Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers

By Amitava Nag • Published on April 25, 2011


[B]ernardo Bertolucci’s 2003 film The Dreamers is a tribute to cinema. It’s mainly a tribute to the European school of cinema which had been critically acclaimed and inspirationally followed across the globe. Hence it doesn’t need any time to hook onto it. For film buffs of India and the other Third world countries, this surely works – nostalgia and associations flood in making the viewing experience quite worthwhile in most of the case. This also reminds of two very interesting and subtly different films which also pay tribute to the motion picture – Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1998) and Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Once Upon a Time, Cinema (1992). The latter pays tribute to the Iranian film history of the silent age. It’s quite unfortunate that in spite of being the biggest cinema industry of the world, it’s hard to find an epical re-take of the country’s cinematic ingenuity.

This review is an insulated view of the Bertolucci film with a hope that future Indian film-makers get inspired to lay their hands on the treasure trove called the Indian Film Industry.

A lengthy introduction!

In 1968, Luis Walter Alvarez of USA won the Nobel Prize in Physics for “the discovery of a large number of resonance states, made possible through his development of the technique of using hydrogen bubble chamber and data analysis.” A little elaboration of the bubble chamber will let us understand that this is, in common terms, nothing but a vessel with transparent fluid which is almost at its boiling state. When an ionizing particle passes through such a bubble chamber, bubbles are formed along its trajectory due to boiling of the liquid, which can then be photographed and statistically analyzed. In essence, Alvarez’s research allowed nuclear scientists to record and study the short lived particles created in particle accelerators.

The reason for such a prelude for a film critique seems absurd in the beginning. However if we delve a little further we will try to understand the analogy. It is ironical that the reason cited by the Nobel academy has so much correlation with the actual state of things world wide, in 1968. Thus, the world becomes a bubble chamber where there are so many ‘resonance’ states (which at times are radical to say the least) – the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968 that was suddenly ended by the invasion of Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia, double assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy in the USA, ten thousand demonstrators protesting outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago, USA, around eighty thousand march in protest of the Vietnam War in London who were mauled down by mounted police,  the aftermath of the death of Che Guevara a year back, the ongoing Vietnam War, the formation of the All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries (AICCCR – which adopted two salient strategies for its operations – ‘Allegiance to the armed struggle and non-participation in the elections’), the student riot in Paris, France which soon was merged with the general strike of the workers in protest of inadequate wages — the list is even longer.

Hence it is really interesting to read a film which is set up in the backdrop of 1968 Paris student revolution – The Dreamers by Bernardo Bertolucci. More so, because Bertolucci deliberately brought in actual footage as well as enactment of the cinephiles’ demonstrations outside the Cinematheque Francaise against the dismissal of its creator Henri Langois by Andre Malraux, De Gaulle’s Minister of Culture. These are the opening moments of the film which sets expectations about the director’s take on the days of 1968 Paris. We find Matthew, an American who is a cine fanatic getting friendly with a twin – the alluring Theo and his glamorous yet seductive sister Isabelle. Soon these three forms a group – what eventually unfolds is a homo-erotic drama of carnal love, longing and incestuous fervor between them (an echo of Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles) interspersed with some magnificent montage of earlier films (the director’s tribute to cinema?) – Alas, 1968’s Paris moves back and only resurfaces in the closing sequence of the film.

Depiction of Kinship Libido: the public vs. the private

In his seminal “The Psychology of the Transference” Carl Jung writes:

“Everyone is now a stranger among strangers. Kinship libido-which could still engender a satisfying feeling of belonging together, as for instance in the early Christian communities-has long been deprived of its object. But, being an instinct, it is not to be satisfied by any mere substitute such as a creed, party, nation, or state. It wants the human connection. That is the core of the whole transference phenomenon, and it is impossible to argue it away, because relationship to the self is at once relationship to our fellow man, and no one can be related to the latter until he is related to himself.”

We will try to read the traits of kinship libido in this film.

