Dreamers, The : From Film To Book

Strangely for a film about obsession, passion and possibilities, THE DREAMERS is a project that happened almost by accident, was at first considered with reluctance and would never have happened for any other director. At the time Bernardo Bertolucci first picked up Gilbert Adair’s 1988 novel “The Holy Innocents,” he was thinking carefully about his next project, and he approached this introspective tale of a ménage a trois in the midst of the 1968 Paris riots with mixed feelings. A self-confessed Francophile, the Parma-born Italian felt too close to the events of that turbulent year and was ambivalent about translating them to cinema for fear of cheapening both his own experiences and those of others. “I’ve made very few movies in my life,” says the director of such award-winning movies as LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1973), THE LAST EMPEROR (1987) and THE CONFORMIST (1970), “because every film is really a part of my life.”

Indeed, when Adair’s book came to him he was seriously considering the idea of a sequel of sorts to his epic 1976 masterpiece 1900, which traced, in parallel, the lives of a farmer and a landowner and came to an end in 1945. “I wanted it to go on until the end of the century,” says the filmmaker, who was considering making Paris in 1968 one of the stops along the way. “But then I thought, ’Let’s be real. What was behind the film 1900? There was a big political hope — and today I cannot see anything at that temperature so I gave up.”
But Adair’s book brought back some wonderful memories. “It’s not so much about the events of ’68, the riots and the violence,” he says, “it’s more about the spirit of the moment.” For Bertolucci, the former poet whose love of cinema was catalysed by the French cinema of the ’30s and given a boost by the Nouvelle Vague (or New Wave) directors of the late ’50s and early ’60s, that spirit comprised a dizzying mix of elements.

Inspired by the novel, Bertolucci gave it to his long-standing producer Jeremy Thomas, whom he met in the early ‘80s and worked with since THE LAST EMPEROR. “He’d been toying with the idea of making a film in Paris, set in the ‘60s for a while,” says Thomas. “He tried various thoughts, without any success, and then finally he said, ‘I’d like you to read something…’ I thought it could make a very evocative film.’ And as it would be my fifth collaboration with Bernardo, I thought it would be great to make a movie in Paris with the man who made both THE CONFORMIST and LAST TANGO IN PARIS there. I thought, ‘Why not make the third one?’”

Thomas made the call to Adair’s agent. Had anyone else placed the call, it’s very likely the answer would have been a definite no. Dissatisfied with the book, which was drawn in part from his personal memories, Adair had already turned down several potentially lucrative requests from other producers, not least because of the critical success achieved by the film adaptation of his novel “Love And Death On Long Island.” In fact, he had asked his agent not to phone him if any more calls came in. “It was,” says the author, “just too frustrating. So he stopped telling me, but then one day he did phone me. He said, ‘I’m telling you because it’s special — it’s Jeremy Thomas and Bernardo

Bertolucci.’ I must say, I couldn’t resist that particular temptation. Because the novel is about the movies, about politics, about cinema itself, it seemed an obvious subject for a film, which is why a number of producers were interested. But to me, it seemed particularly relevant for someone like Bernardo. There seemed to be themes and preoccupations that I recognized from his own work.”
With input from Bertolucci, Adair set about not only rewriting the script but actually rewriting his novel too, for a new edition, although he concedes, “It’s not identical to the film. I don’t think it’s a good idea for a novel and a film to be like twins, certainly not identical twins.” Although the director and writer hadn’t known each other in the ‘60s, it became clear that their experiences were remarkably similar. Like Bertolucci, Adair arrived in Paris as soon as he could. “I was always a Francophile too,” he says, “and as soon as I left university I decided I wanted to come and live in Paris.” Bertolucci had arrived a few years earlier, after his debut movie in 1962, and when he did his first interview, he said to the journalist, “If you don’t mind, I’d like to do the interview in French.”

The journalist said, “Why? We are all Italian here.” Bertolucci replied, “Parce que le Français, c’est la langue du cinema.” He laughs at the memory, “In other words,” he says, “French is the language of cinema. Cinema speaks French.”
Gilbert Adair was in Paris when Henri Langlois, director of the Cinematheque Française, was relieved of his duties, outraging the films buffs and students who crammed into his screenings of rare movies. Furious with the government, these people took to the streets, initially to defend one man but later for much, much more. “It was a big event in Paris,” says Adair. “It was the first time young people had taken on the State and actually won, because Langlois was reinstated. A lot of people have argued that this was the curtain-raiser for the riots of May ’68, and in a way it was like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at the start of WWI. There was a spirit of rebelliousness in the air, and then suddenly it all exploded. I was there for all of it, and some years after that, and I wanted to write about it. Not an autobiographical novel, which “The Holy Innocents” certainly was not, even though there are autobiographical elements there, but something about a period that marked my life forever.”

The film, however, only touches tangentially on the historical elements of that particular time. “It’s the story of three young people in 1968,” says Thomas, who was at that time working with Ken Loach at Pinewood Studios, “and in those days Paris was a central hotbed for lots of idealism: political, lifestyle and a changing of moralities. I found that a fascinating period to make a movie about. It was a very strong period even in London, when I was 19, but not nearly as strong as it was in Paris.”
Adair confirms that this is not a history lesson. “It’s very much a chamber piece,” he says. “Although at certain moments in the film, history does — in the guise of May ’68 — erupt into their lives, it’s about a young American student in Paris who is befriended by two French kids, a brother and a sister.”

Says Bertolucci, “Everything starts on one particular day in Paris when our ‘heroes’ meet. The French kids’ parents have gone on holiday for a month, so, together, they lock themselves in the house. And they have this very intense relationship, a real initiation, in those few days. They stay locked in the house and when they go out they are grown-ups. They become adults.”
“It’s about their voyage of discovery,” adds Adair. “It’s about the spring: the springtime of Paris, the springtime of its political awakening and the springtime of their bodies. And what happens inside the apartment seems to reflect, in a certain way, what’s happening outside.” Indeed the events of 1968 have many meanings for all concerned, and not just political. “People will ask me if the film is about ’68,” says Bertolucci, “and I’ll say that, yes, it takes place in ’68, and there is a lot of the spirit of ’68, but it is not about the barricades or the fighting in the street. It is more about the whole experience. I was there and it was unforgettable. There was an amount of hope in young people that you had never seen before, and never would again. The attempt to dive into the future, and freedom, was fantastic. It’s the last time something so idealistic, so Utopian, happened.”