- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” is the sort of specialized, art house attraction that can afford the scarlet letter rating of NC-17. The chance of sacrificing a mass audience is extremely remote.

The story is set in motion when Matthew, an American college student played by Michael Pitt, encounters a set of French twins, Isabelle and Theo (Eva Green and Louis Garrel) outside the shuttered entrance of the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris. Their paths cross in February 1968, when massive protests led to the restoration (in April) of Henri Langlois, the legendary director of the film museum. His capricious methods had aroused dissatisfaction in the Ministry of Culture, which tried and failed to replace him.

Soft-spoken and deferential, Matthew proves far more strong-minded and independent than one anticipates after being adopted as a promising plaything by the enfants terribles, who share his devotion to movies but reveal an unwholesome sibling intimacy and rivalry. Matthew is invited to move into their labyrinthine apartment after the parents of Isabelle and Theo depart for a holiday. The guest discovers that he has joined a tempting but also potentially treacherous and demoralizing slumber party.

The brazen tendencies of brother and sister have no appeal for Matthew, a disarming tower of strength as embodied by Mr. Pitt, who should emerge from this venture as a plausible alternative to Leonardo DiCaprio. Matthew seizes the opportunity to sleep with the dishy Isabelle, but he simply refuses to play when the agenda takes a turn for the sadomasochistic. Arguably, the most shocking ironic touch in this chronicle of an underage menage a trois is the discovery of how limited the sexual experience of these young people actually is.

The seemingly pliant newcomer is never a moth to the flame. He has a more stable and sophisticated outlook than his would-be seducers. He also monopolizes the astute arguments in every aesthetic or political dispute with Theo, a latent fanatic last seen trying to embrace the violence of the political riots in Paris in May 1968.

Gilbert Adair adapted his book for Mr. Bertolucci, both of them young and residing in Paris at the time the movie takes place. They’re deviously wedded to foreshadowings of calamity. The sultry temperature surrounding spoiled brats Isabelle and Theo always seems overblown.

We’re encouraged to read Matthew as a survivor (and the likeliest alter ego for Mr. Bertolucci, a sensualist who always finds his way back from obsessive odysseys) and the siblings as possible ‘60s casualties. All three performers are conspicuously naked from time to time, and the level of sexual candor in “The Dreamers” does justify a wary rating.

Nevertheless, Bernardo Bertolucci has few peers when it comes to seductive imagery and atmospherics. This movie offers abundant evidence of his sensuous command of the camera and the settings it traverses. No one could be more graceful while navigating the corridors of a cavernous apartment or arranging triptych compositions for three occupants of a bathtub.

The sex scenes are also consistently overshadowed by deft allusions to films and pop songs. Excerpts from about a dozen movies are integrated with movie parlor games played by the characters. The intercutting is a model of wit and precision, and the soundtrack, which includes standards from Charles Trenet, Bob Dylan and Edith Piaf among many others, should be a keeper, assuming the album incorporates all the highlights heard in the movie.

“Masterpiece” status eludes this Bertolucci picture, but the souvenirs are often savory.

**1/2

TITLE: “The Dreamers”

RATING: NC-17 (Occasional nudity and sexual candor, including explicit simulations of intercourse; occasional profanity and graphic violence.)

CREDITS: Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Screenplay by Gilbert Adair, based on his novel, “The Holy Innocents.” Cinematography by Fabio Cianchetti. Editing by Jacopo Quadri. Some dialogue in French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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