Thursday, March 18, 2004

"Un souvenir qui me poursuit..." 

I've been getting very involved with the various versions of The Dreamers since withdrawing from the cinema at 1.30 in the morning two weeks ago in almost drunken high spirits, demanding of the anarchist and revolutionary graffiti on Oxford walls why it wasn't translating into action. I spent a very pleasant day on Tuesday dashing my way through the latest book version, sitting in the sun in this early spring. I'd been hoping to find Gilbert Adair's original, The Holy Innocents, but it's long out of print and now supplanted by this, part original, part novelisation.

Unusually, I prefer the film. It begins in the Cinémathèque Française. Michael Pitt as Matthew, the American, is narrator, setting the scene of the regular cinéphiles in their natural environment. This then moves to arriving at the Cinémathèque to find it closed, with a demonstration going on outside. The first of many beautiful moments in the film happens, as Bertolucci flashes the scene to and from this reconstruction and some newsreel footage of the same scene as it really happened in '68. The tension in both scenes is palpable, the colour giving life to the passion of the grainy grey.

This then melts into the main scene - for our central characters - as Matthew approaches two fellow film buffs at the gates. He's not met them before, but they recognise each other, and the pair, who Matthew had thought were lovers, but (or, rather, and) turn out to be brother and sister, convince him, in the absence of a real film, to act one out instead. They become the trio from Bande à Part, dashing through the Louvre in record time, with the scene again flashing back and forth from the original.

This move between our action and the films and events to which it refers occurs throughout the film, a dazzling wash of cinema and history. As a film fan, I loved it, though I quite understand why those who don't recognise any of the references might find it pretentious (but this film really is a film for the sort of people it depicts in the film. An insiders thing, where cinéphiles are still unbearably hip). I recognised shockingly few of the references, but the effect was exciting enough nonetheless, as, for instance, the twins come out of the Louvre chanting 'one of us, one of us' at Matthew, as Freaks plays alongside. The few bits I did recognise showed me just how exciting this would be for someone who knew it all, as a terribly clever reference to the ending of Mouchette late in the film, while Je ne regrette rien played in the background, simply took my breath away. Sublime...

At one point in the film I decided to start taking notes, and simply wrote - '1968, Keaton/Chaplin argt, Janis - oh yes!' I was so happy just to see so many of my favourite things brought together in one scene, as Janis Joplin played in the background of Théo's bedroom, posters of Mao and film stars all over the wall, and the trio argue it out over whether Buster Keaton or Chaplin is superior. The film creates an air of magic all over the screen, as the Dreamers retreat into their own mad world, stakes raising between them all the time, with les évènements building up just outside the window.

The soundtrack is Janis, Bob Dylan, Hendrix, Cream, The Doors; this different from the book, which has only one perpetual background song, the song of 'the game', Charles Trenet's Que reste-t-il de nos amours? The change is typical of the film, which allows the main characters to be part of the spirit of the times, with Théo in particular entering into their world in abandonment of his normal student activism, his friends asking him why he's not around anymore, his father, and eventually Matthew, teasing him for his radicalism which manifests itself only in speech. This works to create some of the resentment in his character, present also in the book in a different way (for the film removes all but a small part of the tension between Matthew and Théo), but is perhaps a little incoherent, since part of the point, in the novel, is that the three have been missing what's going on just outside them, completely unaware of it and screened from the world in their Cinématheque and then their games.

The reminders of the real world are there in both film and book, however. The film does this more sharply than the book, making full use of the medium by having the camera pan out into the streets below and then into real newsreel footage of some of the riots. The ending in both is an emergence of sorts into the real world, though the book ends very differently from the film, with the three emerging from their slumbers into the real world in a sharp climax - "debout les damnés de la terre!" - leaving them to reminisce bitter-sweetly in the cinema when it reopens. The film has their relationship crescendo and perhaps collapse, a question mark for its ending as the credits rise in reverse.

The book is slick and interesting, lots of cultural non-film references thrown into the narrative which aren't in the film and a more detailled background to the characters. But the film wins, playing the role of another Cinema Paradiso, a love letter both to film and to the Paris of 1968. For instance, as Matthew and Isabelle kiss on a date, the shot fades out in typical cheesy style, circling in to the point of their faces meeting and then disappearing. The references fit every time, There May be Trouble Ahead playing on their first morning together, The Spy as Matthew enters Isabelle's room. At one point they refer to history as a movie, where everyone's an extra, summing up the whole feel of the film.

The atmosphere throughout is taut and sexy, an onslaught of young excitement and romance, through the distorting lens of the period and of their own world. The sex is done matter of factly, but in other ways its more subtle than the book; the twins' romance is not stated so sharply, the frisson between Matthew and Théo only slight. This isn't to back away from its content, but rather to place it in a more enticing light. A knowing sort of incest, a shy sort of homosexuality. Criticising it for its full frontal nudity seems to be missing the point, as most of the criticisms have done to my mind. This is a wonderful film and a great read, both of which I recommend very highly.

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