Movie fanatics come in all shapes and sizes, but given the hours they spend burrowed away in the dark, they tend not to be the most glamorous people on earth. Michael Pitt, the young star of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, is playing an obsessive film aficionado in late-’60s Paris, the kind of guy who haunts the front rows of the Cinémathèque and can quote dialogue from the most obscure thriller directed by Nicholas Ray. Right from the start, though, something is off. Pitt, who costarred in ”Murder by Numbers” and was the angelic love object of ”Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” has a beautiful doe-eyed face, with dirty blond hair swept back in a way that makes him look like a hulkier Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s not a bad actor, but he’s passive and a tad glazed, without a trace of intellectual fire. He comes off less like a film buff than like a model in an Interview magazine spread devoted to ’60s film-buff nostalgia.
I raise the issue only because ”The Dreamers,” which comes close to fetishizing the past it shows us, never re-creates that past in any convincing detail. Adapted from Gilbert Adair’s novel ”The Holy Innocents,” the film is set on the eve of the May 1968 student uprisings that led, it’s been said, to a reconfiguration of France’s political soul. Matthew (Pitt), an American student, arrives in Paris and hooks up with Isabelle (Eva Green), a saucy beauty, and Theo (Louis Garrel), her moodily self-absorbed companion, moving right into their apartment. Isabelle and Theo are so close we assume they must be lovers; actually, they’re brother and sister. But that initial assumption, while not literally true, isn’t wrong, exactly. ”The Dreamers” is an erotic triangle mired in deeply swank notions of love, politics, cinema, and forbidden games. A filmmaker, of course, has every right to evoke his previous work, but Bertolucci is so drunk on déjá vu he has made a movie that’s really a flossy assemblage of Bertolucci signifiers. Sexual perversity in France (”Last Tango in Paris”). The call of leftist fervor (his early, poetic Marxist dramas). Incest (”Luna”). Just add water and you’ll have a masterpiece.
With its NC-17 rating, ”The Dreamers” may evoke a twinge of longing for an era when art films offered fearless explorations of adult sexuality. In the age of HBO, however, Bertolucci may be trying too hard. He gives us explicit shots of genitalia and more nudity than the MPAA likes to let by, but all this ”freedom” decorates what is in essence a contrived aristocratic vampire movie. Matthew and Isabelle begin to sleep together, and while Theo natters on about revolution, his most visible passion is for masturbating in front of his sister — a scene too showy to be convincing in its decadence. Matthew, witnessing such kink, is meant to be exploring his own nature. But in contrast to, say, Brando in ”Last Tango,” who enacted a lifetime of desire, hope, and pain through the catharsis of sex, Pitt’s erotic pilgrim just seems a callow kid seduced by siblings who flirt with fooling around because…that’s what dissolute Eurotrash do. In ”The Dreamers,” Bertolucci wants to take us back to a more revolutionary time, but mostly he ends up recalling the faded revolution of his own glory days.