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Between Porn and a Soft Place

Gilbert Adair, The Dreamers (Faber and Faber, 2004; rewrite of Gilbert Adair, The Holy Innocents, 1988)

Bernardo Bertolucci (director), Gilbert Adair (screenplay), The Dreamers (Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2004)

Alfonso Cuaron (director), Alfonso Cuaron and Carlos Cuaron (screenplay), Y Tu Mama Tambien (IFC Films, 2001)

As always, there are two kinds of people in the world; in this case, 1) those who are interested in the sexual acrobatics and psyches of threesomes, and 2) those who aren’t. People in the latter category are forthwith excused. The rest of us will just have to menage without you.

Bernardo Bertolucci—best known for his film, Last Tango in Paris (1972), and the director of a series of provocative and interesting movies about politics, sex, and art over a more than thirty-year career—begins his latest film, The Dreamers, which opened a couple of months ago, with a now-mostly-forgotten bit of history about the May 1968 “events of Paris,” the political upheaval that convulsed all of France, and nearly brought down a government, some 35 years ago. It’s an episode that would be obviously tempting to a self-reflective director like the 63-year-old Bertolucci, namely, that the Paris uprising began as a cinephiles’ protest demonstration.

The rats de Cinemateque, as the young movie fans were known who devoutly attended classic and avant-garde film showings at the Cinemateque Francaise, were protesting the abrupt dismissal of its legendary curator, Henri Langlois, by the country’s renowned culture minister and novelist, Andre Malraux. The police suppression of the demonstrations quickly got out of hand and served as a prelude to the broader youth and student protests that began soon after at French universities and eventually spread to the intellectual and working classes. Before it was over, some 9 million French workers were on strike, Paris itself ground to a halt, and the regime of President Charles DeGaulle seriously tottered, but didn’t quite topple. (Since The Dreamers doesn’t in the end say very much about the 1968 political turmoil, readers who want to know more about it can be referred to a recent study of the events and their “reception”: Kristin Ross, May ’68 and its Afterlives, University of Chicago, 2002.)

I guess the attraction here for Bertolucci is the romantic notion that revolution, or in this instance proto-rebellion, arises from the kind of imagination that produces the magic of the silver screen. And since May ’68 in Paris featured the slogan, “All Power to the Imagination,” the connection between cinema and history doesn’t have to be too precise to serve as an underlying conceit for Bertolucci’s energetic movie.

So, Bertolucci’s movie begins at the movies, with three teenage new-found friends, Matthew (Michael Pitt), an American exchange student, and Theo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green), the twin children of a French poet and an English mother. The folks are conveniently off to the seaside for a month, but only after a superb cameo turn by the father (Robin Renucci) as a once-politically-relevant poet who, in his kids’ eyes, has sold out and is now duly despised by them. Once the parents putter away in their Citroen, Matthew is promptly invited by the twins to move from his down-at-the-heels hotel garret into their rambling bourgeois apartment, with its closed-off “children’s quarter” and maze of corridors. And thus the games begin.

The young cinephiles’ minds and conversations are crammed with scenes from old and new movies, which, as one critic astutely puts it, are treated as “far from being an escape from the world, are a means of entry into it.” (A.O. Scott, “When Young Was Sexy and Paris Simmered,” The New York Times, Feb. 6, 2004.) The “game” the trio plays turns on movies, thus allowing Bertolucci to extend the metaphor of the cinematic realm into the psyches of his characters. The game is a version of “Name That Tune,” with one of the threesome acting out a moment from a well-known or obscure movie, which the others are then required to identify. As the Times’ Scott adds, “This idea that living in and through the movies is not a solitary neurosis but a mode of communion is made gloriously literal by Bertolucci’s use of archival clips.” They’re smoothly worked into the narrative, as when the threesome race through the Louvre museum, reenacting the scene in Godard’s Bande a part, or in Matthew’s acceptance into the circle by the twins chanting, “One of us, you are one of us,” from Tod Browning’s classic Freaks (a movie that scared the bejesus out of those of us who accidentally saw it in childhood, and had nightmares for months afterwards).

