By Moira Nolan
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May Days

This article is over 17 years, 10 months old
Review of ’The Dreamers‘, director Bernardo Bertolucci
Issue 283

Bertolucci‘s The Dreamers captures the excitement and energy of the events in May 1968 Paris, when a students‘ revolt grew into the biggest general strike in history and threatened the entire fabric of the French political and economic order. Though focusing primarily on the cultural turmoil that accompanied the sudden outbreak of radicalism, this is a film in which there is an overwhelming sense that the world can and should be changed.

Matthew is a young American drawn to Paris by his passion for films. He is soon intoxicated by Theo and Isabelle, Parisian twin students, when he encounters them at a protest against the sacking of a radical film exhibitor and the closure of his alternative cinema at the hands of the authoritarian French regime (scenes based on a real incident). The pair draw him into their world, with their heady mixture of sensuality and thirst for cultural discussion. Soon he is resident in their parents‘ house, where the three while away the hours re-enacting scenes from classic movies, experimenting sexually, and rehearsing the topical debates about film, philosophy and the future. Theo and Isabelle see their struggle primarily as a personal one – as though living a bohemian existence is enough to challenge the austerity of life under de Gaulle. The inward-looking nature of the threesome begins to irritate as we hear the sounds of revolt outside the closed shutters of the apartment – we yearn to see what lies beyond their darkening effect. At points Bertolucci‘s characters seem a mere vehicle for his love affair with the movies they discuss, and their pretentiousness is annoying. More seriously, the objectification of Isabelle‘s body during the sex scenes becomes almost unbearable at times.

Yet Bertolucci stops the film from falling into portraying 1968 as a purely cultural and sexual phenomenon by gently mocking the pretensions of the main characters, and Theo in particular. A radical activist friend accosts him outside class one day for his lack of engagement with the struggle, against the backdrop of students painting political slogans over the walls and pillars of their grand university buildings. Even Matthew attempts to inject a sense of the outside world into the stifling insularity of the twins‘ existence, such as when a playful debate about Hendrix or Clapton spills over into a passionate argument about conscription in Vietnam. When he finally entices Isabelle out of the apartment on a date – to the cinema, of course – the reality of the struggles around them is brought home by the real life footage he stares at on televisions in a shop window and the mounting piles of rubbish in the streets they wander down, presumably caused by a refuse workers‘ strike. This gap between their talk of change and their lack of involvement in any actual struggle is a source of much humour in the film – especially towards the end, when Isabelle‘s melodramatic gestures are literally smashed by the intervention of the outside world into their bubble-like world. The dramatic final scene, though highly stylised, is refreshingly full of the vigour of 1968.

Bertolucci intertwines documentary footage from 1968 with the main narrative, as well as cleverly deploying extracts from the myriad films the threesome adore. The cinematography is beautiful in its detail and is a celebration of attempts to see the world in a new way.

This is not a film that will enable you to understand May 1968, but it will give you a taste of the dynamism of the times.

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