimate moments, etc. With the advent of a third body, in this case Matthew, their desires can be expressed more directly, with a tactile intermediary. For example, after Matthew’s failure to name the film from which Theo was reenacting a death scene (Scarface 1932), Theo makes a bold demand for his penalty. “I’m not a sadist. I just want to see that everyone is happy. So…I want you and Isa…to make love, in front of me.” Theo makes a bold demand for his penalty. “I’m not a sadist. I just want to see that everyone is happy. So…I want you [Matthew] and Isa…to make love, in front of me.” There is a deliberate craft to Theo’s gesture. He chooses to imitate a scene of murder in which the shadow of an “x” cast by a street sign onto the sidewalk marks the spot in which a man dies by drive-by gunfire. That Theo should make the forfeit of this round of name-that-scene an intercourse between Matthew and Isa, he is encapsulating the film’s prevailing ideas of homage, sexuality, fatalism, and imitation into a microcosmic amalgam.
Isa is won over by the idea after a moment, but timid Matthew flees the scene while she strips to a record of Beyond the Sea, only to be captured again in the kitchen by the architect of this encounter. Matthew and Isa, after a moments struggle and a lightening-quick fainting (by Matthew), make love on the kitchen floor, while Theo cooks eggs and peers out the window at activists running in the streets below evading a throng of police. This scene is a borderline change-over in Matthew’s character, and it becomes obvious by Isa’s moans, though contrary to what one might have inferred (including Matthew, which he admits later) by her constant sensuality, that she is in fact a virgin. After the climax, Theo walks over to them and touches between her legs and shows her the blood of her deflowering, rubbing it between his thumb and forefinger in that usual manner. This couples immediately with Theo’s own forfeit in the previous scene. After failing to name-that-scene, Isa says to him “I want you to do, in front of us (her and Matthew), what I’ve watched you do in front of her (indicating to a pin-up girl poster).” Isa is demanding that Theo masturbate the way he did when he “thought no one was watching.” After his own climax, Isa dismisses the boys and proceeds to wipe Theo’s semen from the poster on the door. Between the two scenes is a kind of non-sequential sexual exchange of fluids.
“We’re Siamese twins, joined here (pointing to his mind).” Theo explains to a flustered Matthew in the bar, having just witnessed Theo’s public masturbation for the first time that “Isa would be me if she were a man.” Indeed Theo and Isa, if perhaps unconfirmed as being literal identical (though they bear uniform scars on opposite shoulders), events in their arcs are given a kind of symmetry. When Matthew sees them sleeping together on his first night in the house, Theo is naked and Isa is clothed. It is reversed when Theo takes a nap with a naked Isa later in the film. Both of them forfeit once during the film, they both wind up having sex with an outside party (though Theo’s transgression is strongly suggested rather than shown). But if you look at their relationship on their own terms, it doesn’t much matter which one performs a task per se, because it is as if the other had done it as well. Theo is Isa as Isa is Theo, or so they wish to think. They are “like two halves of the same person” as Matthew declares.
After the sexual tipping point of Matthew’s forfeit, he and Isa briefly slip into a kind of isolate relationship, regularly having sex, and probing deeper in discussions about the interweaving of familial and emotional bonds. Matthew becomes the intellectual aggressor, gradually, and peels more and more layers back to get to the core of this experience, all the while putting Theo more into the periphery, as he is shown peering at a distance through windows across the courtyard. The prevalence of nudity (male and female) within the film from this point on is not only a celebration of young sexually awakened bodies (which it unabashedly is, and which truly gains the viewer a sense of sexuality) but it is a pivotal accent to the ‘bearing of all truths’ and the hiding of nothing between what seems to be becoming an organism divided three ways. To be naked inherently carries degrees of vulnerability. Isa, who appears so powerful before, is somehow made more frail and flawed, ushering the critical power-shift that occurs within the trinity; Matthew rising above but a pawn.
As in the film world where there is a “before BREATHLESS” and an “after BREATHLESS,” in the universe of THE DREAMERS there is “before Isa and Matthew” and “after Isa and Matthew.” This latter third of the film is laden with Matthew’s and society’s efforts; metaphoric, metonymic, subliminal, and direct, to sever the umbilical link that the twins cling to. Matthew asks Isa as they lie naked in bed during their private exile within exile, “He’s never been inside you?” “He’s always inside me” she replies with a deep and soft conviction. Matthew’s efforts and criticisms of the twins collide head on with his desire to be a component of their unity (perhaps wanting to be closer to Isa than Theo), but they flow out of him nonetheless.
