“In their play children repeat everything that has made a great impression on them in real life,” wrote Freud. “It is obvious that all their play is influenced by a wish that dominates them the whole time—the wish to be grown-up and to be able to do what grown-up people do.” The three young adults at the center of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2003 film The Dreamers—Parisian twins Isabelle and Theo and their new American friend Matthew—spend their days in play. They recreate scenes from films and engage in erotic games, and as Freud observed, they do so because they wish to be grown up; their play is their fantasy of adulthood. But just as the three youths play at being adult, the film itself does what adults so often do: it dreams of what it is to be young.
The Dreamers is an adult fantasy of youth, especially of the freedoms of youthful sexuality. Bertolucci’s accomplishment is to represent, without judgement, both adult nostalgia for youth and childish daydreaming about adulthood. What’s striking about this tension is that while the youth of the film get actual adulthood so wrong (wash the dishes!), Bertolucci understands the wish for adulthood to be an erotic, serious-minded experience, rather than what it so often is: the tedium of self-denying responsibilities. Likewise, in many ways the film gets the reality of youth wrong; youth are more erotically awkward than they are in the film, more hesitant and more eager—less cool—but the film gets right adult idealization of youthful relationships. Bertolucci looks forward and backward with longing. This allows us to see ourselves through the eyes of another: adulthood through the eyes of youth and youth through the eyes of an adult.
The story chronicles the lives of three young adults—all exceptionally beautiful and probably aged 18 or so—against the backdrop of the French protests of 1968; protests that began as student initiatives but quickly ignited much broader confrontations between workers and the ruling elites. The real story, however, occurs within the twins’ parents’ Parisian flat, a sort of maze-like apartment of decadence and decay. From the start, Matthew is attracted to Isabelle, and it’s easy to see why. Played by French actress Eva Green, Isabelle is simply stunning. When Matthew is invited to stay with Isabelle and her brother Theo for a month while their parents are away, it doesn’t take much persuasion to get him to agree.
On his first night as their guest, Matthew quietly opens the door to Theo’s bedroom and spies the twins asleep and nestled together. Theo is entirely nude and Isabelle is wearing only panties. It is a moment of tingling sexual arousal containing some of the best elements of erotic longing: voyeurism, youthful beauty, temptation, and transgression. Matthew gazes upon them, as do we. His expression is curious, and slightly jealous. He is turned on by Isabelle, and intrigued by the indecent beauty of their sibling intimacy. We are invited to share in his curiosity. There is no outrage in Matthew’s eyes, no judgment. If we are unsettled by this picture of near incest, we are on our own.
The three youths idle their days away together in talk and games. Most often, they play a game in which they perform a scene from a film and make the others guess the movie. When one of them is unable to guess correctly, he or she must pay a sexual forfeit. The first to lose is Theo. The forfeit Isabelle makes him pay is to masturbate in front of a poster of German film star Marlene Dietrich. Matthew watches, agitated, looking from Isabelle to Theo. The poster is hung at about knee height, so Theo has to squat in front of it. Isabelle takes a feather duster and gently lifts the hem of Theo’s shirt from behind, exposing his buttocks, and watches him as he masturbates. Is she curious? Certainly. Turned on? She is. But is the turn-on her brother’s sexuality or her power over him? It is hard to say. She seems to be jealous, but is she jealous of Dietrich, the object of Theo’s desire, or of his ability to manifest his arousal in a way she cannot? When Theo finishes onto the poster and leaves the room, Isabelle, without a glance at Matthew, walks up to it, smears her brother’s ejaculate over Dietrich and then brings her wet fingers up to her face and smells his sex. Then she walks out too, leaving Matthew alone and perplexed.
I am perplexed too. Am I supposed to find the twins’ relationship innocent? Dysfunctional? Erotic? Disgusting? Liberated? It’s hard to know what Bertolucci intended, if anything. The film feels earnest in its fantasy of incestuous eroticism, in its attempts to prod me out of society’s views of conventional sexual morality. The three youths believe themselves to be freer than their parents and the society around them, above sexual moral laws and the taboos around incest. The film tempts me to share in their youthful idealism, and perhaps this is because adults, too, have a wish for youth to push the boundaries of our sexual codes. Maybe this is even a secret wish. There is a scene, for instance, in which all three share a bath together. They are all nude. And they are all so beautiful. Their bath is innocent and sexual at once. The scene has the potential to turn into a threesome, all it would take is a touch, a kiss. But they refrain and remain childlike.
And yet, being childish is the very thing the three don’t want to be. They wish to be grown-up because they aren’t. The bathing scene doesn’t culminate in a threesome but in a game in which the twins attempt to shave off Matthew’s pubic hair. To them, it would be a lark, the proof of Matthew’s love for them. To him, it would be a violation of his manhood. “You want to shave my pubic hair? You want me to be a little boy for you?” he asks. The twins are confused by his outburst. Isabelle in particular is hurt by it. “Why are you so cruel?” she asks. “Because I love you,” he replies. “I wish you could step outside of yourselves and just look. I look at you and I listen to you and just think, you’re never gonna grow. You won’t grow like this. You won’t. Not as long as you keep clinging to each other.”
