City Paper is not for tourists
and Joan Churchill
Bernardo Bertolucci showed an early interest in sex and revolution, but he was well into his 50s before he really noticed drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Given that the director has already made a film with a pop-song soundtrack—1996’s Stealing Beauty, which also starred a rock singer’s daughter—it shouldn’t seem all that strange that his latest, The Dreamers, opens with a burble of blissed-out Hendrix.
This time around, Bertolucci is working much closer to home than in such exotic epics as The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky, and Little Buddha. Both the director and The Dreamers’ scripter—British writer Gilbert Adair, who adapted the screenplay from his 1988 novel, The Holy Innocents—actually lived in Paris in 1968, the heady year the film revisits. The young Bertolucci was a devotee of Jean-Luc Godard, several of whose films are excerpted in The Dreamers, and a budding political as well as a cinematic revolutionary. Yet the spirit of that time and place eludes him. Among recent cinematic odes to the New Wave and Paris, Bertolucci’s packs less verve than Jonathan Demme’s The Truth About Charlie or Neil Jordan’s The Good Thief, and less beauty than Godard’s own In Praise of Love.
Like all Bertolucci films from The Last Emperor onward, The Dreamers is primarily in English. Friendless San Diego exchange student Matthew (Michael Pitt) joins “the Freemasonry of cinephiles,” frequently attending the Cinémathèque Française to watch such New Wave favorites as Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor. At the now-legendary demonstration following the French Ministry of Culture’s dismissal of Cinémathèque founder Henri Langlois, Matthew meets glamorous, commanding Isabelle (Eva Green) and then her fiery twin brother, Theo (Louis Garrel, the son of director Philippe Garrel). The mischievous siblings, who speak English well because their mother is British, invite Matthew home for dinner. The morning after a somewhat edgy meal, their parents depart for a month, and the kids ask Matthew to stay in the family’s large but credibly shabby apartment. The bond between the three 20-year-olds soon becomes intense and insular—and sufficiently carnal to merit the first NC-17 rating in more than six years.
As always, it’s impossible to be certain what made the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating squad squirm most uncomfortably. The Dreamers does include both male and female full-frontal nudity, but its depictions of intercourse and masturbation are discreet enough for an R designation. Granted, the movie may be a little too casual about vaginal blood for American tastes, but it’s probably the basic scenario that most scandalized the raters: Isabelle and Theo’s erotic gamesmanship ventures to the brink of incest, and the trio’s friendship is approximately a ménage à trois, albeit an entirely heterosexual one (as well as one in which Theo’s erotic fulfillment is slighted).
Aside from sex, the threesome’s obsession is cinema. Their discussions, trivia challenges, and occasional stunts are punctuated by clips from an array of films, including Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina, Robert Bresson’s Mouchette, Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It, Tod Browning’s Freaks, and that essential talisman of the neo–New Waver, Godard’s Band of Outsiders, another tale of two men and a babe. (Isabelle, Theo, and Matthew even restage the Godard movie’s mad dash through the Louvre.) When Theo wants to explain his growing (and then-fashionable) enthusiasm for Mao, he tells Matthew to think of the Chinese dictator as a filmmaker directing a revolutionary epic. Meanwhile, the May student uprising is under way outside the trio’s apartment—which they barely notice. But The Dreamers does not end in the manner of one of its likely models, Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles, in which obsessive sibling attachment must lead to death. Eventually, the tumult in the streets literally crashes the kids’ fling, saving them from self-absorption and worse.
So the revolution is better than a dinner party? Not exactly. The Dreamers superficially resembles such Bertolucci successes as The Last Emperor and The Conformist, in which a naive young man submits to the suspect machinations of sophisticates. But Pitt, whose Hitler Youth prettiness has already won him roles in such kinky entertainments as Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Larry Clark’s Bully, doesn’t look especially innocent. And the French siblings aren’t as cosmopolitan as they pretend: Isabelle has her childish aspects, and Theo is a fool politically. As in the director’s two previous films, Stealing Beauty and Besieged, the artless American or African visitor proves more savvy than his or her Old World hosts. Matthew is sharp enough to offer the ideal rejoinder to Theo’s argument for China’s Cultural Revolution: If Mao is a filmmaker, then everyone in his movie is an extra.
That riposte is so perfect, in fact, that it rings false. Rather than take either side of 1968’s ideological debate, Matthew approaches the argument ironically—an impeccably contemporary stance that is unlikely to have occurred to any red-blooded adolescent in the age of Hendrix and Ho Chi Minh. Reportedly, Bertolucci tutored his young actors in the late-’60s vibe, but how could they be expected to get it when the director and the scripter don’t? Rather than juicy with possibilities, the movie seems embalmed. Its clips from inspirational films play as mere mementos from an unrecoverable age, suggesting a That’s Entertainment! for the Godard generation. It’s certainly not Bertolucci’s most ponderous work, but the director’s fastidious style and humorless disposition don’t fit into the brave new whirl of jump-cuts, free love, and psychedelic rock. Ultimately, The Dreamers is an utterly conventional tribute to the spirit of unconventionality, and New Wave cameos, bared genitalia, and Joplin, the Doors, and Dylan can’t change that. The film ends with Edith Piaf warbling that she regrets nothing, but “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” would be more apt.
Please allow me—or rather, directors Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill—to introduce Aileen Wuornos, the protagonist of Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer. You may remember her from Broomfield’s 1992 documentary, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer. That film’s portrayal of the Florida prostitute-turned-murderer inspired Patty Jenkins’ Monster, which accepted the story Wuornos told in the earlier of the two docs: that she started killing because she was tortured by one of her johns and feared that he would kill her. Apparently having decided that the only way off death row was to be executed, Wuornos contacted Broomfield 10 years later with a new version of the story: that she killed seven men just because she wanted their money and their cars.
With Florida Gov. Jeb Bush happy to send Wuornos to “meet her creator,” she was dispatched in October 2002. Broomfield conducted the last interview with the doomed killer, but he also played a role in the legal proceedings that led to what a local TV station’s logo blithely titled her “Date with Death”: In an attempt to demonstrate that Wuornos’ original attorney was incompetent, clips from Broomfield’s earlier documentary were played in court during her final appeal. In addition to interviewing Wuornos on several other occasions, Broomfield and Churchill traveled to Troy, Mich., to learn about the killer’s childhood, which would have warped just about anyone. (Let’s just say that incest seems a lot less innocent in Aileen than in The Dreamers.)
Like most Broomfield documentaries, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer is sloppy and inconclusive but intermittently fascinating, based mostly on the bizarre revelations volunteered by the subject and her acquaintances. The filmmaker is either the worst onscreen interviewer in the documentary game or incredibly canny. Sometimes Wuornos seems to be chattering just because Broomfield can’t muster any questions.
A more coherent interview strategy probably wouldn’t have yielded a more lucid film, though, given that Wuornos was clearly a paranoid schizophrenic. She addresses the camera to explain that the cops knew she was a killer all along but let her continue on her murderous spree so they’d have a lurid female-serial-killer case to sell for movie rights. She also protests that she was tortured with “sonic pressure” in prison. Although Bush allowed a brief stay of execution for a psychological exam, it lasted only 15 minutes and deemed her sane. Wuornos doesn’t exactly get the last word, but one of her taunts does resonate: “You sabotaged my ass, society.” CP