A close, detailed viewing and extended discussion of the context, plot, and themes of Bertolucci’s controversial masterwork.
by Steven Q. Fletcher
Part 1. A few things to consider before watching the film (no spoilers):
Perhaps it is best to begin our reading of The Dreamers (2003) with a brief history lesson, although the film, as will be repeated later for emphasis, is not essentially about history, or politics, or anything else quite so academic, but is instead a coming-of-age story about three youths. However, The Dreamers is set in Paris in the year 1968—a significant moment in history, for it was a time when many in the western world believed that protest, particularly student protest, held the power to force major changes in the way societies’ governing institutions operated.
Revolution of all sorts was in the air: in America, the 1967 Summer of Love’s flower children had shown themselves to be the spiritual inheritors of the alienated bohemians and beatniks who had come before, and in Britain and France—and much of the rest of Europe as well—counterculture musicians, writers, and political activists were calling for an end to the war in Vietnam. But the charges of imperial aggression—warranted or not—were not the only rallying points for the youthful reformers. Denouncing the prevailing culture as corrupt and immoral, they heaped scorn on what they contemptuously labeled “the Establishment,” and turned against the values of the middle class, envisioning instead a “New Republic” based on a more open sexuality, new styles of art such as rock and roll, a revamped cinema, and the use of consciousness-altering drugs.
Preceding the more physical protests to come in 1968, students in certain overcrowded Parisian universities quarreled with school administrators over the right to receive members of the opposite sex in their dormitories—for political and scholastic reasons as well as the more traditional ones. Because of this and other problems, an overflow university was established outside Paris in the working class suburb of Nanterre. Eventually nineteen thousand students were crammed into inadequate facilities, and the school and its neighboring cafés became a fermentation tank for political unrest, fueled by the writings of such idolized figures as Che Guevara and Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (the highly influential la Nouvelle Vague director Jean-Luc Godard even filmed a movie in 1967 entitled La Chinoise—The Chinese—showing a group of French students infatuated with Mao, who eventually translate their new ideas into terrorist activities).
In March of 1968 the students of Nanterre revolted against the administration, and baton-wielding police and rock-throwing students clashed. Afterwards, students and workers alike rallied around an arrested student leader (Daniel Cohn-Bendit) and the wave of protesters spilled out of Nanterre and into Paris. The protests became all-inclusive in nature, railing against all the authority figures the students and young workers considered oppressive, against the consumer-driven lifestyle of the bourgeoisie, and of course against the military policies of various governments—not just that of France.
On May 3rd, the ranks of the protestors swelled as the government reacted harshly to quell the unrest; in a major skirmish more than a hundred protesters were hurt and more than six hundred were carted away by French riot police. You’ll see these policeman reenacted in the movie and shown in archival footage; they are terrifying in their black uniforms and faceless masks, hurling tear gas canisters and striking savagely with their batons from behind a wall of shields held before them like those of the Spartan warriors at Thermopylae.
On May 6th, an even larger demonstration again turned violent, with hundreds more injured and arrested. Classes were suspended at Nanterre and the Sorbonne in Paris, and many workers unions called for general strikes. By mid-May, millions of workers were on strike, and many of the major industries were shut down. Paris became a barricaded city, and travel throughout the country became problematic, if not impossible. The Cannes film festival of 1968 was cancelled. On May 30th, close to half a million protestors marched through Paris chanting “Adieu, de Gaulle!” But the president stood his ground, and, backed by the military, somehow managed to pull the country back from the brink of collapse, and even succeeded in banning several of the left-wing student organizations that had precipitated the crisis.
Very little of these events are present in The Dreamers. But all this pervasive history is there as a living backdrop—one can almost peer around the edges of the screen and see the men in riot gear, hear the students marching in the streets, even catch a whiff of the tear gas. At the beginning of the movie there is a protest happening because Henri Langlois, the founder and director of the Cinémathèque Française (the Paris-based film theater and museum which is the Holy of Holies to our three main characters, cinephiles all) has been removed from office by the government, and the theater barricaded. The actual protest happened on the 14th of February; three thousand people showed up including many famous directors and actors. The police attacked after the protest turned violent; eventually the horrific event shamed the government into reinstating Langlois. In the movie these events make the actions of the authorities personally oppressive to our protagonists, and set into motion the plot of The Dreamers.
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However, the movie, let me now repeat, is not about the revolution of 1968. It is instead about the intense relationships that evolve between three teenagers on the cusp of adulthood in a time of revolution: Matthew, the naïve American visiting France by himself for the first time, and Theo and Isabelle, the sophisticated yet immature twins who have grown up in Paris under the overly permissive care of their father, a famous but increasingly irrelevant French poet.
As mentioned, all three friends are cinephiles—mad for films—and Paris in the sixties was the perfect place to exist for such creatures. It is within the culture of incessant movie-going that they meet, and it is about movies that they ponder, dream, and spend their hours discussing. During The Dreamers many clips of other films are shown to illustrate the inner thoughts of the characters. You can usually understand what is meant by these cinematic quotations: many times the characters themselves identify and explain them. However, I will address some of the more important filmic allusions in my analysis of the film.
The three friends find themselves thrown together more and more in a special time of self-discovery and revolution, and eventually find themselves living in a kind of dream world that is at once beautiful, perilous, and unique—and as fleeting as all days of youth and love’s first dawning.
In the film’s “making of” documentary, director Bernardo Bertolucci has this to say about the time period which he himself lived through and has re-imagined in The Dreamers:
I don’t want to say that 1968 was a magic moment . . . but almost. The fact is that we were, let’s use the word “dreaming” together cinema, politics, music, jazz, rock and roll—and sex—and the discovery of how these things could be conjugated together and how they could interact between each other, how they could really be mixed up in a kind of harmony that I don’t see today.
This film, then, is an attempt to portray a very special kind of dreaming—a kind of dreaming that is only possible when the world seems balanced on a knife’s edge of change, when one is young and all things are new, all things are possible, and every moment’s now is all that there is—a time when one doesn’t have a lifetime of painful experience to tell one that certain things simply cannot—or should not—be done.
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