BY Shiv Kotecha in Opinion | 04 JAN 24
Featured in
Issue 239

How ‘The Dreamers’ Revealed the Disappointments of a Generation

Twenty years after the film’s release, does it still turn you on?

BY Shiv Kotecha in Opinion | 04 JAN 24

This article appears in the columns section of frieze 239, ‘Re-evaluations

I remember ditching school to see Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003) in the cinema. This wasn’t unusual for me, not that year; like Matthew – played by a pouty-mouthed Michael Pitt, whose opening monologue is a defence of sitting in the cinema front row centre, so as to ‘receive the images first, when they [are] still new, still fresh’ – I also was an impossible-to-sate, bisexual cinephile who believed ‘my real education’ would come from movies that required I transgress some rule or norm to see. The controversial release of The Dreamers made this feat easy. Bertolucci insisted on retaining the full-frontal shots of his barely nubile cast – Pitt, alongside Eva Green (Isabelle) and Louis Garrel (Théo), playing vague but passionate lovers – making it the first major Hollywood film of the 2000s to be distributed with a Motion Picture Association rating of NC-17. All I needed was a friend old enough to buy me a ticket.

I also see how I wasn’t wrong in loving it then: disappointment is temporal, after all, and requires something solid to crush beneath it

It’s February 1968, and the French Ministry of Culture has ousted Henri Langlois, legendary film archivist and co-founder of Paris’s Cinémathèque Française, catalysing a streak of violent demonstrations, rallies and petitions in the months leading up to the general strike. Outside the shuttered doors of the cinema, Matthew meets twins Isabelle and Théo. They invite him to skip the protest and come home with them, first for dinner, and then, in their parents’ absence, for a prolonged sleepover. The many vacant rooms of their bourgeoise apartment become a backlot for the trio to re-enact film history – The Blue Angel (1930), Scarface (1932), King Kong (1933), Breathless (1960) – and, when that charade falls slack, to cling to the charge of infantile sexual fantasy. ‘Pay the forfeit,’ Isabelle instructs Théo when he fails to name a film – and he does so by ejaculating onto a poster of Marlene Dietrich for her and Matthew’s viewing pleasure. Matthew falls in love with both of them, mostly because they are inseparable, until a brick is hurled through the apartment window, shattering with it Matthew’s hope for a happy throuple. The film ends with everyone putting on their pants and confronting the clamour outside, followed by a parting of ways. We see Isabelle and Théo prepare a Molotov cocktail to chuck at the police while Matthew, a pacifist, walks away.

Bernardo Bertolucci, The Dreamers, 2003, film still. Courtesy: Visual Icon

With The Dreamers, Bertolucci returned to the same bout of moral confusion he depicted in the films he made prior to 1968, in which the zeal for political radicalization is effortlessly derailed by the comforts of the too familiar, or by the flat fact of incest. Before the Revolution (1964), for instance, follows college student Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli) as he sublimates his disillusion with the Italian Communist Party by getting with his aunt Gina (Adriana Asti). Or Partner (1968), which stars Pierre Clémenti as both Giacobbe I, a drama teacher, and Giacobbe II, his anarchist doppelganger, who traverse the student movement in Rome in a series of fitfully constructed vignettes. So, too, in The Dreamers, where the scrambling warp of masturbatory time – formalized by citational montage – eclipses messianic time. (As I write this, The Dreamers is unavailable on all major streaming platforms, save for

It is the work of a generation to embarrass itself

On its release, The Dreamers was a perfect representation of my unripe, doughy consciousness. Rewatching it now, the pain I feel is less embarrassing than the boner Matthew tries to hide for much of the film, which doesn’t even make me horny anymore. But, I also see how I wasn’t wrong in loving it then: disappointment is temporal, after all, and requires something solid to crush beneath it; in The Dreamers, generational disappointment is directly felt in its petty re-enactments. In his extended review of the film for The New Yorker, Louis Menand wrote that viewers often require a ‘willingness to suspend sceptical habits of viewing’ to appreciate Bertolucci’s films, which I agree are lush tapestries of sore feeling. I’d push the point further to suggest that, as viewers, we might also need the stomach to enjoy the great disappointments of our own film history. It is the work of a generation to embarrass itself.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 239 with the headline ‘Sore Feeling’

Shiv Kotecha is a contributing editor of frieze. He is the author of The Switch (Wonder, 2018) and  EXTRIGUE (Make Now, 2015), and his criticism appears in 4Columns, Aperture, art-agenda, MUBI’s Notebook and BOMB.