Majority of the reel time is taken in the slow exploration of the self-imposed isolation of Mathew, Theo and Isabelle in the twin’s apartment once their parents leave to visit the countryside. During Matthew’s first night in their apartment he spies on them sleeping together naked – the voyeuristic peek disturbs Matthew as he becomes confused about his impending relation with the duo. Later on in a defining moment of the film, Matthew will come to know that the twins were not ‘lovers’ (atleast, they never had sex!!). As days pass, the trio locks them up even further from the outside world; they play games, act out roles from films and test each other’s knowledge. They, in this sense live in their dreams, in a world which is remotely placed from the current affairs. In one outstanding scene (I will discuss certain similar sequences and scenes in the next section) Isabelle and Theo challenge Matthew to help them break the record time for running through the Louvre established in Band of Outsiders. Bertolucci gets back and forth between Godard’s film and his own and in this fusion the earlier film as if acts as a dream memory for the characters – a powerful symbol of the ‘dream’ image associated to cinema in the minds of these Parisians as well interpreting if it’s a dream of the present film as well. The win in the race ensured that Mathew got the passport to enter the ‘world’ of the twins as they chant – ‘We accept you, one of us!’ As the three celebrate their victory march, Bertolucci cuts to Tod Browning’s Freaks where a group of deformed characters are singing this, loud and harsh. Much later, as audience, we will be able to correlate the connection between this film and the present one – the ‘freakish’ state of mind of the twins which Mathew eventually challenges. Soon, an undercurrent of psycho-analytical tussle of sexual rivalry ensues and which started as a Mathew-Isabelle bonding soon drifts to a more stable Theo-Isabelle pairing. This is embodied in a bath sequence where Isabelle and Theo wish to shave Mathew’s manhood – turning him to the child of their desire or else, transgressing him as a ‘freak’.

Coming back to the opening quote of Jung, the twins are basically entrapped in the psychoanalytical kinship libido, in other words, they are in an uroboric state. This is a ‘natural’ state in childhood but to become ‘adult’ this libido needs to be broken for the individuals to grow up separately instead of clinging to each other in a cocoon which disallows their individual as well as collective growth. This is the unconscious state and hence self-reliant and self-sufficient in its close world. As days pass on, Matthew will eventually realise that the twins live in a world of their own where Mathew is also another toy – helping them to continue their incest uroboric state.

French film director Francois Truffaut who had been an influential figure of the New Wave of the ‘60s had once said –

“I also believe that every film must contain some degree of ‘planned violence’ upon its audience. In a good film, people must be made to see something that they don’t want to see; they must be made to approve of someone of whom they had disapproved, they must be forced to look where they had refused to look. ”

Being an admirer of Truffaut, Bertolucci also, seems to tread similar paths – nudity has never been made lurid in this film. On the contrary, taking cue from Truffaut’s belief, the on-screen nudity at times lingered rather longer than being sensationalized, thereby making it as a common portrait of the film. And, there is substantial male frontal nudity as well to balance the female part – thereby ripping off the possibility of a dominant male gaze on the female body. However, saying this, the female body (Isabelle’s) was the subject of gaze of Mathew who in turn represents the audience at large. But this look in many ways is devoid of sexual urge, rather it is that of an anatomist’s curiosity. The representation of sexuality plays an important role in this film in placing itself as the ‘private’ as opposed to the ‘public’ (the 1968’s revolutionary Paris). These polar opposites are also symbolized as the home as opposed to the streets and as mentioned, Mathew spearheads the audience in intruding the ‘personal’ (dream) and ‘private’ (reality) spaces in the lives of these hermetically sealed twin couple. In reference to Before the Revolution as well as Last Tango in Paris, it can be observed that in both places there is this eternal turmoil in trying to flee from reality, either through sex or in listless loitering and pretentious posturing as ‘intellectuals’ or submerging in the artificial world of movies.

