No stranger to controversy, Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci has debuted “The Dreamers” at the Sundance Film Festival here, two weeks ahead of a U.S. release that has already caused a stir over the film’s graphic sex.
The movie — about a French brother, his sister and an American university student engaged in a love triangle during the Paris riots of 1968 — earned an NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, which means no one under 17 years-old will be admitted.
Such a rating often raises the ire of conservative groups and flattens box office sales and recalls the controversy that accompanied the release of what many consider to be Bertolucci’s masterwork, the sexually daring “Last Tango in Paris” in 1973.
But in a telephone interview Wednesday, Bertolucci praised the U.S. distributor, Fox Searchlight, which only last week decided to release “The Dreamers” with the cautionary NC-17. The director also said he hoped the film would lead young adults to question society norms and government rules.
“I hope it’s a change of direction” in film, he said. “I hope there will be more movies not intended for kids (because) those movies can be more liberating, in some ways educating, to view more complex ideas. Otherwise, if we go only for the kids’ stuff, (audience) minds will be soon dried up.”
Bertolucci is considered a master filmmaker for movies like “Last Tango,” 1964’s “Before the Revolution” and his Oscar winning “The Last Emperor” in 1987.
Over the years, he has tackled many taboo topics. In 1979’s “Luna,” he spoke to incest, in 1971’s “The Conformist” a boy’s brush with homosexuality drives him to fascism, and in “Tango” he explored sexual intimacy in an affair of strangers.
“Tango,” which starred Marlon Brando, also carried an adult-only rating, and at the time, some people branded it obscene. But now many deemed one of Bertolucci’s masterworks.
“What I showed then wasn’t being shown by anybody” said the director, “Sometimes you have to break some conventions.”
“The Dreamers,” like “Tango” and “The Conformist,” is set in Paris. Michael Pitt plays an American student in Paris, Matthew, who befriends brother and sister, Theo and Isabelle.
While the parents of Theo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green) are on holiday, the siblings invite Matthew to stay with them in their Paris apartment.
Once there, the three engage in a triangle of sexual adventure and sex play. While the relationship between Theo and Isabelle borders on incest that Matthew finds strange, he nevertheless is drawn into a love affair with Isabelle.
Outside the apartment, the Paris streets have become a war zone with students and workers revolting against the government. Eventually, the outside world breaks into the apartment, forcing the three from their insulated environment into the real world.
Bertolucci uses sex — there is frontal nudity, masturbation and sexual intercourse in the film — to show that the kids were conducting their own sort of 1960’s sexual revolution that questioned society’s conventions, while on the streets of Paris, people are challenging government authority.
The director said that in current times, people have become too conforming, and that he hoped “The Dreamers” would help people see that questioning norms and policies is acceptable. Indeed in the 1960’s, it was a rule, not an exception.
“Today, you never hear the word transgression. Today it is completely forgotten. I want people seeing the movie to know that if you could have been transgressive then, why can’t you be today?” he said.
Sundance is a good place to debut “The Dreamers” in the United States because it is the premier U.S. film festival for independent cinema, but unfortunately back problems kept Bertolucci in London.
“The Dreamers” opens in New York and Los Angeles on Feb. 6, and spreads across the country in the weeks afterward.