Was it all a dream?
When Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers opened earlier this year, most of the criticism I read reflected disinterested confusion, some of it accusing the director of a simple-minded nostalgia, most of it unable to get past the film's NC-17 rating. Having finally caught up with the film on the recently released DVD, I'm even more disappointed with the lack of insightful criticism than I was earlier.
Is it a success? It's hard to say, though one of the unusual things about Bertolucci's work is that his failures (1900 and Luna, for example) are sometimes more rewarding for the risks they take. There are so many strands running through The Dreamers that it may take a few viewings to sort them all out: cinephilia, sex, May .68, the other cultural detritus of the 60s, and Cocteau's "Les Enfants Terribles".
I haven't read Gilbert Adair's novel "The Holy Innocents", though the author notes - approvingly - that the film makes many additions to his story (it has even been reported that he rewriting the book to incorporate Bertolucci's changes) but gather from descriptions that it's a revision of Cocteau's "Les Enfants Terribles" (one English translation of which was titled "The Holy Terrors") in the form of an autobiographical account of the author's experiences as a British student in France.
Cocteau's novel (which was filmed by Jean-Pierre Melville in 1948) is about a pair of semi-incestuous siblings playing psychological games in a Paris apartment. Though they adopt friends, they also manipulate them in an almost sadistic manner. It's a magical story, but with a cruel streak.
The Dreamers has a similarly incestuous couple living an intensely aestheticized life in an apartment sanctuary, but in this case their self-absorbed idyll is invaded by history and viewed from the perspective of a third party, a young American student who is pulled into the world as much from his own loneliness as by their magnetism.
One of the most curious scenes comes the absent parents return to the apartment, survey the damage, find the naked trio and, leaving a check behind to keep the kids in groceries, run off as if fearing for their lives.The abandonment of parental authority or its' defeat? And why does it this scene drive Isabelle to attempt suicide? Is she associating her death with Mouchette, or is Bertolucci making the connection?
The film offers little in the way of resolution. Do the events of May bring an end to innocence, a commitment to political change, a break between the romantic Matthew and the newly-committed Theo? Perhaps Bertolucci is trying to do too much and can't really answer his own questions. Much of the charm of The Dreamers is in the asking.
Fortunately, this perceptive review in "Bright Lights Film Journal" by A. Zubatov and Yaniv Eyny puts much of the film in perspective.