15 June, 2004Issue 3.3FictionFilm & TVLiteratureThe ArtsWriters

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Dreaming of the One

Jenni Quilter

The Dreamers
(starring Eva Green, Michael Pitt & Louis Garrel)
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Gilbert Adair
The Holy Innocents
Heinemann, 1998
154 pages

Gilbert Adair
The Dreamers
Faber & Faber, 2003
193 pages

Gilbart Adair
Buenas Noches Buenos Aires
Faber & Faber, 2003
151 pages

If you listen closely, you can hear the weary sighs of the intelligentsia each time a film is released that is purportedly based on a novel. Reviewers tend to be shocked by creative differences which really ought to be considered par for the course; of course the film is going to seem different from the novel. But what happens when the author not only writes the screenplay and stays on the set for the duration of filming, but also publishes not a novelisation of the film but rather a revised version of his own novel? Gilbert Adair’s first novel The Holy Innocents came out in 1988. Fifteen years on, Bernardo Bertolucci released his film of Adair’s novel, which he called The Dreamers (2003). Renewed interest in Adair’s novel was inevitable, but rather than republish The Holy Innocents, Adair insisted that he rewrite the novel and put out this revised text as The Dreamers. As a result, Adair and Bertolucci have given us three versions of Paris in the summer of ’68, three variations on a ménage a trois that develops between French twins and a visiting student from San Diego, Matthew.

It all becomes even more sticky when one realises that Adair is on the verge of being identified as a gay writer and that the primary difference between his novels and Bertolucci’s film is the sex: in Adair’s novels, we encounter a genuine ménage a trois, but in Bertolucci’s film, it only takes two to really tango. What is Adair’s game then, if it is clear that the gay sex in The Holy Innocents is not window dressing? In changing the sexual arrangements of the characters, Bertolucci ends up making a film that is comprehensively different in both spirit and letter. These complications are exacerbated by Adair’s latest novel, Buenas Noches Buenos Aires (2003), which charts the homosexual exploits of a young man called Gideon in Paris at the beginning of the AIDS crisis. Not surprisingly, Faber & Faber delayed publication of Buenas Noches Buenos Aires till after the release of The Dreamers. ‘They thought it might confuse the issue’, Adair says.

The Holy Innocents starts out unabashedly celebrating film. Rather than be swept up in the student protests of the time, the three young cinéphiles in The Holy Innocents prefer to withdraw to the twins’ apartment (sans Mama and Papa) and develop a game of filmic charades, ‘Home Movies’, for which the forfeits of failure become increasingly sexually explicit. The novel then turns to examine incest, bisexuality, humiliation and a relationship between the three in which the young American, Matthew, is the true innocent, manipulated and degraded by the young French twins. The twins have been lovers for many years, and Matthew has sex with each of them. Instances of humiliation become frequent. Weakened by hunger (they run out of food and the will to cash their parents’ cheques), they resort to eating three cans of cat food in the pantry and fall violently ill. Having passed out, Matthew wakes up to find the twins shaving his pubic hair. The next time we see him, he is sitting cross-legged, catatonic, with abstract symbols drawn on his face and body in human excrement.

Adair was never happy with The Holy Innocents. The book’s ending is clichéd and unsatisfying; the mutually assured emotional destruction the novel has been working toward is passed over in favour of a sudden dash by the three to ‘catch up with history’ in a simplistic and overly grandiose fashion. Leaving their apartment after a rock is thrown through the window, Matthew is killed on the barricades. Adair’s reservations about The Holy Innocents meant that he refused to sell the film rights to any director – refused, that is, until 2001, when Bernardo Bertolucci made an offer. It is obvious why Bertolucci would appeal to Adair as a director. He is highly ciné-literate and has earned a reputation for depicting sexual transgression and emotional one-upmanship. This is the director who, in Last Tango in Paris (1972), has one character sodomise another using butter as a lubricant. However, in The Dreamers, aside from a few longing glances between Matthew and Theo and a suggestion of autoerotic asphyxiation between the two that is halted before it has begun, the film focuses upon the relationship the two boys form with Isabelle. The equilateral love triangle has turned isosceles. In an interview with the Guardian, Bertolucci commented:

The gay sex was in the first script, but I had a feeling that it was just too much stuff. It became redundant. I told Gilbert: ‘Please don’t feel betrayed, but when a book becomes a movie, it becomes a whole new conception’. And he told me: ‘Be totally unfaithful’. So I think that I’ve been faithful to the spirit of the book but not the letter. I had to make it mine.

