History

The Naked and the Nude

Bernardo Bertolucci gives Paris one more chance

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To Mao Zedong's infamous list of things a revolution is not—it's not a dinner party or doing embroidery, for instance—we can now add, courtesy of Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci and his new film, The Dreamers, a few other things a revolution isn't: It's not a housewares catalog or a fashion show, it's not a membership to Netflix or a remake of The Royal Tenenbaums.

For while The Dreamers is surely all those things, one thing it's not is revolutionary. A story of quasi-incestuous, international young love set in Paris at the time of the 1968 student riots, it tries hard to convince us that it is revolutionary, just as it tries to keep us awake with the all-nude sex scenes that earned the film an NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

But what's scandalous about The Dreamers is not the almost-affair between the film's French brother and sister, Théo and Isabelle, nor the not-so-shocking way it flirts with the kinda-sorta homosexual attraction between Théo and Matthew, its American protagonist. No, what The Dreamers hides in its heart is the way its existence depends on the restrictions flouted by its characters. Without the anti-stigma of the NC-17 rating, The Dreamers couldn't exist at all. Bertolucci sees the picture as a lesson for today's kids about the free culture, free thinking, and free love that flourished for a shining moment in the dreamworld of '68, and he might be onto something: Contemporary teenagers, lacking extensive direct experience of Baby Boomer self-glorification, may warm up to the ancient struggles of the sixties. But the problem here isn't so much the outdated content as the outmoded way of selling Highbrow to a popular audience.

These are the kind of French postcards that come with a mandatory lecture about the good old days from the dirty old man who's selling them. More than thirty years have passed since the debut of Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris and the combo of left-wing rhetoric and frank sexuality is still the director's stock in trade. A hero from the golden age of "Swedish erotica"—when art cinema's function was to deliver blondes in fountains—he may end up as the last of the 1960s big-budget auteurs who still believes art sold blister-packed with sex, or vice versa, can capture the box-office imagination. In 1999, Stanley Kubrick tried the same old-guy move with Eyes Wide Shut. It was edited and digitally altered so it could receive an R rating. To add insult to injury, Warner Brothers also cut an orgy-set recitation from the Bhagavad-Gita so as not to offend Hindus.

When the circus-cage coupling of Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider earned Last Tango an X rating in 1972, the subtleties the NC-17 rating was created to protect were invisible to the MPAA. Back then, pornography was pornography. Maybe audiences saw erotic philosophy in Brando's cry of "Bimbo-o-o-o!" but it mattered little to the MPAA whether critics said Brando's howl was art (or for that matter, free speech). What's the difference between Last Tango's X rating and The Dreamers' NC-17? In the early 1970s newspapers were still willing to carry ads for X-rated movies and for the kind of theaters they were shown in, and TV advertising didn't matter as much to studios like Fox, the distributor of The Dreamers, as it does today.

Last Tango's X rating helped it at the box office, gaining notoriety for the film and delivering that special frisson audiences feel when they're seeing something they've been told is naughty. Presumably The Dreamers' NC-17 will achieve the same results. Yet there is a gap between the two films that isn't just the one spanning the 32 years between them. Last Tango was a film that, whatever its murky politics, at least wanted to push the medium into places it hadn't gone before. By contrast, The Dreamers is a film that has locked itself in a cell to make a plea for its own release. Without the NC-17 rating, which itself was created to distinguish between pornography with a small "p" and pornography with a capital "A," it would be of no interest to the American market at all.

The man who made Stealing Beauty, knows this; it's his formula. He presents the audience with nudes, not porn. The sex scenes in The Dreamers are tame by the exacting standards of current pornography. Even when his characters are mucking about in menstrual blood, it's a very artistic mucking-about. The rest of the film is padded with clips from other, better (much better) films. So what's left? The way Bertolucci's half-dressed characters insert themselves into these films as the soundtrack plays Steve Miller or the Grateful Dead reveals the film for what it is, Bertolucci's Forrest Gump, a fantasy about history Bertolucci is telling his grandkids. The film is a kind of toothless propaganda. "Make love, not war," it mumbles.