Matthew is right, of course. Being an adult requires stepping out of oneself. It requires a confrontation with the judgments of the outside world. More than this, it requires fitting into the world. The world that exists beyond one’s own head. The film, however, explores the narcissism of youth, its judgements of the world combined with its profound self-involvement and detachment from it. The bath scene takes the legend of Narcissus literally. Each of the three youths is reflected in a mirror. Theo, Matthew, and Isabelle may not be looking directly at themselves, as Narcissus did with his own reflection in the pond, but they look at each other through these reflections. They are in love with an idealized projection of themselves reflected back at them. Importantly, they are not in love with the reality of who they really are, which is three isolated and confused young people who have burned through their parents’ money, unable even to budget for a month’s worth of food without the help of mom and dad. We might want to remember that Narcissus was not in love with himself either; he was in love with his own idealized projection of himself that looked back upon him with misplaced adoration. He withered away and died. Ahh, youth.
Only the young American Matthew longs for an end to all this self-absorption. He wants to be able to step outside of himself and see. Theo and Isabelle’s parents appear twice in the movie. The first appearance occurs near the start of the film, on the eve of the parents’ month-long vacation. Theo, Isabelle, mother, and father are having a dinnertime conversation with Matthew. The father is saying something, but Matthew is distracted by the cigarette lighter with which he is fidgeting. When questioned about his misplaced attention, Matthew responds philosophically: “I was noticing that the more you look at everything—this table, the objects on it, the refrigerator, this room, your nose, the world—suddenly you realize that there’s some sort of cosmic harmony of shapes and sizes. I was just wondering why. I don’t know why that is. I know that it is.”
The father is impressed with Matthew’s observation. “When we look around us,” the father asks, “what is it we see? Complete chaos. Yet, viewed from above—viewed, as it were, by God—everything suddenly fits together.” Evident in this conversation is the wish for things to fit together. The younger and the older generation both long for coherence and order. They want there to be a God, or a sense of order, control, and harmony, even if it is only in an imagined sense. Important to both young and old is the idea that things can be viewed cohesively by God. What Matthew and the adults want is to enter into a world together where things make sense, where the individual makes sense within the whole. It is unclear whether Theo and Isabelle want to fit into the whole or to have the whole rearrange itself for them.
Youth and adult are critical of each other’s criticisms of the social order. Nevertheless, they each share a kind of mutual nostalgia for the other—adulthood believes in the simplistic idealism of youth, and youth is convinced of adulthood’s apparent comfort with the moral and political order. Young and old disagree. The parents don’t really know their children, a detachment that borders on indifference. And while the children have ideals of their own, outside of the cloistered world of the apartment they are irrelevant, their posturing nothing more than childish pretense.
Under Bertolucci’s careful direction, the film itself celebrates the sexual transgressions of youth as something radical and beautiful. But even while Bertolucci seems to adore all three young characters and their sexual freedom, by showing how the youths both resent the authority of adults and hide themselves from the outside world, he establishes that the social norms, especially the taboo against incest, are a necessary source of authority. For it is the established social and moral laws which allow the twins to define their behaviour as radical in the first place. Without order there is no transgression. Nothing is transgressive in anarchy. The film shows that neither the adults nor the youth are in control of the world’s order, of its moral laws, nor are they above it or below it. All are subject to the law.Bernardo Bertolucci going over a scene for The Dreamers, Paris, France 2003. Entertainment Pictures / Alamy
None feel this subjection to the moral law as acutely as Isabelle. Isabelle is the object of desire for both Theo and Matthew. She is the darling of her father. Isabelle desires both Theo and Matthew, as well as the tender approval of her father. All longing swirls around her, and all lust. She is the erotic core of the film. But Isabelle’s sexual power is contained by her absolute submission to the punishments of the moral law against incest. Early in the film, Matthew asks her what she might do if her parents were to discover she and her brother sleep nude together. “I would kill myself,” she answers.
She isn’t lying. The film’s climax occurs when Isabelle and Theo’s parents return home after their long vacation, their second appearance in the movie. It is early morning. The flat is a disaster. The parents make their way through each room of their home, disgusted by the filthiness of the apartment. At last they come to the living room, where Isabelle, Matthew, and Theo are asleep, all entirely naked, in a tent that Isabelle has made for them. The parents are dumbstruck, and the father sits down on the sofa in bewilderment, simply staring at the three youths before him, his daughter and son and their friend. His fascination seems not simply to be at the scene, but at the beauty of Isabelle’s face and body, as the camera’s closeup on Isabelle suggests. Here, too, a man is confronted with the moral law against incest, a law he sees that his children have broken, or at least tampered with. After a pause of some time, the mother nudges her husband into leaving the three, who are still asleep. He stands up and places a cheque on the table before them, and they tiptoe out of the room.