It seems that for Bertolucci in The Dreamers, ‘making it mine’ means making it the actors’. As Adair puts it, ‘at the end of a film you often see in the credits the sign ‘No animal has been harmed in the making of this film’. Well, no young actor was demeaned or degraded in this film’. This is a far cry from Last Tango in Paris, in which the principal actress, Maria Schneider, was reputedly hysterical for much of the filming. In our interview, Adair recalled the necessity of ensuring that the actors were confident about the film’s nudity and sexuality and claimed that even a suggestion of an actor’s discomfort would have been a ‘calamity’ for The Dreamers: ‘The film was about sexual liberation [and] you can’t force people to be liberated’.

However, the impact of such ‘principled’ filming on the overall direction of the film is considerable. The result is that each actor’s set of personal peccadilloes about privacy shifts the film’s focus from a ménage à trois to a series of heterosexual plays for Isabelle’s affections. Though the three are hungry, there is no sight of cat food, only burnt ratatouille. The effect of these changes becomes absolutely clear when Isabelle and Theo (with razor and shaving cream) corner Matthew in the bathroom. Matthew is not covered in excrement and is stoned rather than catatonic. The twins argue that his acquiescence to their shaving him would prove his love for them. Matthew refuses this test; instead, he insists that Isabelle come out on a date with him, without Theo. Thus, the humiliations of the novel are reduced to a gesture, a childlike perversity that is summarily dismissed. Matthew is not degraded; rather, he is liberated.

Another critical shift occurs after Theo insists that Isabelle and Matthew have sex as a forfeit, at which point Isabelle is revealed to be a virgin. This is not the case in the novel; Theo and Isabelle have clearly had sex for quite some time before Matthew arrives. Given that Stealing Beauty (1996), Bertolucci’s previous film, has as its lead a 19-year old girl who is also a virgin (and whose preoccupation is to lose this status as the film progresses), one can’t help but suspect that there is a Bertolucci signature effect in Isabelle being a born-again virgin. Again, Adair insists, this was not due to Bertolucci, but due to the actress Eva Green’s insistence that her character be a virgin, ‘and we thought, well, maybe she knows the character better than we do’. Giving the actors such an extensive say in the development of the film’s themes is, to Adair, a result of Bertolucci’s wider belief in the value of change at the expense of perfection or fidelity to a script. The film was edited concurrently with shooting and, as a result, developed along its own distinct lines away from the novel, as, in Adair’s words, the actors ‘appropriated’ the film. However, rather than complicate matters emotional and sexual, the film suggests that Bertolucci has preferred to simplify. It becomes unclear how The Dreamers will mean more than Threesome (1994) to teenagers who’ll hire it from the video store.

There is one aspect of The Dreamers that might save it from this fate. The original films that Isabelle, Theo and Matthew quote and re-enact for each other have been spliced into their games in the film, and the result of this extremely deft editing is marvellous. At one point we watch a scene from Blonde Venus (1932), with Marlene Dietrich removing the hands, one by one, then the head, of her gorilla costume, set against Isabelle’s repeated refusals to Theo’s pleas that she provide clues to the identity of the film. (‘The director’s name…The number of words in the title…The first letter of the first word?’) One favourable outcome of watching The Dreamers would be for some viewers to come away from it with a mental list of films to hire. At least this might please Adair, who despairs of the fact that ‘for a lot of kids film history begins with Pulp Fiction and for the more ciné-literate begins with Raging Bull’.

These filmic references mean that The Dreamers’ departure from matters homosexual doesn’t make it a bad film, but it is disappointing when you examine the career of Gilbert Adair. Despite considerable literary output, critical praise, a fairly large readership, and two novels already having been made into films, Adair has not made it to the pantheon of British novelists called for comment in G2 and has not been within striking distance of prizes like the Booker. In an interview I recently held with him on this subject, Adair puts it down to the lack of ‘The One’: ‘all it takes is one, just one. I’ve never had that one novel by which everything else is defined’. According to Adair, ‘The One’ has to be longer than the small books he tends to write. ‘Size matters – and I’m not a size queen’.