On his first night in his new digs, Matthew walks down one of the spooky hallways in search of a bathroom, and passes the ajar door of a bedroom lit by a tablelamp. He peers in to see the entwined, naked, sleeping bodies of Theo and Isabelle, thus introducing The Dreamers’ central preoccupation. Of course, viewers of Bertolucci films will be familiar with the director’s interest in sexual intimacy, most famously in Last Tango, but also in Luna, Stealing Beauty and Besieged. Matthew is soon included in Theo and Isa’s rites of sibling incest through domestic moments in shared bathrooms and bathtubs, but especially by means of the movie game, which quickly becomes a sex game. For, it turns out, failure to correctly identify a film requires a “forfeit,” and the forfeit is sexual.

It’s now time to get to the gritty details. There are three scenes of note in the film. In one, Theo, as a forfeit, is required to masturbate before his framed portrait of the 1940s screen idol, actress Gene Tierney, while Matthew and Isa get to look on. In the second, Theo turns the tables on Matthew and Isa, stumping them in the game, and requires them to fuck on the kitchen floor before his gaze. In this scene, it turns out that both Matthew and Isa are virgins, despite earlier presumptions of incestuous penetrative intercourse on the part of the latter. In the third scene, the threesome are together in a suds-filled bathtub. I can’t quite recall—two months after having seen the movie, some of it has faded from memory—if Matthew is sucking on one of Isa’s toes, but the general idea is to suggest intimacy of every bodily nook and cranny. In any case, it’s the scene where Bertolucci gets to stick into one of his characters’ mouths, Theo’s I think, the line, “I read in Cahiers du Cinema that a filmmaker is like a peeping Tom,” which is one of the points, presumably, of the movie, and possibly of threesomes generally.

As daddy’s cheques and the food run out, the dirty underwear piles up, and the telephone is mysteriously disconnected, it’s suggested that the threesome, utterly isolated from the world and willingly confined to the apartment, descends ever deeper into a drugged, besotted spiral of perverse passion. At last, they’re wakened from their almost literally suicidal dreams by a stone thrown through the window from the riotous streets below. The three leave the flat and join the throngs in the street, and the whole thing ends rather fuzzily (at least, I’m unable to remember the ending and its point, if it had one).

All of these elements ought to work better than they do. The self-reflexive play with films is charmant and narratively the most successful part of The Dreamers. What’s more, Bertolucci has made many interesting political films–Before the Revolution, The Conformist, 1900, and The Last Emperor among them–but here the political events are mostly backdrop, something like the scene in Warren Beatty’s Reds, where the Russian Revolution serves as mere visual background while Beatty and Diane Keaton, playing leftist journalists Jack Reed and Louise Brooks, nuzzle in bed. But the real problem, of course, is the sex.

I should point out that not everyone shares my view on this. A.O. Scott of the New York Times, for example, finds The Dreamers “disarmingly sweet and completely enchanting.” Actor Michael Pitt is described as “sweet-faced” (another critic calls him “a Leonardo DiCaprio type”), and the “unadorned loveliness of Ms. Green’s limbs and Mr. Pitt’s torso are pleasing to look at.” Scott says, “The sex in this movie, as measured by the display of body parts and the amount of time the actors spend out of their clothes, is more explicit than even the most notorious scenes in Last Tango… There is an almost Edenic quality to the nakedness.” Bertolucci’s “eager scrutiny of the eros of the young is… less a matter of prurience than of an honest, nostalgic appreciation of natural human vitality.” And so it goes. Readers of the Times may find this sort of prose sufficiently titillating, but it makes one wonder if the paper’s critic has ever seen a porno video or the webcam stuff that streams across the Internet.

It’s time to invoke that old line, “Have you read the book? No, but I’ve seen the movie.” I’ve now done both. The Dreamers, in both its visual and print versions, has a convoluted pedigree. It began its literary life in a 1929 hothouse novel by Jean Cocteau, Les Enfants Terrible (a.k.a. in English as The Holy Terrors), about a mid-teenaged, psychologically incestuous brother and sister, entangled in diverse polymorphous passions, and who play out the rules of a fatal “Game,” which they have “invented as their own eccentric version of life itself,” as one long-ago critic put it. More than a half-century later, writer Gilbert Adair came along, borrowed and updated some elements from Cocteau’s steamy sexual imagination, and wrote a novel about a passion-deranged late-teenaged menage-a-trois set in the Paris of the May 1968 student uprising. The book was called The Holy Innocents (with a nod to Cocteau’s Holy Terrors) and published in 1988, to mixed reviews and seemingly early oblivion.