Matthew is quietly incessant in his probing, and uses many tactical degrees in order to seep into the minds of the twins, that he might change them, as he has been changed by them. Perhaps the most playful and perfectly illustrative demonstration Matthew makes for the twins, in this vain, takes place, once again at the dinner table. Several weeks have gone by since Matthew’s first night at their flat. The house is in disrepair to say the least, and there is not a scrap of food to be found, nor money to purchase any. All that can be summoned for dinner is a black-skinned banana from the refuse pile in their courtyard. Even in this moment, with the only morsel of food between them, Matthew finds an opportunity, though not consciously per se, to show Isa and Theo, that no matter how connected they are in heart or in mind, they are still fundamentally individuals, each sovereign unto themselves. To do this, Matthew takes the banana, peels the black skin away to reveal the white flesh of the banana (a gesture containg mild sexual implications), and with his finger working its way down the very center of it, splits the fruit into three equal vertical segments. They stay connected at the base for a kind of utopian second, and then fall apart. This is the nature of life and society that Theo and Isa are trying to avoid or deny. “Separation is life. Separation is healthy. If you separate, life goes ahead,” Bertolucci says in his commentary for the film. The pieces of banana falling to the table echoes the kind of violence inherent in such a formative realization, if not hinting at the fear the twins share of such potentiality. But the image is innocuous to them, a mere moments spectacle. They lightly chuckle as Isa utters “you never cease to surprise us Matthew.”
At a pivotal narrative threshold, the three of them laze the day away in the bathtub, talking about music, war, cinema, etc, like a calm before the storm. Mirrors go to work in this scene like they have in no other. A small tri-fold mirror is aptly placed to catch the reflection of each of their faces as they soak in the large tub, but what makes this more than an innocuous detail is the fact that the reflections of Theo and Matthew are switched via the angle of the peripheral panes, while Isa’s remains in the center mirror. Isa is implicated as the gravity of their emotional orbit, and illustrates Matthew’s deepest desire to be an equal and interchangeable element of the three-part equation they have constructed, or to have Isa as close to himself as she is with Theo. The mirrors are there, more classically, to accent the notion of ‘turning an eye on oneself’ as Matthew does explicitly in the latter part of this scene by an aggressive outburst at a childish gesture from the twins in response to his raw statement of love for them. Harsh honesty is enhanced and underscored by their mutual nudity, and the casualness with which they bear themselves now to each other. The three of them step out of the bathtub together…
Matthew: “You’re both fucking crazy! Do you ever think about it? Think. You sleep in the same bed together every night, you bathe together, you pee in the john together…you play these little games. I wish you could step out of yourselves and just look.”
Isa: “Why? Why are you so cruel?”
Matthew: “Because I love you. I really love you, both of you. And I admire you. And I listen to you, and I think…you are not going to grow. You won’t grow like this. You won’t. Not as long as you keep clinging to each other the way that you do.” (Theo tries to light a cigarette as Matthew makes this point, but as a punchline to the truth in Matthew’s indictment, the lighter fails).
Matthew: “Isabelle, have you ever been on a date before?”
Isa: “I’ve been out with Theo.”
Matthew: “That’s not what I asked. I mean a real date, with another boy?”
Isa: “You know I haven’t” (she replies sharply, looking like a scolded child). Why do you keep asking?”
Matthew: “Do you want to?”
Isa: “Is that an invitation?”
Matthew: “Yes, it’s an invitation. Would you like to go out on a date with me tonight, just the two of us?” Isa turns to Theo. “Don’t look at Theo. Isabelle, you don’t need his permission.”
Isa: “Alright, Matthew, I’ll go on a date with you.”
The date itself unfolds sweetly and archetypally enough; from sharing a soda at the ice cream shop, to making-out in the back row of the movie theater. But all the while, telling details accrue. Several external accents to Matthew’s overarching intentions for the date occur throughout its duration. One of the more direct but unassuming occurs in the film that they go to see (at a normal multiplex mind you. The cinematheque is still closed, Langlois still deposed). The movie is introduced by a man on an open stage, boasting that “The film you are about to see was made in the grandeur of cinemascope.” At the behest of his snapping finger, the peripheral edges of the picture frame expand with the sound of a heavy curtain being drawn. One can’t imagine a more unambiguous allusion to the idea of ‘expanding horizons,’ but it happens quietly enough. More ominous is the mountain of refuse, close to fifteen feet high, that is amassed in the streets, which Matthew and Isa pass whence returning to their bourgoise cocoon, just after seeing news coverage of the erupting Paris riots in a storefront newsreel. The riots and demonstrations of ’68 have prompted a cessation of trash collection in this sector of Paris, deemed ‘too dangerous.’ Ironically, the condition of Paris at this time and the vehement demonstrations that the trio are heretofore unaware of, are exactly what allows them to seal off so completely. Bertolucci describes the trash heap scene as an ‘Antonioni moment.’ As was consistent of Antonioni’s films (L’avventura, The Passenger), THE DREAMERS operates by a supersaturated visual language that constantly speaks its moods and attitudes on several levels. Antonioni reached his masterful height in BLOW UP (1966), a film not too dissimilar in its preoccupation with the concepts of identity façade, ideological hypocrisy, elective socio-emotional isolation, and attempting to investigate matters beyond surface. However, in BLOW UP, these ideas are distilled from three down to a single character’s near psychotic self-examination. The mountain of garbage in THE DREAMERS is exactly what it is…a mountain of garbage, figuratively and literally the repercussion of neglect…something happening within and without the trinity’s closed orbit.