That's why, with the exception of a silent clip from Jean-Luc Godard's Band of Outsiders, almost all the other film scenes used are from recognizable pre-World War II American classics like Fred Astaire musicals. Bertolucci imitates Godard's famous Louvre scene, but ends up below the level of John Hughes, who at least added something to Godard-inspired cinematic museum-going in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Bertolucci's version of 1968 has exactly the depth of the Happy Days version of the 1950s. The film winks at that supposedly uptight decade when Matthew and Isabelle take a break from hot sex to go self-consciously on a '50s-style date. The Dreamers incessantly refers to things that are just familiar enough not to bother anyone. To stoke the perceived prejudices of his American audience, Bertolucci even stoops to the level of making fun of the French for liking Jerry Lewis.

Where has Bertolucci been? In a promotional interview from last week's Time Out New York, Bertolucci says he has "a feeling that, today, the word transgressive is a word that nobody even uses," as if that very word isn't one that's uttered every two seconds in this country. More mysterious than Bertolucci's obliviousness, at least on the surface, is a scene in The Dreamers in which Isabelle and Théo's parents return home and find their kids asleep with Matthew in a tent the naked trio has set up in the living room. Choosing not to wake the sleeping cherubs, maman et papa instead write a fat check and leave it on the table so the trois can continue their ménage. Isabelle finds the check and spontaneously decides to gas the three in a murder-suicide that's only unsuccessful because a rock breaks a window and wakes up Théo and Matthew to the revolution in the streets. The scene is heavy with meaning—the children have emerged from their cinematic reverie into the reality of a world on fire. What will they do now? Will they make more love, or will they go in for the violence trip? This three-way version of the expulsion from Eden can't possibly be all that Bertolucci was after for the preceding two hours, can it?

Unfortunately, it can. But beneath it there's something else. Matthew, Isabelle and Théo hole up in an apartment and do nothing but discuss movies and have sex because they have their parents' permission to, and it's permissions that are at the heart of The Dreamers. Bertolucci seems to criticize the parents terribles for wrapping their children in a bourgeois cocoon, but that's not the kind of permission this film is really about. Instead, it's about the permissions that Bertolucci had his producers pay for so The Dreamers could include songs by Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, film clips of Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin, paintings from the Louvre and pictures of Marlene Dietrich. The world Isabelle, Théo, and Matthew inhabit isn't the Paris of 1968, but today's world, the one where they have to ask permission from some authority to do much of anything. This paternalistic movie that pretends to love freedom so much proves instead that what it really loves are the kinds of sounds and images vetted by lawyers. It says to a generation of music-downloaders stuck in copyright hell: Make a new world, but first clear the rights.

The Dreamers has much in common with another Paris-set collage that wants us to know that what the world needs now is love. That film is Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge. Both films are fashion shows about history which present piles and piles of expensive stuff for our delectation. Moulin Rouge, however, neglects to include a Chairman Mao lamp among its kitsch detritus. Bertolucci doesn't have the guts to use a clip from a political film in The Dreamers—he might actually have to say something about that—but he does throw in this item from the Archie McPhee catalog. Pretty strange coming from the man who flattered Chinese communism so he could make The Last Emperor.

With the kind of false bravery that defines this film, by its end Bertolucci admits there are a few problems with Maoist conformity. Mao's followers all receive instructions from a single book, Matthew points out to Théo in the 1968 of The Dreamers, the American unironically playing dove to a French hawk. Bertolucci, free spirit, no Maoist, would have us believe his instructions issue from elsewhere.

Earlier in the film, the three cinephiles catch a screening of Tod Browning's Freaks. The chant from that film, "we accept you, one of us," a dark celebration of nonconformity, is reduced to a slogan by the baby-boomerish Bertolucci, a plea for unity. The film's denouement asks us to question that, but the message overwhelms reflection. Act like I did when I was your age, Bertolucci nags in The Dreamers. I'm for freedom, I'm for love, now go up to your room and have sex, dammit—and don't come down until you've listened to both sides of that Janis Joplin album I bought you.