Bernardo Bertolucci’s new film, The Dreamers, is a wise, high-energy conjuring of 1968, a year of culture-wide passion and communal daring unforgettable for anyone old enough to have shared those passions. Half a lifetime ago, Bertolucci anticipated its looming fires in Before the Revolution (1964), in which a dreamy young man wishes to be part of the seismic changes he feels are about to erupt, yet can’t quite free himself of his “nostalgia for the present.” Now, working with a poetic and suspenseful script by Gilbert Adair, based on his novel, The Holy Innocents, Bertolucci makes these same apprehensions and emotions live anew, but refreshingly free of nostalgia. Documentary footage of the Paris riots of 1968 is dazzlingly intercut with precise re-enactments of those same riots. Actor Jean-Pierre Leaud, speaking to a frenzied mob, is juxtaposed with archival footage of his younger self giving the same impassioned speech to the actual mobs of ’68. Such time-defying montages highlight a forgotten aspect of those historic riots — that they began as a protest by movie lovers, outraged at their government’s harsh and idiotic meddling in the Cinematheque Francais. Over the ensuing weeks, the turbulence flooded into every stratum of French cultural and commercial life, until the Third Republic teetered on the brink of collapse.

When receiving his Oscar for The Last Emperor, Bertolucci called cinema “this great cathedral we build together.” In The Dreamers, he makes that idea come to life as we discover three young worshippers at the church of film, their faces upturned in rapture, before the same flickering light. As disorder intrudes, their paths cross on the barricades, and they swoon into an exotic, mutually intoxicating love affair. Matthew (Michael Pitt), an American dodging the Vietnam War in Paris, is as fascinated by the twins Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel) as they are by him. He is, like the two, beautiful and adventurous, but, unlike them, shy and possessed of a strong, autonomous inner life. Isabelle and Theo are by contrast theatrically aggressive in the ways of kids who’ve grown up fast in a world they’ve closed unto themselves, yet neither is inwardly free.

Are the twins lovers? Leave it to Adair and Bertolucci to peel that psychological artichoke. What matters is that, as Theo puts it, “We are Siamese twins of the mind.” Matthew becomes their houseguest as the pair’s clueless, indulgent parents (Robin Renucci and Anna Chancellor) disappear on holiday. Erotic games and pranks trigger brief clips from Top Hat, Freaks, Queen Christina and Band à part (to name but a few) as movies forge for this trio a shared daydream language that permits an uninhibited sexuality to emerge. The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris and 1900 set a high bar for any filmmaker who’s probed the mysteries of sex in their wake, Bertolucci included. Yet here he surpasses himself, in collaboration with his three brave actors, as their souls are made visible in a barrage of carnal lightning-flashes.

Among the pleasures the film evokes, as few films have, is the bliss of conversation. Matthew, Isabelle and Theo argue about Keaton versus Chaplin, Clapton versus Hendrix, Marx versus America, at length and to oblivion — though Adair and Bertolucci never let these digressions become tedious. They are of a piece with the distressed wallpaper, and the supple, serpentine intrusions of music. As Matthew and Theo differ ever more vehemently, one can feel — beneath Adair’s crystalline dialogue — that Bertolucci is conducting a fervent, fatherly argument with the long-ago self who made Before the Revolution. When Theo proclaims that Mao is no tyrant but the highest form of filmmaker, directing the whole of humanity to march to the music of a single great feeling, Matthew makes an equally passionate case against this incestuous utopia of shared minds. Under this, one hears Bertolucci lovingly but firmly critiquing not just Mao, but the movies, which offer nothing if not the social euphoria of a shared dream.

One is tempted to call The Dreamers a young man’s film in the flattering sense that the director, at 63, still creates with the fire and muscle of a man half his age. Yet to invoke youth as an automatic term of praise feels a bit condescending in this context, an insult to the vitality of Bertolucci’s mature vision. If anything, this seasoned rebel has overthrown the passage of time with the same fervor with which his younger self challenged the man-made orders of the world.

THE DREAMERS | Directed by BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI | Written by GILBERT ADAIR, from his novel | Produced by JEREMY THOMAS Released by Fox Searchlight | At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex

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