Fifteen years afterward, Adair’s obscure book came to the attention of Bertolucci, who hired Adair to adapt his novel for the screen. While the director filmed it, the writer took the opportunity to rewrite—or, as in a palimpsest, to overwrite, as Adair puts it—his first novel under the new title of The Dreamers. (Fortunately, I’m not quite so obsessed with all this as to look up the first version of Adair’s book in order to compare it to the rewrite, although, like all obsessives, I was of course tempted.) Since this is a hodge-podge of composition, not much needs to be said critically about the novel or “novelization,” although Adair is generally admired as a talented, aphoristic storyteller. In any case, I read Adair’s book, I confess, mainly for the “good parts,” since the problem with the movie is, in my view, the representation of the sex of the threesome.

As expected, there are differences. For one tiny thing, the movie raises the age of the characters just enough—in the book the twins are 17, the boyish American 18; in the movie they’re respectively 18 and 19—to escape any charges of kiddie porn in benighted countries, such as Cana-dada, where the age of sexual representation is 18. (As it is, the movie had to settle for the rarely applied NC-17 rating, and the film company, Fox Searchlight, is praised by critics for not requiring Bertolucci to cut whatever’s there.) Second, in the book, incest is incest, and there’s no need for a post-coital kitchen scene in which Theo and Matthew marvel at Isa’s virginal blood. Third, the book’s Matthew is somewhat kinkier than the one on screen. In print, he’s a homo-leaning bisexual, the son of a wounded Vietnam vet, who’s recently escaped from closeted late-1960s San Diego. In slutty Paris, before his encounter with Theo and Isa, Matthew likes to wank off, to a confused melange of gender images in his head, in a nearby church, and then confess to a startled priest on the other side of the confessional.

But most important of all—and here I wish I were a heterosexual to avoid accusations of partisan pleading—what’s missing from the movie, but not from the book, is the sex between Theo and Matthew, viewed by Isa. The sex in the book is good old-fashioned sodomy, which occurs while Matthew is pressed up against a bathroom mirror (the latter witness is tossed in for good measure). “Silently thrilled… Isabelle watched her brother’s erect penis squeeze through the narrow, hair-snagged passage between Matthew’s buttocks…” You get the idea. “With an agonised moan that could have been either of pleasure or pain, he capitulated unconditionally, assuming at last the role in which his whole life had cast him, that of the martyred angel…” Trust me, it sounds a little less silly in context. I also found the heterosexual sex in the movie not quite satisfying either. In my mental porno version, Isa performs analingus or “rimming” on the two boys, and they return the favour in a variety of positions. Adair’s novel suggests that the sex becomes ever more depraved, eventually dipping into a cesspool.

Naturally, I understand why Bertolucci couldn’t put all that stuff in his movie, and why he confines relations between Matthew and Theo to a hasty peck on the lips in the midst of the street battles. Am I saying that I’d prefer The Dreamers as a porn video? I’m not sure. Well, I am sure, come to think of it. The Dreamers doesn’t pass the Porn Test. That’s the test I apply to art that deals with erotic material. It consists of a single question: would you rather be watching these actors doing porn instead of whatever they’re doing in this film?

Since this is a film primarily about the intricacies, physical and psychological, of a threesome, and since I don’t think Bertolucci gets it right, I’d better offer a very brief disquisition on threesomes. First of all, like couples and couplings, there aren’t singular generalizations to make about trios. In sex, there are only pluralities, even though William James once said something like, It isn’t a universe, and it isn’t a manyverse. What’s going on in the menage-a-trois will partially depend on the sexual preference casting. If it’s three gay guys, or two straight guys and a woman, or three lesbians, or one straight and one queer guy and a woman, etc., it will matter. In this instance, Matthew is, minimally, semi-queer, Theo is hetero-leaning but not yet totally defined, and Isa is from the birth of Venus. In such a situation, something has to happen between the guys, or you ain’t got it.

One of the possible features of sex between three people is that it brings public sex and voyeurism into the private arena, it violates public/private boundaries. Even if the three are simultaneously actively engaged, there is still a witnessing going on that heightens the excitement, and this is often more explicit when two of the three are primarily engaged. The witness is at once “anyone” and specifically “this desired one.” The threesome encourages admission, confession, “capitulation” as Adair has it, which is different from the “dirty talk” of couples, though not, surely, totally different. What can be denied later by couples as an inadvertent moment or uncharacteristic gesture is confirmed by the witnessing in the threesome. What’s permissable to do but which is forbidden to permit the sight of is seen in the threesome.

