Music, politics, sex, and cinema: For the young characters in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers, these are the four corners of any world worth living in.
Matthew (Michael Pitt) is an American in Paris, ostensibly there for a year to study French but really avoiding the Vietnam War. He hangs out at the Cinematheque Franáaise as part of a "freemasonry of cinephiles," film buffs who gather to gaze up in rapture as scenes from, say, Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor, pour from the screen. It's there that Matthew befriends twins Theo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green, every bit as coolly beautiful as Godard's muse, Anna Karina, with whom she is visually compared). Theo and Isabelle have spotted Matthew at all the Nicholas Ray screenings and are perhaps consciously trying to construct one of those triangles of smart, attractive young people so common in new wave films (Band of Outsiders, Jules and Jim, etc.).
These characters are so movie-mad that they constantly incorporate references from their favorite films into their lives (Howard Hawks' Scarface, Godard's Breathless, and Josef von Sternberg's Blonde Venus making crucial appearances), and when they do, Bertolucci apes this tendency by splicing the referenced scenes into his film (Paul Muni getting gunned down, Jean Seberg hawking the New York Herald-Tribune, Marlene Dietrich in a gorilla suit).
It's a lovely, skillful gambit, one best illustrated by an ecstatic sequence in which Isabelle and Theo convince a reluctant Matthew to help them recreate a scene from Band of Outsiders, in which that film's coed trio races through the Louvre. Bertolucci cuts swiftly between homage and inspiration until Isabelle, Theo, and Matthew burst out onto the museum steps, where they all embrace and Isabelle and Theo delightedly chant "One of us! One of us!" to their new friend, the reference to Tod Browning's Freaks made explicit by Bertolucci. By the time everyone spills into the street and Bob Dylan's "Queen Jane Approximately" spills from the soundtrack, the movie is as drunk on culture as its characters.
This is the film's sugar high, but as celebratory as the sequence is, The Dreamers balances a helpless appreciation for its characters' verve with an equally unsparing critique. The film's title is purposeful and ambivalent, simultaneously admiring and gently mocking.
The film is set in May 1968, when French students and workers united for a near revolution. But while Theo and Isabelle are surely "children of Marx and Coca-Cola," in Godard's famous phrase, they spend their days closed up in their parents' apartment, quoting films, rather than being out in the street.
Matthew functions as a voice of reason, as something of an audience/director stand-in. He's drawn to the world that Theo and Isabelle have created for themselves but also sees through it. He not only gets the better of Theo in the pair's frequent cultural arguments, understanding why Keaton beats Chaplin and Hendrix beats Clapton but finds faults in the Maoism his French friends fetishize.
But as central as culture and politics is to the film, it is sex that Bertolucci uses to confront the core truths about his characters, much as he did in his even more controversial Last Tango in Paris. As in that film, the sexuality of The Dreamers is frank, graphic, and earthy -- rated NC-17, The Dreamers makes provocative use of just about every bodily fluid imaginable -- but it is also emotionally true and used to further the story. The film's borderline incestuous mÇnage-a-trois (the incest more suggested than established) serves to symbolize both the intoxicating liberation and deluded limitations of these characters and the world they inhabit.
If a poem is a petition and a petition is a poem, as a key piece of the film's dialogue attests, then Shock Corridor is Theo and Isabelle's revolution and Le Revolution is their shock corridor. That way of conceiving the world makes for enticing epigrams. But, as Matthew (and Bertolucci) understands, life is not a movie.
When Errol Morris, wearing cloth sneakers and what looked like a rental tux, bounded up the Oscar steps a couple of weeks ago to accept the Best Documentary award for his latest film, The Fog of War, he chastised the Academy for taking so long to recognize his work. The immodesty may have seemed distasteful to some viewers, but look back through Morris' extraordinary career and it's clear his arrogance is earned. With an oeuvre that includes films such as the whimsical, unnerving legal investigation The Thin Blue Line, the equally sad and hilarious pet-cemetary profile Gates of Heaven, and the sublimely meditative Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, Morris may rival Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman as America's greatest living filmmaker.
The Fog of War, essentially a two-hour interview with former Kennedy and Johnson administration Secretary of Defense Robert McNamera, isn't Morris' greatest film, but it might be the most pertinent film that will screen locally this year. This is partly because one can't imagine the current administration asking the kind of thoughtful questions McNamara ponders here and partly because McNamara's "best and brightest" certitude in the film's file footage screams "Donald Rumsfeld." In warning against U.S. unilateralism, McNamara says, "If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merits of our cause, we'd better reexamine our reasoning." He's talking about the mistakes of Vietnam, but that isn't what you'll be thinking about.
The film mixes copious interview segments (Morris has created a technology that allows him to interact directly with his subject while his subject looks directly into the camera) with reams of file clips and, most revealingly, declassified White House tapes (where you hear LBJ voice his desire to "kill 'em" in Vietnam). The film is structured as "11 Lessons From the Life of Robert McNamara," which include "empathize with your enemy" (so that maybe you can understand why you're seen as an invader rather than a liberator) and "rationality will not save us," which is a hard pill to swallow when McNamara discusses the Cuban missile crisis: "It was luck that prevented nuclear war. Rational individuals came close to the total destruction of their societies and that danger exists today."
Whatever your feelings about McNamara, who has been involved with or presided over atrocities (including the firebombing of Tokyo in WWII, in which 100,000 civilians were killed), here he presents a thorough, unsparing, and necessary meditation on the uses and abuses of military might and the limits of human intelligence and judgment.
"Any military leader who is honest will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power," McNamara says at the outset of the film. "He's killed people, unnecessarily. I think the human race needs to think more about killing."
And no better time than now.