Theo once said that they were Siamese twins conjoined in the mind – in essence the film finally turns out to churn the same old clichéd plot – the war over a woman where Theo gains the mind and Mathew the body (initially). Looking at a different angle, Theo and Isabelle are basically the same unit, the mind and body of one object (the uroborus) wherein Mathew is the external stimulant – drawn closer and then finally stranded on the street. To the audience, hence, Bertolucci delivers a fertile space to ponder where a luscious girl loses her virginity and gets locked in a lunging kiss smeared with blood and an enigmatic shot of a lock of Isabelle’s hair catching fire.

A tribute to cinema

In a very important moment of the film when Mathew first takes out Isabelle on a date, and they end up in the movie theatre, he doesn’t sit in the front rows which he always used to sit, rather he prefers the back rows citing, front rows are for those ‘who don’t have anyone’. Ironically it also refers to his state of affairs some time ago. Interestingly, at the start of the film in Mathew’s voice over we hear life ‘bursting through the scene’ for him. It seems he now wants to sit back and observe from a distance, his date with dreaming is over.

As referred earlier as well, this film is studded with many finer classic moments borrowed from yesteryear films which Bertolucci has mixed so aptly that those scenes also become part of this film – they have a statement to make. One already mentioned is the Band of Outsiders running through the Louvre. In another, Isabelle imitates the memory scene from Queen Christina as we hear the original soundtrack. In another later sequence, Theo and Mathew draw themselves into a pointless ‘who-is-better’ debate taking Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. In the same sequence, Theo talks about Mao and the Red Guard and is all for revolution and as audience we understand the vacuum in his beliefs as he is reluctant to shed his cosy environment. On the contrary Mathew also turns out to be equally confused when Theo charges him about his ambiguous stance in the Vietnam War trying to justify it but himself not joining the troops. In another brilliant shot, Matthew asks Isabelle when she was born and she answers, “I entered this world on the Champs Elysees in 1959, and my very first words were, ‘New York Herald Tribune!’” Almost synchronized is the cut to Jean Seberg selling the newspaper in Godard’s  Breathless – a direct reference of Isabelle’s positioning, she is the child of the French New Wave. There are a number of direct musical scores that were used from Pierrot le fou and The 400 Blows. In another funny scene during the bonding phase of the trio, Isabelle enacts a scene in white clothes from Blonde Venus as well as impersonating the character that Greta Garbo played in Queen Christina. There were also references and enactments from Scarface, Top Hat (mention of a tap dancer), Sunset Boulevard (Isabelle puts on sunglasses imitating Gloria Swanson) , Nadine Nortier’s suicide in Mouchette along with the inimitable James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause which also points to similar restlessness amongst the youth of the USA.

Musically as well, the film showed the smart usage of Bob Dylan mixed with Jimi Hendrix (Third stone from the Sun) and the favourite Charles Trenet – Albert Lasry’s La Mer which acts as a defining piece symbolizing Isabelle’s embracing of Mathew and her rejecting him as well. In the scene where Theo and Mathew debate on Keaton and Chaplin, Mao and Vietnam, Isabelle didn’t take part in the rage which soon turned out to be jealous outburst of both, camouflaged behind their sophisticated veneer – the background score used was Jimi Hendrix’s Hey Joe (which depicts a lover preparing to shoot ‘his’ woman for taking another guy!!).


Near the very end of the film a rock is thrown through the window where this trio was sleeping. That marked their wakeup call from their dream to the reality – the revolution of the streets ‘bursts through’ the window. Is this an ‘awakening’ which the director wants us to believe – I doubt it, since throughout this callous philosophical standing of the central characters, we as audience, can feel the director’s sympathy for them. There is no harm in it even though the side-taking ponders over being pretentious at times. However, as I read the tumultuous years of 1968 now, I cannot help but lament that none of the trio sang with Paul McCartney “Hey Jude, you’ll do, the movement is on your shoulders”.

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One Response to “Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers”

  1. Tanmay says:

    Nice analysis much less a review.

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