Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Children of Godard

When Bernardo Bertolucci accepted the 1989 Best Picture Oscar for The Last Emperor, he made what had to be one of the weirdest pronouncements that staid yearly ritual ever witnessed: "If New York is the Big Apple, Hollywood is the Big Nipple." Everyone laughed heartily before turning to their neighbors and seeing if they had any better idea what he was talking about than they did. The movie -- a bulky, overlong, so-so epic that the film industry figured was about the best it had to offer in a bad year -- had already racked up nine honors by that point in the evening, and Bertolucci later explained that Hollywood seemed "like a big, big breast feeding all of us."

Bertolucci's latest, The Dreamers, isn't going to win any awards but it has at least a couple of other beeg, beeg knee-pulls for him to feed on, aside from the ones on the stately rack of his female lead: movies and Paris, 1968. It gets drunk on its own fervid nostalgia. Truffaut famously said in his later years that the only films that interested him were ones about the love of cinema or the difficulty of making cinema. The Dreamers is a film of cinema love, alright; it is set in the last age when people really could believe life, art and politics are all one, and that Jean-Luc Godard is as much of a revolutionary leader as Mao is an artist. It's a trip to the past and it is not without its fervid charms; neither is it a film that seems to have about it any real sense of discovery.

"I was one of the insatiables, the ones you find sitting close to the screen," says the young American Matthew (Michael Pitt), recalling his heady days in 1968 at the Cinematheque Francais; only in France, he points out, is a theater made like a cathedral -- a church where people come to worship the moving image, from Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor to Godard's Breathless. The selections reflect the eclectic taste of theater head Jacques Langlois, and when he is fired by the Ministry of Culture (as actually happened) cinephiles consider it an act of treason and hold mass protests.

It is in the midst of this upheaval that Matthew meets a pair of soulmates, brother and sister --Théo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green), who likewise believe he is – like the circus performers in Tod Browning's Freaks -- "one of us." The three lives in a world of movies; Isabelle stalks around the room like Garbo in Queen Christina, the three of them race through the Louvre to try to beat the record of the principals in Bande a Part (Godard of course). But Théo and Isabelle aren't, however, quite like Matthew. They're really, really French, for one thing, apparently incestuous – Theo says he and his sister are like "Siamese twins" -- and they approach life the way Godard approached film: spontaneously, with lots of little private references, and a naïve abandon toward revolutionary politics. When one sibling comes up with an obscure reference and the other fails to spot it, there's a penalty, or "forfeit," involved, usually involving sex and movies. When Theo can't name a certain film, Isabelle makes him whack off over Marlene Dietrich's picture while she tickles his ass with a feather-duster; when Isabelle can't come through on a movie, Theo demands that she and Matthew make raw, slippery, Bertoluccian love in front of him. Theo and Isabelle are, to use Godard's phrase, "children of Marx and Coca-Cola"; pampered products of the bourgeois society they say they hate, revolutionaries for the fun of it, living in a permanent adolescence, a Blakean world of guiltless sexy innocence.

Bertolucci works up a kind of dreamy Celine and Julie Go Boating claustrophobia to the lives of these three, and his films always tend to have a kind of erotic charge running through them, even when they didn't have a beauty like Maria Schneider or the extraordinarily endowed Eva Green parading through them naked. But what made his best films, Last Tango in Paris and – call me crazy -- 1900, work was this sense that he himself was on a journey; that part of the reason he was pushing the material so hard was just to see where it would all go, and that's what is missing here. The Dreamers feels a little too planned and prepared; it could use some of the wild zest of the movies these kids keep watching.

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