A recent re-watch of The Dreamers prompted me to think about the links between the film and Bertolucci’s earlier ‘coming of age’ work, Stealing Beauty. In essence, both films tell the story of a female protagonist grappling with the demands of impending adulthood. Superficially these demands centre on the discovery of female sexuality (sex in a Bertolucci film?! Do try to contain your surprise…) – both leading ladies are virgins at the outset – but I interpret the underlying message to be more broadly about facing up to reality and responsibilities.
In Stealing Beauty, we travel to a Tuscan rural idyll with Lucy, played by Liv Tyler. The stated purpose of the trip is for Lucy to have her portrait done – a rite of passage for the daughter of a (deceased) artist. Yet in returning to the place in which she knows she was conceived 20 years ago, she ultimately hopes to find her lifelong-estranged father. As Lucy assesses various possible father figures, she becomes the object of attention for several male characters, her sexual purity enhancing her allure. The story centres on how Lucy negotiates her relationships with these men, all but one of whom are considerably more experienced than she is.
The Dreamers is ostensibly about Matthew (Michael Pitt), the young American studying in Paris, and his ascent – or descent, depending on your perspective – into the collective dream world of siblings Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo. As the 1968 student riots rage around them, the newly-formed trio avoid the outside world and remain within the confines and comforts of the family home. Life is a game: the characters act out scenes from their favourite films and dish out sexually-humiliating forfeits when these can’t be correctly identified.
Lucy and Isabelle both appear on the surface to exemplify maturity and independence relative to their youth, and yet initial appearances are quickly betrayed. Lucy has travelled solo to unearth her mother’s romantic history in the wake of her passing – a brave endeavour, but she is often awkward and unsure of herself in her interactions with male characters. She wants to give herself to Niccolo, with whom she shared a kiss four years ago but their re-acquaintance does not live up to the fantasy; she is side-stepped by an older (and taken) man whose lesson in sensuality involves crawling on all fours and licking a mirror; and she tries to proposition a man at a party to prove a point, much to the amusement of those around her. Lucy yearns to be seen as a woman, but rarely do we feel that she is in control of situations. Very telling is a scene with her in her bedroom, listening to Hole’s Olympia, screeching along and doing what is better described as a flail than a dance. She is at her most care-free when not under the gaze of others, and thus without compulsion to act in a ‘mature’ way.
In contrast, we are given the impression that Isabelle is worldly by how she speaks and carries herself. However, much of her knowledge evidently comes from the movies and not from real-life experience. Isabelle’s equivalent of Lucy’s dance is her posing at the Venus de Milo, topless and wearing black gloves to give the impression of no forearms. Whilst we may not suspect it from her behaviour, she too is a virgin at the outset of the film. Isabella and Theo are (disconcertingly) comfortable being naked around each other, but this is very much familial, asexual intimacy. The fact that the siblings can share a bath at their ages perhaps highlights their sexual innocence. It is newcomer Matthew’s presence that inadvertently transforms playtime into something more ‘adult’: Isabelle and Matthew end up copulating on the floor, resulting in tears as the usually composed Isabella is more affected by the experience than anticipated. Later we learn that the girl has never even been on a date before. This is quickly remedied with a trip au ciné, which she relishes.
Arguably, both characters make the transition to womanhood as the respective films draw to a close: Lucy by choosing to give her virginity to a sweet fellow virgin over one of the more predatory male figures, as well as by connecting with her father, the sculptor doing her portrait; Isabella by joining the student protests with Theo, leaving behind Matthew and her escapism. In spite of the focus throughout both Stealing Beauty and The Dreamers on sex and sexuality, it is Lucy posing for her father that is the lasting image of her as a young woman, and Isabelle being subsumed in the crowd of protestors the defining moment for her. Once the female leads are no longer fixated with acting a certain way, they are able to embrace the realities unfolding around them and finally shed their dream worlds.