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Rites of Spring 

Bernardo Bertolucci revisits young love with The Dreamers.

It is so very nice when a movie completely outstrips the expectations conjured by its trailer, as is the case with The Dreamers. On first impression, this tale of three passionate youths caught up in the late-'60s Parisian countercultural revolution looked downright trite. Never mind that esteemed veteran director Bernardo Bertolucci was in charge -- from all available clues, it appeared that we were in for nothing but a cheesy ménage-à-trois romp targeted at the idiotic Britney 'n' Justin generation.

Sometimes it's nice to be wrong. The Dreamers is a real humdinger: at once an intimate romance, a glimpse into a rather unconventional friendship, and a beautifully focused celebration of cinema itself. It's a love story, played out via homages to classic movies, frank playfulness, and good ol' ardor. These elements quickly conspire to unite Southern Californian transplant Matthew (Michael Pitt, Murder by Numbers) with new French friends Theo (Louis Garrel, Ceci Est Mon Corps) and Isabelle (impressive newcomer Eva Green). Their common ground is established at the Cinematheque Française, and quickly they're clicking. Soon enough, the initially mysterious Theo and Isabelle invite him for dinner, a prolonged stay in their home ensues, and the relentlessly surprising siblings quickly weave seemingly staid Matthew into their weird, wild world.

While it's potentially nauseating to experience yet another dusty Boomer blathering about how frickin' great the '60s were (man), Bertolucci breathes fresh air into the concept. It's the spring of 1968 outside, the Cinematheque's Henry Langlois is being sacked after contributing inestimably to the French New Wave, and political riots are breaking out all over the place. All significant wide shots, indeed, but much as in the locally shot Kent State-era drama The Year That Trembled, the power and poetry lie in the close-ups. Like his beloved geeks who insist on sitting in the front row, Bertolucci wants us to receive his characters as directly as possible, and very fluidly we are there.

At first, all is merely jovial, as the trio emulate scenes from their favorite films and rock out to the Dead-at-27 Club: Janis and Jimi and Jim. But soon Matthew finds himself a catalyst for metamorphosis in his friends' perversely symbiotic relationship -- with unpredictable results. He's the product of American puritanism unleashed in Bohemia, and when all three are sharing a bath together and literally steeping in Isabelle's monthly bill, the connotation is clear: These kids crave each other on a primal level.

As an engaging stranger-in-a-strange-land film, The Dreamers perches head and shoulders above such cute but absurdly overrated sketches as Lost in Translation or L'Auberge Espagnole. Yes, it's also horny as all get-out. Unabashedly honest about youthful sexuality, it depicts just about everything in fairly graphic detail. Its candor is very refreshing. Fox Searchlight distributes some terrific films (Waking Life and Thirteen among them), but when its president, Peter Rice, recently pre-defended The Dreamers as "an audacious and original film for intelligent critics and discerning adult audiences," it sounded immensely patronizing and off-putting. Again: Wrong! The movie is just the dose of relatable mainstream art the U.S. cinema desperately requires.

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