08 March 2004

apologies for lack of updates. i've been writing three papers for mid-term. i'll share this one, since it alludes to something i'd written about earlier. since i no longer have webspace, i'll have to put it here, in full. spoiler warning: if you intend on seeing the dreamers, you may want to skip this. or you might want to skip it on principle.

Sibling Revel(utiona)ries: Incest and the Social Order in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers

In “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” Gayle Rubin performs a “somewhat idiosyncratic and exegetical reading” of Marcel Mauss’ Essay on the Gift and Claude Lévi-Strauss’ The Elementary Structures of Kinship in order to demonstrate that the gender hierarchy does not have a biological basis, but rather that it is inextricably bound up with our culture (Rubin 228). According to Rubin, Mauss proposes in Essay on the Gift that “gifts were the threads of social discourse, the means by which such societies were held together in the absence of specialized governmental institutions” (231). Examples of gifts included food, spells, rituals, words, names, ornaments, tools, powers, and, as Levi-Strauss put forth, women: “marriages are a most basic form of gift exchange, in which it is women who are the most precious of gifts” (231).

If a patriarch would not, for instance, simply give away the fruit of his labor to someone within his kinship system, it would seem a certainty that he would not give one the fruit of his loins, his “most precious of gifts,” his woman. So, it follows, that the incest taboo emerges, “not as having the aim of preventing the occurrence of genetically close matings,” but, rather, as having the “social aim of exogamy and alliance upon the biological events of sex and procreation” (231). The result of the taboo on incest is a “wide network of relations” ordered by a kinship structure that is the basis of social organization” (232).

Rubin believes that this practice, this “exchange of women,” is not limited to “primitive” societies; quite the contrary, “these practices seem only to become more pronounced and commercialized in more ‘civilized’ societies” (232). Not only did the “world historical defeat” of women begin with the origins of culture, she argues that it is “a prerequisite of culture” (233). The exchange of women is emblematic, then, of a system “in which women do not have full rights to themselves.”

Aside from the “extermination of the offending sex” (228), how can women, or even one woman, assert her right to herself? I intend to argue that Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2004) offers a way. It is not, perhaps, the most agreeable approach, never mind the most moral, yet what could be less agreeable than the status quo?

The Dreamers is set during the months leading up to the Paris student riots of May 1968. The last time we saw Bertolucci’s Paris, in 1972’s Last Tango in Paris, Marlon Brando gave Maria Schneider the phallus repeatedly, so to speak, in what could hardly be considered a pro-feminist exhibition. The Dreamers, to be sure, is not completely free of female objectification, yet it does make an intriguing argument about female commodification, about woman as gift. By performing an “exegetical and somewhat idiosyncratic reading” of The Dreamers, I will contend that, in its depiction of a woman freely giving herself to her brother, the film strikes a blow against both the diachronic social order of patriarchy and, ultimately, against the synchronic social order of the Paris of May 1968.

• • • • • • •

The film is centered around the Cinémathèque Française, where “modern cinema was born.” Indeed, the film posits the uproar over the dismissal of Henri Cinémathèque secretary-general Langlois as ground zero for the impending student uprising. It is during the Langlois protests that the three protagonists meet each other for the first time. A young American student, Matthew (Michael Pitt), sees the Parisian Isabelle (Eva Green) ostensibly chained to the door of the Cinémathèque. It turns out that she is in fact only holding onto a chain – this becomes an important symbol of Isabelle and her brother Theo’s (Louis Garrel) lack of physical commitment to the burgeoning movement.

Isabelle and Theo are the “dreamers” of the film’s title: theirs is a world where art does not imitate life, but, rather, initiates it: they re-enact scenes from famous films, quote them incessantly, and play games of “forfeit,” where the loser is compelled to do whatever the winner asks. Inspired by Godard’s Bande à part they run through the Louvre, eluding guards, with their new American friend in tow. For his participation, Matthew risks deportment, but with its successful completion, he is “inducted” into Isabelle and Theo’s society through the chant, “Gabba, gabba, we accept you, we accept you, one of us,” taken from Tod Browning’s Freaks, an epithet that becomes a subtext of the film.

Membership has its privileges and so Matthew earns a dinner with Isabelle and Theo’s parents: their mother, an Englishwoman, and their father, a celebrated poet. The father declined to sign a petition against the Vietnam War, content to enjoy his bourgeois life in the family’s immense Paris flat. He is incredibly dismissive of his children’s belief that they can change the world through demonstrations. Theo, especially, is cut to the quick by his father’s criticism. “It is not enough to ignore them,” he says. “Parents should be arrested and put on trial.”

The dinner the family has that night will be their last for some time: the parents are off on an extensive holiday across the continent, leaving behind checks to make sure that the children are taken care of. Matthew is invited by the siblings to, essentially, sleep over while the mother and father are away. What he discovers during his stay becomes almost more than his naïve American sensibilities can process. While looking for a bathroom in the middle of the night, he peers into Theo’s room only to see the siblings sleeping in the same bed, completely nude. In due time, he will also learn that they kiss on the lips, use the bathroom in front of one another, and bathe together. For all intents and purposes, they play house with one another, outside of the watch of their harried mother and judgmental (yet passive) father.

