If You Liked ‘Saltburn,’ Consider This Much Better Movie

If You Liked ‘Saltburn,’ Consider This Much Better Movie

Sex in “The Dreamers” isn’t merely about shoving youthful abandon in our faces, it’s a means of exploring the boundaries between fantasy and reality — sex, in a sense, is about finding a happy balance between unleashing your animal instincts and performing for your partner. Yet the characters are completely blind to where that boundary lies, allowing their fantasies to consume their realities. Isabelle comes close to committing murder-suicide via a gas oven, but a brick that crashes through the window brings her back from the opera playing in her mind.

The uprisings of May 1968 are raging on the streets of Paris. Theo, in particular, is a vocal supporter of the protests, referencing Marx and other radical intellectuals when he talks about the need for a revolution. He may be cultured, but, as Matthew points out, Theo isn’t out on the streets, he’s inside with his sister, reading, smoking and playing make-believe. In this context, everything they do in the apartment — even their mature activities — feels strangely naïve and innocent. The siblings may think they’re worldly by treating sex so casually, but in doing so, they refuse to admit their incestuous feelings for one another just as they refuse to turn their radical talk into real, on-the-ground action.

But then, is the dream of a revolution its own game of smoke and mirrors? This possibility stings, because Bertolucci plays it straight. These days, satire seems to be the dominant mode for addressing upper-class ignorance and wealth disparity (see “The Curse” or “Triangle of Sadness”), but keeping a cool, mocking distance sometimes fails to capture the passion, helplessness and despair churning beneath our layers of intellectual armor.

Fennell has cited “The Dreamers” as an influence on “Saltburn,” which isn’t surprising. Both are about navel-gazing young folks whose perversions are given free rein; unhinged indulgence; and the hypocrisies of privileged people. Oliver is a middle-class nobody who sleeps, murders and scams his way into a fortune by playing an object of pity for moneyed types who consider themselves “woke.” As a class satire, or so “Saltburn” has been labeled, it’s impotent, satisfied with poking fun at the snarky rich and giving us a mindlessly horny, disturbed hero for no reason other than it’s fun and vaguely triumphant for anyone who dreams of living large.

The thing about “Saltburn’s” transgressive moments — the grave humping, the bathwater guzzling, the buck-naked dance through the mansion — is that they inspire little beyond an instinctual eyebrow raise. Watching the film at my mother’s house reminded me of watching racy movies as a teenager, a bit too eager to take in scandalous images without a care for what they actually mean.

That’s certainly what first drew me to “The Dreamers” when I was young. Looking back at it now, its vision of youthful folly — the way it entreats us to think harder about how we relate to the stylish images that shock and seduce us — feels evergreen.

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