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Sex is secondary in NC-17 ‘Dreamers’

Vibrant movie is for and about people who love film
/ Source: The Associated Press

Much ado has been made of the NC-17 rating “The Dreamers” has earned for its “explicit sexual content.”

But the sex in Bernardo Bertolucci’s new film isn’t even sexy, really, and it’s not much more graphic than the frolicking you’d find if you turned on Cinemax after about 11 at night.

Like Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris” — which “The Dreamers” resembles in many ways — the sex is more a means of escape, seemingly without intending to arouse the audience.

In that 1972 film (which was shocking in its day but now seems tame, what with the baring of areola accouterments at the Super Bowl and all), Marlon Brando used sex to avoid dealing with his wife’s suicide, and Maria Schneider locked herself inside a Paris apartment with him and let him use her to avoid dealing with her own fiance.

In “The Dreamers,” which screenwriter-novelist Gilbert Adair has jokingly called “First Tango in Paris,” twins Isabelle and Theo (Eva Green and Louis Garrel) and their new American friend, Matthew (Michael Pitt), use sex to avoid the outside world — an increasingly tumultuous Paris during spring 1968 — as well as what’s going on inside, where they’re in serious denial about growing up.

There’s a lot going on here, which Bertolucci blends seamlessly; “The Dreamers” is constantly evolving and surprising.

It’s a coming-of-age story and a story of first love and first heartbreak. It’s a vibrant film for and about people who love film. And it’s all set against a political backdrop in which students barely in their 20s are willing to risk their lives for a cause they don’t seem to understand fully, simply because they want to be a part of something.

Performances, imagery shine
Isabelle and Theo are among them when they first meet Matthew, but they quickly retreat into their labyrinthine apartment while their parents are on a monthlong vacation, drawing their new friend in with them.

There’s an icky vibe about the twins when we first see them chain-smoking among the cineastes, which is reinforced the more time Matthew spends with them. They kiss on the lips, they lie naked in Theo’s bed, they take baths together. On its surface, it looks incestuous, but in time it becomes clear that their behavior is more infantile.

The introduction of Matthew shakes up everything. They challenge him to take part in their movie trivia games, with the penalties for losing becoming increasingly sexual and humiliating. Their games can be thrilling, too; Bertolucci beautifully mixes clips from films he loves, including Godard’s “Band of Outsiders” and “Blonde Venus” starring Marlene Dietrich, with the trio giddily re-enacting them.

But as Matthew slides into the bathtub with them, he finds himself attracted to them both, though he becomes intimate with Isabelle.

And who could blame him? Green is a gorgeous, provocative actress who’s startlingly assured in her film debut; Garrel really could be Green’s twin with his dark, striking looks and mysterious demeanor.

Pitt, who resembles Leonardo DiCaprio, is a perfectly androgynous fit for them both. He has big blue eyes with long eyelashes and full red lips (upon which Isabelle tries to apply lipstick), but he’s also lean and muscular.

Some of their scenes together do get uncomfortably pretentious, including one in which Isabelle and Matthew have sex on the kitchen floor while Theo cooks eggs and pretends to ignore them.

But again, the sex is secondary to the performances and the imagery in “The Dreamers,” even though it’s what everyone is talking about.