Too hot to handle?

Thirty years on from his Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci's latest film has scandalised the Venice film festival and, says Geoffrey Macnab, put the wind up American distributors
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At a Venice Film Festival largely shorn of controversy, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers has polarised the critics, brought a whiff of sexual scandal, created the festival's first big censorship row, and laid bare the cultural gap between European and American audiences and critics - all quite an achievement for a sixty-something director with a bad back whose best years many thought were behind him.

At a packed press show, spectators crammed the aisles and lay in front of the screen, thereby creating an atmosphere akin to that of the period depicted in the film - the heady days of 1968, which as Bertolucci states, "are the basis of our whole behaviour." Whatever the film's eventual fate in the US, it is bound to reawaken interest in events of that era which many have forgotten or chosen to ignore.

The film, adapted from Gilbert Adair's novel, begins in February 1968, just at the time Charles De Gaulle's culture minister André Malraux was in the process of deposing Henri Langlois from his job as head of the Cinemathéque Française. Jean Cocteau called Langlois "the dragon who guards our treasures." Unlike many other film archivists, he was more interested in showing movies than reverentially preserving them. He was a chaotic figure, but was also loved and revered. The attempts to slay the dragon infuriated all of France's leading intellectuals and film-makers. Among those lobbying for his re-instatement were Renoir, Jean-Luc Godard and Roland Barthes. The scandal, barely remembered now, was the spark that ignited the later riots and protests of 1968. (Three months later, after the demonstrations in mid-May, around 10 million workers were on strike in France.) As Adair observes, French newspapers at the time were even asking "are we to expect tots from primary schools to rise up in revolt?"

The events of 1968 provide the framing device for The Dreamers which quickly turns into an intense, claustrophobic psychodrama set within the confines of the Paris apartment where American student Matthew (Michael Pitt) goes to live with brother and sister Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel.) Like the trio in Cocteau's Les Enfants Terribles, the kids play diabolic sexual and psychological games with each other. The film is crammed with references to Godard, the nouvelle vague and even to Buñuel who - in The Exterminating Angel - famously patented the idea of the dinner party that the guests can never leave. Bertolucci has called it his "tribute to Truffaut" and says that the dynamics between the three leads echo those between Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner and Henri Serre in Jules et Jim.

As Bertolucci revealed earlier this week, however, there is a very great danger that the film will be "amputated and mutilated" prior to its US release. The American distributors, Fox, were initially enthusiastic, but are now fretting about the prospect of putting out a film with an NC-17 certificate and are likely to cut the film to ensure that it gets a more acceptable "R" rating. Says New-Jersey born Michael Pitt, "They [American audiences] are not going to be given the chance to be offended and I am ashamed of that."

Long before The Dreamers was even completed, US exhibitors were becoming agitated by the frank sexual content of the film. By comparison with Ken Park or some of the more extreme offerings from recent French cinema (Baise Moi, Irreversible) the scenes of the brother, sister and their American student friend playing around naked to the strains of Jimi Hendrix and The Doors are relative tame. Nonetheless, when Fox showed clips from the film at trade event ShoWest earlier this spring, the company warned "anyone who might be offended" to leave the screening room.

Gilbert Adair believes that the row over the nudity is being couched in the wrong terms. "The word "nudity" is a euphemism. We're not talking of nudity. We're talking of genitalia. We're talking of cocks. That's what people can't accept... we can show anything on the screen except for certain parts of the human body... this seems to me grotesque. If we had Theo and Isabelle gouging out Matthew's eyes and throwing them out the window, we would have got an "R" rating no problem, but because we show them enjoying each other's bodies, it's suddenly this great problem."

"I took these three young people and with them, went into a time machine," Bertolucci says of the shooting of the film. He describes it as a companion piece to Last Tango in Paris, in which Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider likewise locked themselves away from the world. "But in this film, we have a lightness which Last Tango didn't have and I didn't have."

Despite an enthusiastic response from European critics, US trade paper Variety has come out strongly against the film. This has made the chances of producer Jeremy Thomas securing an uncut US release even more remote.

For the young, largely untested actors, making a film as emotionally raw and sexually frank as The Dreamers was a daunting prospect. "They absolutely were never coerced. There was no anxiety and that's noticable on the screen," Adair, who was on set throughout shooting, insists. Pitt (best known for his roles in Bully, Finding Forester and Murder By Numbers) admits he was wary before shooting began. "But I tried to remind myself that in Europe it would be looked on differently."

The nude scenes were shot late on in production. "We were like children playing," Eva Green says. Still, she was aware of the myth that Maria Schneider was "broken" by her experiences on Last Tango and worried that she might suffer in the same way too. Green's mother - also an actress - cautioned her against taking the part. "My mother was so scared because she said Maria Schneider had been destroyed [after Last Tango]... she was scared that would happen to me."

Bertolucci has made some significant changes to Adair's novel, in particular toning down the homoerotic elements. These elements were in Adair's original screenplay but were subdued because the director felt that it was already too rich. Adair insists, though, that once he saw where the film was going, he had no problems with that. "I didn't feel I was jettisoning anything. This is Bernardo's film and it belongs to him and the actors. I think there is still a certain homoerotic thing between Theo and Matthew."

This is an intensely personal project for its 63-year-old director. There's no sense of detachment about the film. Nor does he hide behind irony or use the benefit of hindsight to satirise or criticise the young cinephile radicals of 1968. He plunges back into the maelstrom of 1968 as if he had never left. It's this uninhibited quality that makes the film so moving. He is being as open as his young actors, and is not scared of exposing himself to the charge of self-parody or of preying, like an old satyr, on his young actors. (Earlier this week, he called Eva Green "so beautiful it's indecent.") He claims that one of his prime motivations in making the movie was to convey the sense of idealism of those days. "In '68, we were going to sleep at night knowing that we would wake up not tomorrow but in the future... we had every night the hope that the world would be different."

There's little of that idealism left today. One of the grimmest signs of the passing of the years is footage which intercuts the real Jean-Pierre Léaud (star of countless nouvelle vague films) protesting against the sacking of Langlois in 1968 with footage of Léaud today, looking weary and very old. "That's what the youth of today misses, a bigger window on the future" says Bertolucci. "If the kids will go to see this film, I want them to be infected by this idealism."

Pitt, meanwhile, expresses frustration at the political apathy of his generation. "American youths don't want to change the world or even think they are capable of it. There is so much for them to learn."