(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: When Isabelle and Theo (Eva Green, Louis Garrel) invite Matthew (Michael Pitt) to stay with them, what begins as a casual friendship ripens into a sensual voyage of discovery and desire in which nothing is off limits and everything is possible.
– From DVD Production Notes
I’ve been putting off a re-evaluation of The Dreamers this entire month, approaching it with the trepidation of someone about to watch a snuff film. Its effect on me was very personal when I first saw it. I wasn’t looking forward to visiting that feeling again.
Overall it’s about someone realizing they are completely expendable. I can’t say I’ve experienced this in the exact same situation, but I’ve definitely felt that pain. The story is a parable for a lesson I learned around the same age as the characters: the worst thing you can do when you enter the real world is assume people have the same intentions or will treat others like you do. The openness, acceptance and naïveté before you learn that is a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t last.
In a subconscious way I identified too much with Matthew- someone in love with the cinema, someone who is unassuming and caring, someone who simply wants to be loved. His first encounter with Theo and Isabelle is innocuous but quickly blooms into the same fascination he has with the images he reveres onscreen. His love of cinema is expanding to his fellow cinephiles, cutting between their reality and the films they are referencing.
This three-way relationship creates the framework of The Dreamers. It also deftly captures that tenuous period where a person is forming their worldview and ideals. This plays out through debates, acts of rebellion or the “games” Theo and Isabelle play, pulling Matthew along for the ride. Their first foray is running through the Louvre, breaking the record set in Godard’s Bande à part (1964). It’s not only a salute to the film but an act of defiance.
The difference is Matthew views their race as a moment of fun; it isn’t quite the same for his friends. They are testing his will, alternately mollifying and seducing him. They are affluent, beautiful and charismatic people, so he isn’t quick to judge. And in the end he has no idea who he’s dealing with.
Theo and Isabelle prove to be enigmas. They don’t have backstories and rarely explain their decisions. Matthew’s perception of them jars with their actions. In trying to be included and loved by them, they degrade and manipulate him. Don’t get me wrong- Matthew experiences his share of pleasure, but it isn’t the same as what the others are feeling or anticipating.
For one thing, it’s revealed that the ties between Theo and Isabelle aren’t only physical and emotional, but sexual. Their quasi-incestuous relationship is something Matthew tolerates although it gives him a shock. It’s also implied that Theo may be using him as a proxy to take Isabelle’s virginity, which he initiates and pressures Matthew into doing. This begins as a sexual assault before it’s consummated.
In spite of Matthew and Isabelle’s intimacy their relationship can’t ground itself or become complete. The warning signs are everywhere, especially when it comes to discussing Theo.
Later on Theo personally cautions him: “Let’s get something straight, okay? You’re a nice boy and I like you a lot, but no… It wasn’t always meant to be the three of us.”
However, for a while it is. The three of them live in a blissful haze, an island surrounded by a sea of entitlement and lack of responsibilities. They stop going to school. They rarely leave their apartment. They luxuriate in their ideas and each other, although no one is getting anywhere, let alone what they truly want.
It’s this aspect of The Dreamers that I find interesting. At a certain point it becomes apparent Matthew is changing but Theo and Isabelle are not. As a result, his growth comes at a terrible price. He is dealing with people who are as selfish as they are destructive. When Matthew questions Theo’s Maoist beliefs, Theo replies by choking him and making a sexual advance. When Isabelle realizes that the trio’s secrets have been discovered by her parents, she decides to commit suicide and murder the other two, gassing them while they sleep.
The final scene of The Dreamers was hard for me to watch the first time. It still is now. There is a look of devastation on Matthew’s face as he realizes he is disposable- the shock, pain, then sudden reconciliation and understanding as it sets in. He wanted to give the whole of himself to them, only to realize he was a toy to be picked up, played with, then put down again.
That realization hit too close to home. Years later its effect is the same. If that isn’t a hallmark for a powerful film, I don’t know what is.