Bernardo Bertolucci, The Dreamers, and the Cinema of Transgression
There are those who argue that pornography is the only truly honest form of cinema. The sustained gaze of pornography, its resolute refusal to look away, assaults the language of cinematic artifice, the borders of the frame which were established in the art form's earliest moments. Bernardo Bertolucci, more than any other mainstream filmmaker, has assaulted these borders with a notable combination of fury and artistry. His best films, the tryptich of '70s provocations The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, and his magnum opus 1900, were political and erotic assaults on their audiences, daring them to turn away from what the camera would not. But unlike the shallow transgressions of other, lesser filmmakers of the time (Andy Warhol springs to mind), Bertolucci also embraced the very cinema he was perverting. Most avant gardists have contempt for the conventions of cinema, Bertolucci does not; he is in love with the erotics of camerawork, with the sensuous power of shafts of light and moving shadows. The finest moments in his films are often their most subtle and conventional: Marlon Brando's shadow-laden walk through the halls of Paris flophouse, slamming the doors - and shutting out the light - one by one on his spying tenants in Last Tango in Paris; the ominous white and gold sapphic tango in The Conformist; in 1900, Robert DeNiro's plantation owner standing agast as his servant girl appears in a burst of light, clad in the clothes of the wife who has just abandoned him forever. The notorious scenes in his films: Brando sodomizing Maria Schneider while intoning Marxist pieties, Donald Sutherland smashing a kitten to death with his head in 1900, The Conformist's fascist agent's recollection of a childhood sexual assault; sear Bertolucci's films into the memory; but after the initial shock has passed, it is the deeper realms of Bertolucci's work which linger in the subconcious: the golden halos that envelop his leading ladies; the myriad twins, doubles, nemises, and mirror images which populate his films; the sense of the earth, of dirt, of humanity, of the passage of time. Bertolucci's best films have the depth of dreams.
This is, ironically enough, not at all true of The Dreamers. This is not to say that the film does not have its rewards; it does. Nor is it to suggest that the film is artless; it most certainly is not. What it lacks are those depths and shadows which so marked his earlier work and made it so difficult to shake from one's subconcious. What makes this failure all the more puzzling is how much of Bertolucci's old tricks are at work here. There is the Paris setting, this time during the student riots of '68; radical politics, Mao and Ho Chi Minh, not to mention the riots themselves, complete with hammer and sickle flags and molotov cocktails; intellectual musings on love and forms and eternity; copious amounts of nudity and perverse sex, including suggested incest; and that incessently gliding camera, floating in and out of the rooms of a small Paris apartment like a gust of wind catching hold of a transparent curtain. His twins are here too, first in the person of the incestuous French twins, one male and one female, who are quite literally - as they themselves point out - two halves of the same person; and secondly in the person of an American student, a mirror image of the twins who gravitates into their closed world and succumbs to their psycho-erotic gamesmanship. Unlike in Bertolucci's masterpieces, however, none of this adds up to anything in particular. What is lacking, perhaps, is the danger behind the perversity. Bertolucci's great films are marked not only by sex, but by the constant threat of death, violence, emotional cataclysm. Marlon Brando's widowed expatriate is fucking Maria Schneider's young Parisian as much as a desperate defense against death as an origiastic pleasure; 1900 contains the terrifying figure of Attila, Donald Sutherland's murderous fascist, who dispenses death with all the sadistic brutality totalitarianism demands of him; and, lest we forget, the entire motivating principle of The Conformist is an assassination.
None of this dark threat, the omnipresent presence of death along with the other extremes of sex and politics, stalks The Dreamers. The protagonists are young angels, the only threat they face is the dwindling funds left by the parents. Even the eruption of violence that marks the end of the film is a concious choice on the part of the protagonists, they are not driven by unstoppable internal forces; fate does not draw them inexorably towards their destruction. The attraction between the protagonists is not charged with that shadowy edge that marks all of Bertolucci's best characters; nor does the tale the film tells mark that inexorable descent into darkness and perhaps death. This turns what attempts to be a transgressive act into a celebration of decadence. There is almost non-stop nudity, both male and female, but none of it feels shocking or aggressive; certainly, by the standards of today's pornogrified culture, The Dreamers is extradordinary only in its erotic timidity.
It its in this fashion that Bertolucci's film is defeated by nostalgia. The transgressions Bertolucci is celebrating are the transgressions of another era; he is violating the mores of what might as well be an ancient civilization. Bertolucci's is a pornographic nostalgia, for the days when the mere presence of an unrelenting camera was enough. Now, of course, the camera never looks away, and in this, cinema has become honest. But if art is, as Picasso put it, a lie that leads to the truth; then this cinema of pornographic honesty may be true, but it is not art. The mere act of not looking away is not enough to make cinema. In his nostalgia, Bertolucci is chasing the wrong memory. It is to his art, and not his pornography for which he ought to be nostalgic - his own, very personal sense of the shadows which only cinema can depict when, and perhaps only when, it seeks after them in the darkness at the edges of the frame, and not in the shallow honesty of the pornographic and unrelenting gaze.