When they return home from their date, Isa actually allows Matthew into her room, heretofore unseen by him or us. What we find is no less than an immaculate shrine to her innocence, and a preservation of her childhood self-perception. Her room is diametric to Theo’s, which is rustic and unkempt. However, Theo’s room is a shrine of its own, paying homage, with ornaments, to Mao Tse Tong and the cultural revolution of China. Both siblings use their rooms to embody an aesthetic interest, a self-image which fascinates them, but which they cannot uphold. This tactile revelation of Isa’s room draws us back almost to the beginning of the film. Isa awakens Matthew the morning after his first night staying in the twins’ flat, in the bizarre fashion of licking away the sleep from his eyes. “Theo lets me do his every morning” she says. “That’s a strange thing to want to do” he says. As she arises from the bed, Isa segues cleanly into a filmic imitation (again inter-spliced with the film it is referencing, Queen Christine 1933) of a woman (Greta Garbo) memorizing the contours and surfaces of the man’s (John Gilbert) room she has just spent the night in. She is enshrining a sensuous memory of objects in order to preserve the peaceful and adoring state of their now sentimental context. Isa feels and absorbs the surfaces of Matthew’s room in an almost identical manner. A more telling emulation of Isa’s self-image protection, and the continued aspect of her and Theo’s imitations being a tactile, penetrative, amorous experience could not have been chosen.
Unfortunately, any broadening of horizons achieved during this evening is dashed, when Theo, as a tactic of somewhat vengeful reciprocation, has a girl from school spend the night. The straw breaks when Theo plays “Beyond the Sea” to accompany their playful walled-off laughter. “Beyond the Sea” is the very song played while Isa strips in order to make love to Matthew for the first time, enshrining it almost as an anthem of their daring. What began as a saccharine evening comes abruptly to an end and Matthew recedes into the darkness of the hallway, defeated but not yet broken. It is not the last time we will see him perform this same action.
Neither words nor actions seem to get through to the twins, no matter how explicit his indictment. The bathroom scene has a fading effect. Matthew tries again, in a drunken candor, with Theo on what will be their second to last night together.
Theo: Matthew. You’re a big movie buff right?
Matthew: Oui (he says rather drunkenly)
Theo: Then why don’t you think of Mao as a great director, making a movie with a cast of millions. All those millions of red guards, marching together into the future. Books not guns, culture not violence. (a statement which contradicts the previous shot of Theo quoting from a book which says “A revolution is an uprising, a violent act by which one class overthrows another”). “Cant you see what a beautiful epic movie it would make?”
Matthew: “I guess. It’s easy to say ‘books not guns.’ It’s not true. It’s not books, its BOOK, A book, just one book.”
Theo: “Shut up. You sound just like my father.” (an apt statement, for Matthew is indeed trying to illustrate a point that his father laid out at the dinner they all shared but a month before. His father said, “Listen to me, Theo. Before you can change the world you must realize that you, yourself, are part of it. You can't stand outside looking in.” It is more appropriate, though to say that he has stayed on the inside-looking-out these past weeks.
Matthew: “No no. Listen to me. Those red guards that you admire…they all carry the same book, all sing the same songs, they all parrot the same slogans. So in this big epic movie…everyone is an extra. That’s scary to me. That gives me the creeps. I’m sorry to say it, but there is a distinct contradiction.”
Matthew: “Because, if you really believed what you say, you’d be out there.”
Matthew: “Out on the street”
Theo: “I don’t know what you mean.”
Matthew: “Yes you do. There’s something going on out there…something that feels like it could be important. Something that feels like things could change. Even I get that. But you’re not out there. You’re in here with me, sipping expensive wine, talking about film, talking about Maoism…Why?”
Theo: “That’s enough.”
Matthew: “Tell me why.”
Theo: “That’s enough.”
Matthew: “Ask yourself why. Because I don’t think you really believe it. I think you buy the lamp (clanking his glass against the Mao lamp), you put up the posters…
Theo: (Grabbing Matthew somewhat aggressively round the throat now that he is lying beside him) “You speak too much.”
