The Dreamers

The Dreamers (2003) was the best film from Bernardo Bertolucci for some time. After years of making high-class tat like Stealing Beauty (a sort of prototype Mamma Mia!, only with Liv Tyler’s breasts occupying the space where Benny and Bjorn’s songs would eventually go), he finally came up with something that recaptured the genuine eroticism of Last Tango In Paris and the sense of purpose of The Last Emperor.

The Dreamers told the story of a young American staying in Paris with a pair of cinephile siblings, a brother and sister caught up in a near-incestuous relationship, and getting caught up in their private games, as the riots of May 1968 occur without their noticing. It’s a very intense, sexy film indeed. I mean, you can see everything.

The script is by film critic and novelist Gilbert Adair, who adapted his own novel, The Holy Innocents (1988). He also reworked this novel (which he was unhappy with and bravely fended off offers of film adaptations for some years) to coincide with the release of the movie. It is this reworked version, now also called The Dreamers, what I have read and done a review of here.

The basic concept is brilliant, but I have to say it shines through much more in its film incarnation. The problem is that stylistically Adair is quite a showy writer, and draws attention away from the story he’s trying to tell with needless flourishes that aren’t really that clever anyway. When you’ve got naked incestuous cinema-obsessives wandering around a Parisian apartment in your novel, you really don’t need lines like ‘Cleanliness is next to godliness as a swimming pool may be located next-door to a church.’ The film, on the other hand, is all situation, as all good films should be, and much more powerful for it.

Again, Bunuel’s claim that only bad books can be made into good films comes to mind here. Not that The Dreamers is a bad book so much, just that it doesn’t feel entirely comfortable with its being a book at all. It tries too hard to be a novel, or at least feel like one, and is all the less of a novel for it.

Indeed, it is this very awkwardness in novels those that act as source material for the best film adaptations often share. Good books can be made into good films, but they are usually good in a solid, dependable way, rather than being truly excellent. A film like A Room With A View may win Oscars, but how many people now enjoy it purely as a film? It’s a beautiful illustration of a great novel, but ultimately still an illustration.Vertigo Psycho, The Godfather and Jaws, on the other hand are, to varying degrees, based on decent but minor books, and are major, wholly filmic, achievements.

Towards the end, the novel actually gets the upper hand on the movie, as the characters descend into levels of squalor the film doesn’t show (to its detriment, I feel) before breaking out of their isolation and descending into the riots. The move to the outside is more convincing here, although ultimately I still don’t buy it. The three of them are ultimately voyeurs, their own private games the closest they can believably get to engaging with the world. They may watch the riots from the window as a spectacle, but they would never join in with them. Then they would wait for the film version, and admire the director’s technique, before going back home to the impenetrable isolation of their own company.

EDIT: I’ve done some thinking about the difference between novels and films, and have come to the conclusion that while good novels explore character by putting them in a situation, good films explore a situation via the characters within it. This is why genre fiction novels so rarely achieve absolute greatness, because they are ultimately more about situation than character, and thus don’t play to the strengths of the medium. The best films, however, often are genre pictures, for the same reason.

I can’t think of any exceptions to this, and I’m not interested in hearing any, because I like my rule and don’t want it to not be true. So if you know any, just say them to yourself quietly, so I can’t hear. Thank you.


10 Responses to “The Dreamers”

  1. scottbigmouth Says:

    I enjoyed both book and film but, like you, wish the movie had taken those steps into darker territory that the film didn’t have the guts to do. Apparently Bertolucci felt it was one or two steps too far. I think they would have made his film a modern classic.

    Eva Green though. Blimey.

    Have you seen Dans Paris? Not actually similar but sort of.

  2. scottbigmouth Says:

    Just realised my comment makes almost no sense at all.

  3. I haven’t seen Dans Paris. It’s not that thing with Paris Hilton is it?

  4. I read the book before Adair tweaked it, and it’s difficult to ask the following question without a


    (does the American kid still get shot?)


    Hope that didn’t ruin anyone’s enjoyment. Eva Green. Blimey. Indeed.

  5. ===SPOILER ALERT===


  6. yuri_nahl Says:

    Comrades, life would be worth living if Eve Green sat on your face for a month or so. But with little breaks now and then.

  7. You mean life’s not worth living until that happens?

  8. yuri_nahl Says:

    Comrade, I have given it some thought.

  9. Right in the start of the movie,Micheal says “I’d come to Paris for a year to study FRENCH,but it was here(cinemas) that i got my real education”
    My question is,what was his initial objective to be there in Paris??? Study ‘The French Civilization’ or ‘The French Language’???
    I find no clue whatsoever in the movie that he was in the Paris for studying French language.But it seems logical that he came to Paris to learn their Civilization,which he learned pretty well in the cinematheque,& his extreme inclination towards the film study.All i mean that he was here to study the film & cinema culture.

  10. Kindly post a reply if someone has a suitable answer.

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