It is at this moment that Isabelle wakes and sees her father’s cheque. She alone knows her parents have been there, and she alone decides not only that they have transgressed a moral law, but also what the punishment for that ought to be. She steals into the kitchen, hooks up a hose to the gas stove, and returns with it to the tent where the Theo and Matthew are still asleep. She is weeping. Through her mind runs a scene from Robert Bresson’s 1967 film Mouchette, in which a young teenage girl kills herself by rolling down a hill into a river. It is an aesthetic suicide, a poetic death. Isabelle imagines herself to be the star of her own film, strangely disconnected from the reality of her own death and the deaths of Theo and Matthew. Her fantasy of herself has been punctured by reality, the intrusion of the adult world into her childish game of pretending to be adult. But in her attempted murder-suicide she quickly returns to the realm of play and fantasy by imagining herself into a fiction.
This scene reveals Isabelle to be far more conservative than her parents. She is inflexible in her understanding of morality. Her parents are disturbed, even shocked, by their children's transgression, but require no punishment of them for it. Nor do they display any passionate outrage. (As their father stares in disbelief, and in some measure of longing, it is their mother who casually says, “We must leave now. What? Would you like to have dinner with them?”) Isabelle is both rebel and conformist, moral libertine and moral absolutist. This, too, is typical of youth—or at least, adults may see this as typical youthful behaviour. We tend to view youth as dangerously transgressive and morally rigid, with some justification. The film does well to represent the gap between grown-ups and youth in this way: the ineffectual moral behaviour of adults and the self-contradictory moral idealism of youth.
The Dreamers was made in 2003 but gazes back with nostalgia to 1968. It is recognizable to all of us that youth are at once rebellious, morally idealistic, absolutist in their convictions, and self-gazing to the point of narcissism, and that adults are morally authoritative while also ambivalent about moral action. Adults are seen by youth as morally clueless and irrelevant as well as hegemonic and therefore privileged. I too am guilty of falling into this dialectic. The older I get, the more I tend to view youth as both morally naïve and despotic. Yet I wonder if our mutual assessment is always as accurate as we believe it to be, or at least it may be less oppositional than I am inclined to think. While there does seem to be something permanent about the gap between youth and adulthood, there also seems to be something permanent in our mutual longing for things to be ordered, for things to fit, to, as Matthew and the father suggest, make sense in the sight of God.
Before Isabelle’s murder-suicide is accomplished, a bigger reality than Mommy and Daddy enters the apartment: a brick flies through the window. The street violence of Paris’s social and political unrest intrudes upon the world of the family. Isabelle aborts her suicide attempt and the three get up and join the crowd. The next thing we see is Isabelle and Theo chanting with the mob on the streets of Paris as they begin to play another aesthetic role, that of revolutionary young students. Young Matthew objects to their violent fervor, but Theo and Isabelle are swept up in the righteous enthusiasm of the crowd. They grab hold of a Molotov cocktail together and run off into the smoke and violence of mob rule. The father seems to be right when he says that we all want things to fit, but that in reality “all you see is chaos.”
But the film does not close with this image of “fascism in a bottle,” as pacifist Matthew terms it, but with the army of uniformed policemen storming the protesters. What does Bertolucci leave us with, then? Youth rebelling against the tenets of adult morality as a part of their playacting as adults; adults idealizing youthful sensuality all while being largely indifferent to their transgressions and abandoning them to their moral floundering; the mob rising in revolution against the state; and the authority of the state squashing its people with the heavy hand of force. It seems as though the idea that we are able to see a world in which things are ordered to fit together is itself nothing more than a dream. Or, as Isabelle’s absolutist convictions suggest, it is possible that our own imaginings of how things should be ordered are more brutal than the authority under which we already live. Which is more dangerous, Isabelle’s attempted murder-suicide or her father’s quiet condemnation? The anarchy of mob violence or the armed police who violently restore order?
We are left without an answer. And in fact, the film leaves me somewhat indifferent. I find I am not emotionally involved. The film documents the lives of the three youths from its own godlike perspective, that of director and viewer. In the end, Bertolucci himself provides an answer to the longing for order: Art will create a narrative and an order. In this way, perhaps life will start to imitate art, as the three youths imitate their favourite films. “All the world’s a stage,” as the Bard said. But in The Dreamers it is because of the embedded references to the film’s own artificiality as a film that I feel removed from the characters on the screen. The best of film and fiction erases this distance. It allows us to see ourselves in a new light, certainly, but also to feel ourselves as a part of the story, involved in it, rather than as the godlike director who sees it from above.
The Dreamers expresses our longing for there to be such a perspective, one that is seen from on high, but it fails in its attempt to show that art and film alone offers this perspective, not only because it leaves us feeling aloof, but also because the filmmaker is also subject to the moral law. Bertolucci himself, naturally, had to employ actors to play the roles of quasi-incestuous siblings rather than document real incest because of the moral taboo against it. He can only represent transgression, not accomplish it. If there isn’t a God, a proposition that is by no means yet settled, we probably ought to still act as though we needed one.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/08/18/adult-fantasy-of-youth/