The strike eventually failed and de Gaulle was reelected. Today, when most May '68 militants have been criticised for their extreme communist, socialist or Maoist approach, the ethos of those events remains vivid amongst French youth. Many young French still aspire to reproduce the spectacular events of their parents' generation. Each year, during strikes, the walls of Nanterre University, the Sorbonne and many other French universities are covered with classic '68 slogans such as "It is forbidden to forbid" or "be a realist, ask the impossible." Over the last years, this issue has become more and more visible: in response to the education reform in 2009, French universities held the longest strike since 1968. In some universities it lasted the whole semester and put the students at risk of failing the year. Pictures of yearly strikes in France seem incomprehensible without an understanding of the '68 poetics to which they refer. Therefore it is interesting to see a foreign director propose a contemporary vision of the events that so profoundly formed the political approach of young French people today.
Bertolucci approaches the subject through a stereotypical portrait of young bourgeois intellectuals studying at the Sorbonne, seen through the eyes of a foreign student. Educated, good-looking, rich and very liberal, they devote their lives to decadent activities. They live for and through cinema, which defines the boundaries of their hermetic world. Mathew, fascinated by their lifestyle, engages in an affair with Isabelle and her twin brother Theo. Like most of their peers they start to follow the political movement - and at this very moment the charm of the film vanishes. Discussions of Mao's "little red book" are held in a bourgeois apartment over their father's expensive wine and next to a Mao shaped lamp. The pretentious but seductive protagonists are drastically reduced to paper-like characters who mindlessly quote popular slogans. Bertolucci neglects to depict the conflict itself and the possible positions one could take within it. The film does not give any insight into the emergence of the political movement, or the reasons for it. In effect, the film seems to offer only two possible positions: romantic dreamer or pacifist conformist.
It is very difficult to synthesise the complex cultural, political and social origins of the French '68 movement. An emotional engagement in international disputes, such as the war in Vietnam and the cultural revolution in China, as well as internal French issues, fused into one violent and at the same time festive movement bringing together students and workers protesting against multiple types of authority. Can cinema immerse spectators in such complex political events? Many film directors have attempted it, for instance such classics as Louis Malle's "Milou en mai," Jean-Luc Godard's "La Chinoise" or Chris Marker's excellent "A Grin Without a Cat."
However, Bertolucci's nostalgia for a period of freedom of expression and cultural revolution pushed him to concentrate on a fantasy picture of the '68 generation and neglect what essentially formed this generation. Or maybe he himself haberts a black and white vision of that era. Either way, "The Dreamers" proposes a simplistic and compromising representation of one of the most interesting and significant political movements in France and in Europe. Let's stick to the classics.