Set in Paris amongst the student and leftist uprisings of May 1968, which at its height almost bought the French economy to a halt, Bertolucci’s camera roves around the American student Matthew (Michael Pitt), a film buff, who cruises around the Cinémathèque Française and becomes intertwined with twins Isabelle (Eva Green) and Théo (Louis Garrel).
Considered a romantic drama, the film’s romance lies in its depiction of transgressive love and the nostalgic Paris it portrays. The visuals are all French New Wave but in colour, and the soundtrack features the wailing chords of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. The boys wear slim suits, skinny ties, and white socks. And when the camera first pans to Isobel, she is in a green velvet dress and red beret, smoking a cigarette while apparently chained to the Cinémathèque’s gates. That night, the three break a baguette and share it, as they walk along the cobbled pathway next to the houseboats on the River Seine, lit by lamplight.
The visuals are all French New Wave but in colour, and the soundtrack features the wailing chords of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.
Soon the inseparable twins (who at birth were Siamese and have matching scars to prove it) invite Matthew in to become the inseparable three. They bond over their love of movies, considering themselves ‘purists’ for eschewing television for the nobler art form of cinema. One of their favourite games is to re-enact movie scenes, which the other must guess. In homage to these films, Bertolucci cuts his characters’ re-enactments with the films’ actual footage and in doing so mimics Godard’s revolutionary jump-cuts of the era. When the twins pressure the reluctant Matthew to recreate a scene from Bonaparte, where they attempt to beat the time set by the characters in the film of running through the Louvre, Isabelle says to him: “Matthew this is a test. Are you going to pass it or fail it?”. He passes – they beat the record by several seconds.
When his new friends invite him over to their Paris apartment for dinner, Matthew becomes enticed by their family’s bohemian leanings (the twins’ father is a poet). And once their parents set off to the country, he quickly accepts Isabelle and Théo’s invitation to move in with them. But as Matthew gets caught up in their world, the movie game’s stakes are raised and take a turn for the sensual. Paris rages on outside and the three cloister inside the apartment, in their own dreamlike existence. Degradation occurs as food becomes scarce, boundaries are usurped, and the apartment turns to filth with neglect. Like a dream their escapades within its walls are at once absurd, funny, claustrophobic and erotic. But as the bond between the twins is broken by Michael’s entry, chaos ensues, and the fury from the world outside begins to cleave everything apart.