Bernardo Bertolucci's ("Last Tango in Paris") latest explicit affaire d'amour has gotten intense advance publicity for its adults-only MPAA designation, and sure enough, the final print is filled with naked French people and other disturbing images. But focus exclusively on the movie's brazen, occasionally gratuitous sexuality and you'll miss a whole other level of pleasure.
Set in Paris in the spring of 1968, this is the story of a gangly American (Michael Pitt) in love with a pair of native twins (Eva Green and Louis Garrel), whom he meets during a protest against the closing of the Paris Cinematheque. Like him, they're hard-core film buffs, and they live to quiz each other about fondly recalled scenes from screen classics. (Almost every time they do so, Bertolucci inserts actual footage from the movies they're referencing, as loving counterpoint.) The fact that these too-affectionate sibs welcome their new Yank pal into their circle by quoting the "one of us" speech from Tod Browning's "Freaks" is the first sign that we'll be witnessing the birth of an unconventional relationship, to say the least. Second warning: the Barbarella comic-strip panel on the wall of the twins' apartment, a visual cue for all manner of free-loving, youthful perversities to come.
To cite a more recent pop-cultural touchstone, these frisky, trés Freudian frogs make Billy and Brenda Chenowith of "Six Feet Under" look like the Campbell Soup Kids, and most of the movie details the psychosexual games they play with each other and their new friend -- activities depicted as relief to the social establishment represented by their dad, a poet who has little time for his kids' snooty utopianism. (A poet as the voice of mature reason? It's Europe in the '60s, man. Don't be so uptight.)
Some reviewers are already touting "The Dreamers" as a romantic paean to the Technicolor explosion of personal potential that followed the Summer of Love. But such an analysis only seems overtly logical in the film's closing minutes, which manage to be both pat and inconclusive in their call to action of some sort or other. Otherwise, Bertolucci appears to take a good deal of delight in debunking some of the sacred cows embraced by youth movements then and now: Talking about politics, he suggests, is not the same thing as being political. Holding an encyclopedic knowledge of film is not the same thing as genuinely appreciating the form. And those serious cinephiles in the first row of your local theater may not be intense thinkers after all -- they may only be sitting there because they couldn't get dates.
Adding a new wrinkle to his own on-screen dating habits is star Pitt, once the naïve butt boy to John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and here stumbling through yet another eye-opening courtship. But even the tone-deaf Tommy Gnosis would recognize that the awful version of "Hey Joe" Pitt contributes to this movie's soundtrack should have stayed in the trailer park.