Bertolucci’s latest and a Carol Shields tale are romantic poles apart
Brian D. JohnsonFebruary162004
IN THE COUNTRY OF LOVE
Bertolucci’s latest and a Carol Shields tale are romantic poles apart
BRIAN D. JOHNSON
ROMANTIC LOVE, at least the obsessive kind, is a place apart, another country. When you’re in love, the rest of the world falls away, and nothing feels more real than the fantasy at hand. In that sense, being in love is not unlike being in a movie. And two new movies, to be released on the eve of Valentine’s Day, offer very different notions of what kind of country love is. In The Dreamers, directed by Italian master Bernardo Bertolucci, it’s a plush Paris apartment suffocating in sex, where the curtains are drawn around a Franco-American ménage à trois of student cinéphiles. In The Republic of Love, directed by Canada’s Deepa Mehta, it’s a shiny underground mall in Toronto, where two lovers glide through each other’s lives like escalators passing in the night.
For Bertolucci, The Dreamers marks a daring return to form, and to his formative passions. His early films—notably Before the Revolution, The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, 1900—emerged like the cinematic offspring of Marx and Freud, incubated in the tumult of the sixties. Now he revisits ground zero of that era with a boudoir romance of revolution, and sexual subversion, set against the May ’68 riots in Paris. The Dreamers is a nostalgic valentine to cinema, to the politics of desire, and to a time when anything seemed possible.
The action begins with a demonstration against the firing of Cinémathèque Française founder Henri Langlois, a catalytic event that helped turn film’s Nouvelle Vague into a tidal wave of protest. In the crowd, a young American named Matthew (Michael Pitt) meets the provocative Isabelle (Eva Green), and her twin brother, Théo (Louis Garrel). They invite him home just as their parents are going on holiday. And with the place to themselves, the siblings draw Matthew into nervy mind games, and sexual experiments, while acting out scenes from classic films. They also conduct fierce debates about art and politics, with the impetuosity of virginal thinkers who have received all their ideas through the prism of film.
This is First Tango in Paris with a glimmer of Performance. Most of the movie takes place in the apartment, a lavish cave of art and fabric that’s as cluttered as the apartment in Last Tango was empty. Bertolucci’s camera is openly voyeuristic, and his main object of desire is Pitt, an androgynous Adonis who looks like a cross between Leonardo DiCaprio and a very young Marlon Brando. And just as Last Tango seemed shocking in 1972, The Dreamers pushes the current taboos of mainstream cinema.
As Théo and Isabelle seduce the vulnerable American, the sex scenes have a scorching intimacy. If Americans felt violated by a Super Bowl glimpse of Janet Jackson’s breast, here’s a more extreme challenge: an affectionate, lingering close-up of a shy, half-erect penis. After much hesitation, Fox Searchlight, the film’s American distributor, finally agreed to release The Dreamers uncut with an NC-17 rating. In a taped message before the film’s screening at Sundance last month, Bertolucci applauded the decision and taunted American puritanism with a slogan: “An orgasm is better than a bomb.”
Adapted from The Holy Innocents, a 1988 novel by Gilbert Adair, The Dreamers is a fable of fallen youth—about a generation that fell through the looking glass, and lost sight of the world while trying to change it. As Bertolucci unlocks the magic door back to the sixties, and explores the limits of sexual revolution, his Parisian oasis of free love turns out to be a mirage of incestuous enchantment. Eventually he breaks the spell, with a shattering intrusion of the outside world. And as we go from the boudoir back into the street, he concludes with a cri de coeur against political violence that seems too pat. But if Bertolucci has trouble snapping us out of this New Wave Neverland, and making the leap from sex to politics, at least that’s faithful to the time he’s so keen to recapture. The Dreamers is a richly imagined, boldly acted ode to the delirium of a generation that didn’t know it was dreaming.
The Republic of Love is about lovers who seem stuck in an eternal present, an alien urban landscape where dreaming doesn’t even seem to be an option. Adapted from the 1992 novel by Carol Shields, this Canada-Britain co-production appears to be another well-meaning marriage of convenience between Canadian cinema and CanLit. Shields set her novel in residential Winnipeg, but because the filmmakers couldn’t finance the shoot there, they transposed the location to Toronto, specifically to the city’s maze of condos, subways and underground malls.
Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood (The Sweet Hereafler, Thirteen Days) tackles his first major romantic lead as Tom Avery, a latenight disc jockey and veteran of three failed marriages. At a children’s Halloween party he meets, and instantly falls in love with, Fay McLeod (Emilia Fox), who happens to live in the same high-rise condo. Fay, a folklorist studying the mythology of mermaids, has just broken up with her boyfriend. And there appears to be no reason why these two nice, attractive people shouldn’t be consumed by romantic bliss.
But their relationship just meanders along with virtually nothing at stake. The movie’s slack-paced narrative is more interested in the idea of love than its emotional reality. And when the romance hits a crisis, it founders from a lack of faith that has nothing to do with the lovers chemistry. It’s about their parents, and issues they’ve passed on to their children. But we don’t care
about their parents. We don’t care about Tom’s mother (Jackie Burroughs), a dotty redhead who lives in a snowbound trailer park. We don’t care about Fay’s distracted father (Edward Fox), who keeps a pet duck and mumbles at the floor while contemplating the soulless void of a devoted wife (Martha Henry).
I’m not suggesting real people don’t have eccentric parents or arbitrarily fall in and out of love. But this is a movie. Despite Greenwood’s blue-eyed charisma and his co-star’s gentle charm, there’s no thrust to their romance. So the mind wanders, and you find solace in small details, such as the wry performance by Gary Farmer as Tom’s sound engineer. And you get distracted by the lovely art direction (wondering if those mango walls might go in your kitchen). Not to mention the music. The film’s Indianborn director, Deepa Mehta, had Talvin Singh compose the soundtrack, a tablainflected score that’s weirdly intrusive—as is Mehta’s gratuitous homage to one of her own movies, Bollywood/Hollywood.
The notion of reinventing Carol Shields in a multicultural no man’s land might have looked good on a funding application. But this Republic fails to cohere. And as long as our filmmakers keep scavenging CanLit for raw material—while making a virtue of compromise—Canadian cinema will never find its soul, never mind its heart, lil
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