Yet, what disturbs Matthew most is the aforementioned game of “forfeit,” where the penalties are left entirely to the (in)discretion of the winning sibling. As a result of failing to realize that Isabelle was acting out a scene from Blonde Venus, Theo is “forced” to masturbate in front of a picture of Marlene Dietrich as both Matthew and Isabelle look on, the former with horror, the latter with approbation. What Matthew perhaps does not realize at this point is that, after his initiation, he is fair game himself.

Later that evening, too much wine and pressure weaken Matthew’s faculties, leading him to lose Theo’s forfeit. The “penalty”: he must have sex with Isabelle as Theo watches. He accuses the two of them of being out of their minds and runs – not through the exit, mind, but through the labyrinthine apartment. He is eventually “caught” and after some more drinking, he yields to Theo’s request. For his part, Theo makes eggs as the two make love.

It is in this scene that Theo plays the role of the traditional patriarch, gifting his sister to another man, a man outside their particular kinship structure. It is a move that he comes to regret. After they have made love for the nth time, Matthew says to Isabelle that she and Theo are “like two halves of the same person.” He leaves the room momentarily, only to return and find Theo, in a fetal position, pressed up against Isabelle’s naked body. Matthew finds little shocking at this point and, instead of questioning what Theo is doing, he comments that the siblings have “made me feel like part of you.” It is important for him to be loved, to be accepted by the “family,” the kinship structure that Theo has brought him into, through Isabelle. Yet, resentments seem to harbor close to the surface as Theo replies that there are only two and only ever will be two: “There is no room for a third.”

• • • • • • •

It is apparent that, after the first sexual encounter between Matthew and Isabelle, she is a virgin, to Matthew’s relief. In bed, he quizzes her about her relationship with Theo. He asks her, “Theo’s never been inside you?” to which she responds: “He is always inside me,” figuratively, not literally speaking. He also inquires if their parents know about their strange relations, and what would happen if they did find out. “It must never happen,” Isabelle replies. “I would kill myself.” The parents do not know, and thus their protest remains silent (and unconsummated), locked behind closed doors, just as their spoken commitment to Henri Langlois and the Cinémathèque Française remains unacted upon.

It would seem, then, that at this point my thesis is untenable. Incest, I would argue, is generally understood as sexual intercourse between people so closely related that they are forbidden by law to marry. In my despair, I turn to the OED, which, as usual, provides the key to my salvation. Incest is defined as:

1. a. The crime of sexual intercourse or cohabitation between persons related within the degrees within which marriage is prohibited; sexual commerce of near kindred (my emphasis.)

Cohabitation: the sharing of a room, the sharing of a bath, the sharing of a bed. Only once does Matthew even see Isabelle’s room, in a violation of her wishes. It is, quite literally, the bedroom of a twelve year-old girl, adorned with lace and teddy bears, and it appears as if it has not been used since Isabelle was twelve.

The three (or the two plus one) cohabitate inside the enormous space as the outside world edges closer and closer towards anarchy. Theo is a revolutionary in his own mind, forever challenging Matthew’s pacifist stance and quoting political texts, especially his favorite, Mao’s “Little Red Book.” Theo sees Mao as a “great director” with a “cast of millions,” who hold “books not guns.” Matthew responds: “If you believed what you were saying, you’d be out there.” Despite his best intentions, Theo’s involvement in the domestic drama that he precipitated keeps him from acting: he is, in reality, no better than his father.

It is at this point that “the street comes flying into the room,” figuratively and literally. Figuratively: Theo and Isabelle’s parents return from their trip early, unable to phone since the bill went ignored. They discover the tangled mass of slumbering, naked bodies in the living room, but say nothing leaving only another check behind to affirm their presence. Isabelle wakes first and notices this check, sending her off to make good on her earlier promise.

Literally: She is interrupted by a piece of asphalt that comes crashing through the window of the apartment. The riots have, yes, been brought literally to their doorstep. The three take to the streets and join the chanting masses. Theo, however, rushes to the frontlines and takes up a Molotov cocktail from an organizer, with Isabelle at his heels. Matthew tries to prevent Theo from giving in to violence with an impassioned plea of love over violence, of art and beauty over chaos and disorder, sealed with a kiss. Theo chooses the side of the rioters. Matthew’s gaze turns to Isabelle. Despite their protestations of love to one another, she too denies him, running off with her brother to fight.

• • • • • • •

After this rejection, Matthew turns back towards the shouting crowd, a lone(ly) American in Paris. He disappears amongst the throng. With Matthew removed from their lives, Isabelle and Theo reassert their commitment to each other, to the cohabitation that dare not speak its name.

And yet it has been spoken, or better yet articulated: the parents are aware of what goes on when their back is turned. That Isabelle does not kill herself; that she seems as revitalized as she does at film’s end; that she chooses Theo and those implications over Matthew and a “normal” life all would argue that their defiance would continue even with their parents’ knowledge. The reaffirmation of their “union” vitiates the historical kinship structure, as, out on the streets, it seeks to weaken the contemporaneous foundation of capitalist France. As Communist flags wave on the streets of Paris, Theo and Isabelle unite not only on the domestic front, but on the Popular Front, as well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

есль ветром сдует? [url=http://profvesti.ru/o-stroitelstve-zabora/88-stroitelstvo-zabora.html]ремонт 2 комнатной квартиры[/url]