Movies in Your Mind: The Dreamers, then Coffee & Cigarettes

dreamers

After seeing The Dreamers, my first impression was to dismiss it as an entertaining, shallow work of an aging cinéaste eager to pay homage to the films he loved in youth. The Dreamers may still be only that and nothing more, yet as I woke in the night from a late afternoon catnap, my first thoughts were of Theo and Isabelle, the quasi-incestuous Paris twins, tramping about their gloomy flat, and of Matthew, the young American whom they capture. The characters spun round in my head as if they were not finished with me just yet. They had, however briefly, become for me as the images from Godard, Garbo, Chaplin, and Astaire movies are for them—somehow more real than the present.

The film begins unpromisingly. The camera glides by glazed over youth ensconced in the dark of Cinémathèque Française, 1968. “It was here I got my real education,” intones the hooky-playing Matthew (Michael Pitt) in voice-over, an education that consists, regrettably, of trashy Sam Fuller movies. Director Bertolucci and the scenarist Gilbert Adair pile it on high with pretension in such a way that I couldn’t tell if they were joking or reverent. When Theo (Louis Garrel) and Matthew compare notes on the director of Rebel Without a Cause and Johnny Guitar, Theo proffers this breast-beating quote: “You know what Godard said about him—Nicholas Ray is cinema!” Later, after Isabelle (Eva Green) and her brother have made Matthew an indefinite houseguest, the twins act out scenes from their favored films as a form of one-upmanship.

dreamers2Comparisons to Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris are few. Sure, Pitt resembles a baby Brando in some shots; however, The Dreamers daintily sidesteps that earlier film’s sadism and cruelty. Whereas Maria Schneider’s Jeanne claimed that she would eat pig vomit in order to “prove her love” to Brando’s Paul, Matthew flatly refuses to shave his pubic hair when the twins demand it for the exact same reason. In this film’s nerviest sequence, when Isabelle and Matthew can’t guess Theo’s allusions to Scarface, their “forfeit” is to make love as Theo watches them. Isabelle, up to that point, has carried on in a vampish, been-around manner, yet after Matthew has taken her on the kitchen floor, it becomes apparent that she has just lost her virginity. It’s a remarkable scene: simultaneously lovely, repellent, and comical. Both men dip their fingers into her ensanguined cleft, and Matthew, at first disbelieving, then overwhelmed with renewed passion, smears the blood on Isabelle’s face and resumes kissing her. At one point, Bertolucci moves the camera from the lovers to Theo insouciantly cracking eggs into a skillet. They will, after all, be hungry.

Bertolucci dodges the bisexual side of this ménage à trois. In Adair’s novel, The Holy Innocents, upon which he and Bertolucci base The Dreamers, Theo and Matthew also become lovers. (That said, the sin of omission doesn’t hurt this film nearly as much as it did Bertolucci’s incoherent The Sheltering Sky.) Theo seems the most turned-on when Matthew isn’t making little boy lost declarations of gratitude to his hosts; when Matthew challenges Theo’s professed devotion to Maoism, Theo props himself onto Matthew’s backside. (He hops off the instant Isabelle enters the room, a cheat on Bertolucci’s part.)

When I think about the cynical awfulness of movies right now, especially metroplex movies, and of the crass dopiness that masquerades as film criticism in dailies, alt-weeklies, and on the net, that smug superiority that many reviewers project, indeed, lord over films that ask us to feel something besides numbness, I begin to sense why the unpunished idealists of The Dreamers affect me as they do. – NPT

February 2004

coffeeposterThere’s one sublime moment in Jim Jarmusch’s newest assemblage of home movie vignettes, and it arrives during the final scene, long after several walkouts in the preview audience had gone home. Two old men (Taylor Mead and Bill Rice) bask in the most existential coffee break I have ever seen at the cinema or anywhere else. Mead—his inimitable, slightly fey voice makes every line reading a chiseled gem—mentions feeling at a loss with the world, which leads into a reminiscence of Mahler, and then—exquisitely, out of nowhere, like a shaft of sunlight piercing the tenebrious black-and-white gloom—they hear Dame Janet Baker’s recording of the Mahler lied, “I Have Lost Track of the World,” and we hear it as they do, in a reverie. The two men, apparently workers at an armory, though both look well past retirement age, raise their coffee cups in a toast. Mead toasts Paris in the 20s; Rice seconds it, and adds musingly, “…and to New York in the 70s, the late 70s.”

Something in the way Rice trills “the late 70s” lent me hope that Jarmusch may have at last hit on a subject, an avenue worth cinematically exploring, an antidote to the writer-director’s threadbare retreads of his juvenile obsessions. In spite of the recycled allusions to Graceland, Jarmusch does have a story to tell that’s uniquely his own. I don’t know that he can or will ditch the downtown hipster posturing to tell it; if he ever does, if he brings his sensibility to bear on a time and place that he actually cares about, the results would almost certainly exceed the stale, arid, nearly moribund Coffee and Cigarettes.

With a couple of exceptions, the strung-together skits follow a formula: two people meet, in a bar or café or coffeehouse, and they proceed to squabble over absolutely nothing. One person gets to be rude, and the other looks crestfallen as the first contradicts every gesture or comment. The puniest, most desiccated of these pairs a bullying Tom Waits with a deer-in-the-headlights Iggy Pop. The most expansive variation on this dismal theme, one that has some bite to it, unfolds between Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan. Molina invites Coogan to tea to discuss genealogical research; Coogan’s face, framed by his ringlet curls, beautifully registers disbelieving disgust. He gives a terrifically held-in comic performance (whereas Pop and Waits are sub-amateurish). After lying to Molina about not having a cell phone, Coogan has a few seconds of minor panic—he fears sudden ringing will give him away—that show an actor in full command of his resources right down to this slight, pantomimed bit. Jarmusch’s compositions and cuts here are generally more expressive than in the other sections, as if he were stimulated to do better. On the left side of the frame, Molina and Coogan occupy a second-floor table that rests by a railing; there’s a sense of space behind and below them, and the well-lit interior provides a welcome contrast to the predominantly dark settings.

rzamurray

In the film’s most visually inventive segment, “Delirium,” where the camera swirls at high angles across a greasy spoon diner, Bill Murray and the hip-hop musicians RZA and GZA share a few giddy ripostes. Murray, swigging java straight from a pot, seems to have recovered the comic timing Sofia Coppola so thoroughly sublimated. (Or was this shot prior to Lost in Translation?) His compadres chide him for smoking—doesn’t he know that nicotine is used in insecticides?

Murray: “Well, it’s good if it kills bugs, isn’t it?
RZA: “Are you a bug, Bill Murray?”

Would that all of Coffee and Cigarettes were as enchanteur. It’s mainly torture, until the last three or four vignettes. Along the way, Jack White again displays the vivid presence that made his Cold Mountain cameo so memorable. White’s dark-circled eyes, full lips, and emotive facial maneuvers would have assured him of stardom in the silent era. Cate Blanchett, in a dual role, works opposite herself well enough; the annoying Roberto Benigni, as a jittery, espresso-swilling chain-smoker, reaffirms his status as a no-talent. – NPT

May 7, 2004

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