"The Dreamers'' is very much a young man's movie, which is strange since the man who made it is 63. But Bernardo Bertolucci's films have been getting more impassioned and adolescent with the years. ``The Conformist'' and ``Last Tango in Paris'' now look like works of towering maturity next to the empty stateliness of ``The Last Emperor'' and ``Little Buddha,'' while those films are light-years removed from the panting teen-boy crush on Liv Tyler that is ``Stealing Beauty.''
``The Dreamers'' isn't that bad - actually, it's funny, affecting, interestingly twisted, and seriously erotic before it heads south in the final stretch. It's also the first major studio release to hit theaters with an NC-17 rating in seven years, but if the eroticism here is more provocative and explicit than, say, a passing glimpse of Janet Jackson's right breast, it's also more recognizably human. In ``The Dreamers,'' sex is what's on everyone's minds when they talk about politics, art, and movies.
Especially movies. Adapted by Gilbert Adair from his 1988 novel, ``The Holy Innocents,'' ``The Dreamers'' is a coming-of-age tale for a generation that grew up intoxicated by the visions streaming off revival-house movie screens. It's set in 1968 Paris and begins at the fabled Cinematheque Francaise, where Matthew (Michael Pitt), a callow young American student, sits up front at every show so he can get the rush faster.
Matthew's in the streets, too, after Henri Langlois, the shambling head of the Cinematheque, is ousted by Minister of Culture Andre Malraux - only in 1968 France would riots break out over old movies - and in the tumult he meets the dark, brooding Theo (Louis Garrel) and Theo's ravishingly lovely sister Isabelle (Eva Green). Eva is wearing a red beret and has chained herself to the gates of the Cinematheque, and if there's a headier image of the hot-wired allure of cinema, revolution, and sex that was a certain corner of the 1960s, I've never seen it.
Theo and Isabelle take Matthew home to their parents' book-lined warren of an apartment. The American moves in; the parents leave for a holiday; the sexual tension and movie references grow and tangle together like kudzu. Outside, the events of May '68 fill the streets while Hendrix and Joplin pound like Furies on the soundtrack. Inside, the trivia contests lead to kinkier variants of Truth or Dare. This is a film where failing to identify Marlene Dietrich in ``Blonde Venus'' has unexpected consequences.
The sex scenes in ``Dreamers'' are luminous and charged with the electricity of young people playing rainy-day games while their parents are out. Yet they never truly lead anywhere, and that's part of Bertolucci's point. Matthew, Theo, and Isabelle slowly run out of money and food, but they're too busy indolently shagging and arguing over Chaplin and Keaton to care. The movie's a paean to the infantilism of the revolution - a portrait of a generation drifting out to sea.
Where another director might be critical of such gorgeous children, Bertolucci indulges them. He loves the hothouse air in the apartment, the casual nudity, the weird humor of some of the sex. He also loves the characters for their youth, but it's the youth of the actors that let him down. Pitt has the passive hunkiness of a male model or a hustler in a Warhol movie; the script hints at his depths but shies from any real evidence. Green goes more out of focus the less she wears: With her clothes off, she's just a beautiful young woman naked, but with her clothes on she has the carnal impact of an electromagnetic pulse.
The more genuine love object in ``The Dreamers'' is cinema itself. Clips from Hollywood and French classics punctuate the film - ``Shock Corridor,'' ``Breathless,'' ``City Lights, '' ``Top Hat, '' ``Freaks,'' Godard's ``Bande Áa Part,'' Bresson's ``Mouchette'' - and when Isabelle moves slowly about her bedroom memorizing the furniture, neither Matthew nor acolytes in the audience need to be told that she's imitating Garbo in ``Queen Christina.''
Bertolucci doesn't cite ``Les Enfants Terribles,'' the 1950 collaboration between director Jean-Pierre Melville and playwright Jean Cocteau, but he doesn't have to. ``The Dreamers'' is in many ways a remake of that feverish classic of emotional incest, only with more overt politics and far less danger. The film's final minutes return Matthew, Theo, and Isabelle to the streets for a glib, unconvincing wrap-up, but clearly the director's heart and hormones are back in that mossy apartment, and you can feel the opportunity for something grander, sharper, and wiser slip away. Bertolucci has crafted a film so nostalgic for the blindness of young lust that it ends up blinding itself.
("The Dreamers": ***)
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.