Matthew: “Theo, just listen. I think that you prefer when the word together means, not a million…but two.” (Theo continues to half strangle Matthew. Their faces get closer and closer, and Theo presses his body against Matthew’s, to the point where a kiss almost seems imminent, and then Isa interrupts).
And so the looming precariousness, which has hung throughout the film feels that it is approaching an end. There are no more barriers for Matthew to break within himself, and the outside world is slowly and persistently encroaching on the hermetically sealed “quartier des enfants” as its termed in the novel.
After interrupting the drunken evening of conversation between Matthew and Theo, Isa invites them into the family room where she has erected a bastion of childhood nostalgia, and a clear effort to rekindle a sense of unity between her and her brother after their non-exclusive dabblings, as well as seeming like a remanifestation of the same gesture she made by lighting candles at the kitchen table on Matthew’s first night with them. The bastion is no less than a fort made of bed-sheets raised and lit by floor lamps. It is a warm and enchanting sight for Theo who eagerly lunges into the pillows strewn about its floor, exuberant and nostalgic. They bed down for the night in the swathe of pillows, not to awaken fully until the next night. During their deep slumber, in the middle of which Isa pleads with Theo to promise her that, “it’s forever, right? The two of us? I just want you to tell me it’s forever,” the twins’ parents return home, shocked, but not floored, by the devastation of the household. Much as they keep their shock on tiptoe, it is pushed to limits when they discover the young trio in a naked tangle beneath the bed-sheet fort (making some insinuation that they have engaged in a ménage-a-trois). Mother and Father quickly decide to leave, to return at a later time so as to avoid the embarrassment of the rather inclement situation. “Would you like to stay and have dinner with them?” the mother asks with laden sarcasm. The parents’ grave mistake was to sign a check and leave it under a bottle of wine on the coffee table for the children. Isa awakens to find the check in state of confounded disbelief. Once she understands the certainty implicit in the check’s appearance, Isa moves to enact the very plan she declared she would to Matthew from several scenes prior, were her parents ever to uncover the nature of the closeness between her and Theo.
Matthew: “What would you do if your parents found out?”
Isa: “They must never find out,”
Matthew:“I know, but what if they did?”
Isa: “That must never happen.”
Matthew: “I know, but for the sake of argument, lets just say that they did.”
Isa: “I’d kill myself,” she says deadpan. (Matthew chuckles, but realizes she is being utterly truthful)
Isa takes rubber tubing from the kitchen, attaches it to the gas line of the stove, and unfurls it into the living room where she beds herself with the two boys, clutching the tube, tears swelling in her eyes, no sound but the hiss of gas. While she does this, Bertolucci splices in clips from the suicide sequence at the end of Robert Bresson’s Mouchette. Mouchette, a young but utterly dismal and awkward girl, tries to roll herself down a small hill and into the steam in hopes to escape what she feels is a terminally degrading unrewarding existence. It takes two attempts, two almost casually apathetic attempts, before she falls into the stream, leaving the foundering of her body beneath the temperate current to our imagination; no climax, no swelling of strings and emotion, just a meager splash and nothing more. Fortunately for the two parties’ unawares, Matthew and Theo, “the street come in through the window.” A stone comes crashing through the living room window, waking them all in a startle. A riot is erupting out in the street. Isa quickly hides the evidence of her suicide plot, and the three of them, gripped by curiosity, investigate the melee.
Amidst the chanting, “Dans la rue, Dans la rue!” Theo thrusts himself into the milieu of the riot, which comes across as an exaggerated contrariness to Matthew’s observation of his falseness and shallow participation in his own ideology. Theo gets hold of a Molotov cocktail. Matthew vehemently objects. “This is violence” he says pointing at the bottle. Theo doesn’t seem to understand. “We don’t use violence. We do this (kisses Theo), we use this (kisses Isa).” “Arret (stop)!” Theo screams. He clasps Isa’s hand and they rush on to the front line of the riot, taking refuge behind an overturned car, mere yards from an ominous line of riot police, rearing to snap the surface tension. Meanwhile, Matthew, his face turning sour, eyes squinting back tears as his heart breaks inside his chest, turns around dejected in his moral assuredness, disappearing into the roaring crowd, as he had done likewise into the shadows of the hallway when leaving Isa’s room, knowing full well he can do no more.
Theo shatters the tension with a Molotov cocktail bursting in flame just feet from the police line, evoking the moment when Isa’s hair caught on fire as she kissed Matthew goodnight for the first time. If the gas from the stove was the first attempt at suicide, as described in the clip from Mouchette’s bleakly unsentimental finale, this engaging in open street war is the second, and perhaps the successful one, for Mouchette most certainly dies. The police lunge forward in a frenzy, and we can only imagine the consequences, where a war of imitations and unconventional love meets the brutality of a war of fists and principle. “Imitation is suicide,” is imitated indeed.