This merely strokes the surface of the psychology of threes. Only one more point here. In the case of Matthew, Theo and Isabelle, the dynamic is predicated on a mild sadism. What they enact, as Adair writes, is “the licence of the masturbator to do, inside his head, whatever he pleases with whomever he pleases for as often as he pleases.” Here the rules of the game, the limits, include shit but don’t extend to physical harm. “The only difference was that Matthew had become the externalised object of these fantasies. Yet, tormented as he was, subject to whatever indignity they could devise, he also remained the object of his tormentors’ love. The indignity submitted to, they would at once tearfully hug him…” etc. Not much of this is apparent in the film of The Dreamers, and perhaps could only be realized in porn. End of disquisition.

Are there any successful filmic threesomes? (I’m leaving aside bifurcated bisexual relations, as in John Schlesinger’s masterpiece, Sunday, Bloody Sunday.) As it happens, there’s one recent film, Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien (“And your mother, too”). This 2001 Mexican movie is part of the recent wave of wonderful Latin American films that includes Fernando Meirelles’s City of God and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Amores Perros. The briefest synopsis goes like this: two Mexican teenagers, 17ish, named Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal), one from an upper class family, the other middle class, are free for the summer when their girlfriends go to Europe. At a swanky wedding, held in a private bullring, they meet Luisa (Maribel Verdu), 10 years older than the boys, the wife of a cousin. They playfully suggest a wicked weekend cross-country trip to a fabled beach, and when Luisa’s husband cheats on her, she unexpectedly takes them up on their offer and we’re off on the Mexican road movie to end all road movies.

The boys are the middle/upper class Mexican version of Beavis and Butthead; their interests don’t extend beyond drinking, toking pot, and bedding anything female that moves. For much of the early part of the movie they’re distinctly unattractive, both intellectually and physically. Once on the road, Luisa teases them mercilessly about their sex lives—the plan was to come on to her—and they soon spill all their secrets. The secrets include not only every detail and position of their desire but also the almost unsurprising revelation that they’ve each fucked each other’s girlfriend… and your mama, too, is the implication. Both are genuinely wounded by these exposures, regarding them as the deepest possible betrayal of their boyhood friendship (Cuaron works in some wonderful slapstick comedy scenes here), but that’s nothing compared to the rage, jealousy, and mindblownness they experience when Luisa beds them one by one.

As critic Roger Ebert writes, “The movie is realistic about sex, which is to say, franker and healthier than the smutty evasions forced on American movies by the R rating.” Although not pornographic, the sex scenes between the boys and their respective girlfriends, another scene in which the boys are simultaneously jacking off while laying on diving boards over a pool, and those with Luisa, are convincing and hot. While Luisa is a beauty from the beginning, it’s the boys who gradually become handsomer and sexier as the road rolls along.

While the road unrolls, Cuaron takes care of political business, with a brilliant, you-can-use-it-only-once device. Not only do we see a landscape of police checkpoints, drug busts, traffic accidents, bandits and endless shanty towns, but at various points during the journey, the soundtrack goes silent and is replaced by an unidentified narrator—a vox ex machina—who comments on the action from outside, noting past and future events, e.g., a village where one boy’s nanny was born and had to leave home at 13 to seek work, or a deadly accident, or political atrocity. Where Bertolucci relegates the politics to the backdrop, Cuaron ensures that the Mexican political situation starkly underlies everything, including the comic romanticism on screen.

Toward the alcohol-soggy end, at the magical realist beach (which the boys actually had no idea existed), Luisa maneuvers the two of them into a beach shack and goes down on both of them. As they scrunch closer together to give her access, their heads touch, there’s a lightning glance, and then one of the more explosive, long-repressed, homoerotic kisses in history (well, film history) occurs. When the hungover boys wake up the next morning side by side in bed, they take one mutual look of horror at each other and dash to their respective latrines.

Cuaron works a bit too much plot into the story. By the epilogue scene, when the boys meet in a coffee shop at the end of the summer and just before both of them are off to their different colleges, never to see each other again, we’ve figured it out for ourselves. But the flaws are minor.

More important, Cuaron’s Mama is one of those rare films that makes sense both politically and sexually. What’s more, Cuaron’s film passes the Porn Test. Just as threesomes are very difficult to choreograph, so are filmed representations of threesomes in art. I’ve seen several successful sexual trios in porn, but Cuaron’s is hands down the most believable one I’ve seen at the movies. It is, to pun on Gilbert Adair’s original title, wholly innocent.

Vancouver, April 26, 2004

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Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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