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COMMENTARY

'Dreamers' is an elegy to French cinephiles

March 05, 2004|Michael Wilmington | Chicago Tribune

People who love movies tend to make up an international community, a universal melting pot of all backgrounds, genders, races and classes. They are a spiritual clan who speak together a common tongue -- a language of images, personalities and shared passions, of buried treasures and pleasures, of art high and low.

They are the children of the revolution and the grandchildren of Charlie Chaplin, Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith, the acolytes of Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Jean Renoir. And they are also, many of them, secret members of a storied French institution few of them have actually seen but that many in some sense can call their second home: the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris.

Bernardo Bertolucci's new film "The Dreamers," set during the Paris street demonstrations and riots in spring 1968, is, on one level, a love poem to the Cinematheque and to that world community of movie lovers -- among whom I include myself and many friends.

Even so, some cynical viewers may take it as just a raunchy ode to sex in the '60s. An NC-17 film with full frontal nudity and copious eroticism, "The Dreamers" may play to some audiences as simply an overheated film about a movie-loving '60s menage a trois locked in a Paris apartment for sex games while leftist riots explode outside.

That's not a totally unfair description. Based on a partly autobiographical novel called "The Holy Innocents" by ex-film critic (for London's Independent) Gilbert Adair, "The Dreamers" is, in many ways, a kind of "Last Tango for Three in Paris, '68."

But it's also an elegy to the Cinematheque, a tribute to its legendary founder, Henri Lang- lois, and the band of cinephile brothers and sisters who haunted his theater and watched his endless screenings from the Cinematheque's collection.

The Turkish-born Langlois, who was 53 in 1968, started the Cinematheque with filmmaker Georges Franju in 1936. Ever since, he had been accumulating its vast film archive, movies from all over the world that he showed in daily screenings to fervent or curious young movie fans. His most frequent attendees were a core audience who called themselves -- according to Greek director Theo Angelopoulos (who was one of them) -- "the Rats of the Cinematheque."

"Rats" is also the slang phrase used in the movie by writer Adair (an ex-rat himself) and director Bertolucci (perhaps an honorary rat) to describe its three main characters: French twins Isabelle and Theo (Eva Green and Louis Garrel) and American Matthew (Michael Pitt).

Among other eventually famous rats were all the young French critics who later became the masters of the '60s "Nouvelle Vague": Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette, along with filmmaker friends such as Jacques Demy and Agnes Varda.

There were other notable film archives back then, of course, including New York's Museum of Modern Art film collection. But among them, Langlois' Cinematheque reigned supreme.

It was a true international crossroads. In the movie, the central trio meet at the Cinematheque during the early stages of the '68 protests, an incredible event that seems to echo Shelley's famous remark that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators" of humanity -- an artistic battle that exploded into a political one.

The rallies and riots, which "Dreamers" shows in part (in both archive newsreel footage and re-creations with '68 firebrands-actors Jean-Pierre Leaud and Jean-Pierre Kalfon as they are today), were ignited by an attempt to fire Langlois. His nemesis was France's equally legendary minister of culture, novelist-filmmaker Andre Malraux.

Langlois' sometime carelessness, which had accidentally destroyed some of the thousands of films he personally gathered together, had alienated Malraux and the government. They wanted someone more orderly. But his firing struck a great chord, sparking a wave of protests from movie fans, young people and moviemakers themselves, including much of France's '68 cinema elite. Many foreign filmmakers joined as well. And the protests, some feel, helped trigger a series of increasingly violent confrontations with the government and police later in May; these fights, with even more radical goals, mushroomed across the country.

The three dreamers of Bertolucci's film miss most of that action, except at the very end. Instead, they retire to that apartment when Theo and Isabelle's parents, a famous French poet and his British wife, leave town for a while. Soon, they are embroiled in a feverish menage a trois, and that's what the film mostly shows us -- until a climactic riot draws them out to the streets again.

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