When Reality Closes In: ‘The Dreamers’ and the Limitations of Cinephilia

Louis Garrel, Eva Green and Michael Pitt play love-struck cinephiles in Bernardo Bertolucci’s ‘The Dreamers’

“I was one of the insatiables. The ones you’d always find sitting closest to the screen. Why do we sit so close? Maybe it was because we wanted to receive the images first. When they were still new, still fresh. Before they cleared the hurdles of the rows behind us. Before they’d been relayed back from row to row, spectator to spectator; until worn out, secondhand, the size of a postage stamp, it returned to the projectionist’s cabin. Maybe, too, the screen was really a screen. It screened us from the world.” ~ ‘The Dreamers’

How important is cinema? As movie theaters remain closed in New York City, it’s worth considering. Over the past few months, I’ve tried to put it all into perspective, and in the midst of a deadly pandemic, a divisive national election, and demands for racial justice, the decision to see Nomadland on the big screen or at home hardly matters.

I imagine I’ll always love movies, but I’m not as passionate as I used to be. I suppose that’s a sign of maturity or shifting responsibilities. Movies seem less important than, say, spending time with the one I love.

It could be a simple case of having seen too many movies. The element of surprise is gone. Perhaps I’m just jaded, filled with the cynical belief that the best of cinema is behind us, and even though there will always be more entertaining, enjoyable, well-made movies to come, few of them will feel fresh and different. A been-there-done-that, you’ve-seen-one-you’ve-seem-them-all fatigue.

It could also be that I’ve had enough experiences outside of cinema to clearly understand what’s more fulfilling. When I compare, it’s not even close. A real romance will always be better than the cinematic version.

Whatever the reason, I’ve recognized the limitations of cinephilia. Cinema as an art form will always be vital. Cinema as an entertainment will always be pleasurable. Cinema as a love will never be sustainable. Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003) is about three young people who don’t learn this lesson until it’s too late.

The Dreamers follows three youths who immerse themselves in the cinématѐque française. The main character, Matthew (Michael Pitt), is an American studying in Paris. One afternoon, he befriends Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel), a French sister and brother, outside of the cinématѐque during a demonstration against the firing of its co-founder, Henri Langlois. The three become inseparable, and spend most of their time having sex, watching movies, and reenacting their favorite scenes.

On first glance, the film appears to pay tribute to La Nouvelle Vague and the enthusiastic cinephilia of that time period. In her essay “A Study of Cinephilia and Time Realism in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers,” Sutanya Singkhra argues that Bertolucci’s ultimate goal with the film is to “make us love cinema once more, in the age of television, the internet, and all the other ways we can store time and represent history, by making us first love the love of cinema which his own generation called cinephilia.”

The Dreamers certainly captures Bertolucci’s nostalgia for French film culture in the 1960s. As the three engage in passionate debates about cinema, like whether or not Charlie Chaplin is better than Buster Keaton, we bear witness to the kind of enthusiastic conversation the now legendary cinephiles from Cahiers du Cinéma must have had.

But if you look more closely, it becomes clear that Bertolucci is critical of the bourgeois bubble in which these characters inhabit. Matthew, Isabelle, and Theo play movie trivia, all while the May 1968 riots are raging in the streets and they don’t have a clue. They retreat further and further into their favorite films, and as a result, shield themselves from the political reality of Paris. In one poignant scene, Theo’s father tells his son, “Before you can change the world you must realize that you, yourself, are part of it. You can’t stand outside looking in.”

By the end, Matthew, Isabelle, and Theo’s dream is interrupted by the world outside. The riots on the streets of Paris are too big to ignore, and a piece of debris smashes through the window of their apartment. This is symbolic of the outside world intruding upon their intimate space.

The film concludes as the three characters leave their apartment and join the march. What will happen to them? Is it too late for them to participate? Should they have stayed inside?

Such questions linger, and Bertolluci doesn’t offer any easy answers. What remains is a reflection on the life of a cinephile, and the possibility that many of them spend too much time in the movie theater and not enough time in the outside world.

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