However, this doesn’t seem to be the whole story. Reading his novels and non-fiction, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that many of them deal with the issue of sexuality, or more specifically, homosexual desire. Adair has been fascinated by Thomas Mann’s short story ‘Death in Venice’, rewriting the story as Love and Death on Long Island (1990) and publishing a short history of Mann’s object of infatuation, The Real Tadzio (2001). His novel A Closed Book (1999) also focuses upon the idea of obsession at a distance, but in a decidedly negative tenor. In our own discussion, Adair recalled an interview for A Closed Book in which the interviewer tentatively stated that he had a ‘certain following among a particular type of man’ and suggested that ‘these people would be so delighted if instead of just brushing against a particular subject, you would actually confront this head on’. For Adair, his treatment of homosexuality in his novels has been a knight’s move in chess: ‘two steps forward, one to the side. You never make that third step forward that would actually clarify matters and remove all ambiguity’. Rather than being another knight’s move, Buenas Noches Buenos Aires takes three firm steps forward in one direction only. When I suggest that the novel is at least a castling, he checks my suggestion with another: ‘I see it more like the queen. Only in the sense that the queen can go anywhere’.

Though there have been many laudatory reviews of Buenas Noches Buenos Aires, a note of outrage has sounded amongst a few reviewers at the immorality of the protagonist Gideon’s decision to continue in his promiscuous ways despite his knowledge that he has contracted a communicable disease. This is by no means an unusual response to Adair’s novels. Reviewing The Holy Innocents, Mansel Stimpson in the TLS suggests that ‘the embarrassing dedication hints at an authorial fantasy’. Given that he considers the central section of the book ‘pornographic’, Stimpson gives Adair little space to manoeuvre in. When I ask him about this ad hominem tendency of reviewers and Buenas Noches Buenos Aires, Adair insists that the novel was never meant to be a manifesto or a handbook for gay solidarity. The key observation might be that, in relation to Adair’s work as a whole, as he comments himself, ‘It’s all really happening inside someone’s head and I’ve heard that this is not a legitimate response to tragedy’. All of Adair’s novels (bar The Dreamers) are written in the first person and most play thematically with the consequences of either self-delusion or deception. A Closed Book sets out the deception of a blind man; as the text is a transcription of his ‘verbatim’ conversations, the reader is effectively blind also and cannot see the deception coming until he is told of it. In Love and Death on Long Island, it is clear that the main character is deceiving himself as to the likelihood of his sexual conquest of a young B-movie male heartthrob.

Given the proviso that Adair’s texts tend to be monologues of self-absorption, Buenas Noches Buenos Aires works well. The denouement is unexpected enough to be satisfying. The narrative voice bears up well under the stylistic constraint of the testimonial form. The language is rococo camp with high misogyny at times (on a woman’s rejection of a man’s advances: ‘Just what were these cunts waiting for?’). What seems to provoke dissatisfaction is the lack of character development in terms of the narrator’s relationships with other characters. None of Adair’s narrators develops a ‘genuine’ relationship with any other. In a curious sense, Adair’s novels bring new light to the term ‘self-centered’: very few of his narrators actually change as a result of the novel. They may come to decisions they did not make before, but they are never regretful, nor self-reflective in the way a frustrated reader cries out for them to be, especially if the reader disagrees with their moral decisions. (Interestingly enough, similar comments have been made about the characters in the film The Dreamers.)

The mixed reviews of Buenas Noches Buenos Aires have had a considerable impact on Adair. He is, to use his word, ‘discombobulated’: ‘I don’t recognise my novel in the reviews…I don’t know what to do. I’m so lost. I really am. Most of the time I know better than anyone else what’s wrong with my novels, and now I’m discombobulated, I really don’t know right from wrong… I can’t start a new novel now…for the first time the perception of other people has actually invaded my sense of self, which it never did’. It is worth wondering whether Buenas Noches Buenos Aires is the sole cause of Adair’s disaffection, or whether his participation in The Dreamers (and Bertolucci and his actors’ appropriation of the novel’s events) has had its own discombobulating effect. Yet it seems that if his latest novel can provoke this unexpected divergence of opinion, it also has the energy to avoid the derisory calls of ‘Pastiche!’ or ‘Dilettante!’ which have been heard before. Bertolucci would never make a film of Buenas Noches Buenos Aires; perhaps, this is to this novel’s credit.

Jenni Quilter is reading for a DPhil in English at St Johns College, Oxford, and writing on John Ashbery.


  1. Guardian 5 February 2004.
  2. Peter Tatchell, reviewing the book, is disapproving: ‘Typical of many middle-class queers, he [Gideon] benefits from the campaigns of others but contributes nothing to the collective efforts that help secure a better life for gay people’. London Evening Standard 19 February 2004.
  3. Mansel Stimpson ‘Enfants horribles’ Times Literary Supplement 9 September 1988: 983.
  4. For instance, see the review of The Dreamers on www.tiscali.co.uk