Bernardo Bertolucci's shift back to European settings has underscored the Ivory Tower syndrome in his later work, depicting characters in situations of privileged isolation. That syndrome is a liability in "The Dreamers." This elegant but pretentious chamber piece chronicles the obsessively sexual menage of a trio of self-absorbed youths.

Bernardo Bertolucci’s shift from exotic epics back to European settings has underscored the Ivory Tower syndrome in his later work, depicting characters in situations of privileged isolation that make those films inaccessible to many audiences. That syndrome is a significant liability in “The Dreamers.” Unfolding against but ultimately trivializing the political backdrop of the 1968 Paris student riots, this elegant but pretentious chamber piece chronicles the obsessively sexual menage of a trio of self-absorbed youths, offering sensuality but scant dramatic interest. Europeans may be intrigued, but broader commercial outlook, especially in the U.S., seems problematic.

Originally skedded for a fall release in North America, the film has been pushed back by Fox Searchlight to March, with cuts reportedly being planned to avoid a restrictive rating. The steamy content and the central element of characters in the French capital on a carnal odyssey, almost oblivious to life outside the apartment where their trysts take place, inevitably recalls Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris.” But any comparison will be withering for “The Dreamers.”

The earlier film examined questions of sexual politics, class, solitude, communication and the power of purely physical relationships, at the same time provoking shockwaves for audiences unaccustomed at the time to such sexual frankness. The eroticism and nudity are even more explicit here yet somehow oddly repressed for a film set during the sexual revolution. And the issues being addressed seem diluted. In fact, the whole spirit of rebellion, passion and protest that should be a driving force for the characters plays more like a cultivated affectation.

Their insatiable love of movies seems no less mannered as portrayed here. The three students ride the crest of the nouvelle vague, playing guessing games that revolve around their favorite film scenes. But rather than conveying a giddy sense of artistic discovery, these digressions — often accompanied by clips from the films in question — add an even more intangible feel to the characters’ tiny world. It’s hard to find a dramatic point of entry in discussions of Keaton vs. Chaplin or what Godard said about Nicholas Ray.

Focal point of the triangle is Matthew (Michael Pitt), an American student in Paris, soaking up film culture and the heady mood of the moment as anticipation builds for the changes afoot during the spring of ’68. At a protest following the government sacking of Cinematheque Francaise director Henri Langlois — with Jean Pierre Leaud appearing against newsreel footage of himself at the time — Matthew meets flirtatious French babe Isabelle (Eva Green) and her twin brother Theo (Louis Garrel). The trio become an instant unit.

Infatuated with his French friends despite being mildly disturbed by their ambiguous physical closeness, Matthew shacks up with the siblings when their liberal-intellectual parents leave town. Like Bertolucci’s father, the twins’ pere (Robin Renucci) is a poet, whose conflicted relationship with Theo adds autobiographical shadings. Matthew’s inhibitions soon dissolve as he falls under the spell of his more free and easy friends and into Isabelle’s bed. But their confronting sexual and emotional games create increasing friction with Theo, slowly destabilizing the group.

Not the most down-to-earth of writers, Gilbert Adair’s screenplay — inspired by his novel “The Holy Innocents” — displays no ear for natural dialogue. And the discussion in his script of period issues such as Vietnam and Mao’s China seem almost extraneous to the trio’s journey. As a result, the film never develops any real sense of political atmosphere and the characters’ climactic involvement in the riots comes out of nowhere.

More effective is Matthew’s gradual awakening to the shallowness of the twins’ world, questioning their refusal to emerge from their sheltered environment and incestuous games to summon real commitment to the issues they supposedly care about.

Countering the frustratingly impressionable side of his character with burgeoning intelligence, Pitt’s alert, watchful performance to a certain extent provides the film with some ballast and a sense that at least one of the characters grows from the experience. But while all three look lean and alluring, artfully draped naked across the apartment and each other, Green and Garrel never get beyond their characters’ irritating, bratty surfaces, making them tedious company. These may be the two most humorless, uncharming kids on the planet.

As always with Bertolucci, the film is meticulously crafted on all technical levels, most notably in the gorgeous opening titles, interwoven with city structures like the Pompidou Centre. Period reconstruction throughout is stylishly achieved and coolly rendered in d.p. Fabio Cianchetti’s deep saturated colors and dense visuals. Period music is aptly used to evoke the mood of the late ’60s.

The Dreamers

France-Italy-U.K.

Production

A Fox Searchlight release (U.S.) of a HanWay presentation in association with Fox Searchlight, Medusa Film, of a Recorded Picture Co./Peninsular Films/Fiction production. (International sales: Hanway Film Intl., London.) Produced by Jeremy Thomas. Co-producer, John Bernard. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Screenplay, Gilbert Adair, inspired by his novel "The Holy Innocents."

Crew

Camera (color), Fabio Cianchetti; editor, Jacopo Quadri; music supervisor, Janice Ginsberg; production designer, Jean Rabasse; costume designer, Louise Stjernsward; sound (Dolby Digital), Stuart Wilson; associate producer, Hercules Bellville, Peter Watson; casting, Juliette Menager, Howard Feuer, Lucy Boulting. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (noncompeting), Aug. 31, 2003. Running time: 116 MIN. (English/French dialogue)

With

Matthew - Michael Pitt Isabelle - Eva Green Theo - Louis Garrel Father - Robin Renucci Mother - Anna Chancellor Patrick - Florian Cadiou
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