Repression of Incestuous Desires and Megalomaniacal Tendencies (Compensating for this Repression) as Factors of De-existentialization of Western Youth’s Interests

The family dinner as an exam

Isabelle and Theo’s father is an established professional poet and a person of traditional spirituality (when above-existential values considered as a key to a successful earthly life) in its secular variant. He is not interested in his children’s (and the younger generation’s in general) existential problems. He implies that they better forget vain human motivations and become more “spiritual”, less of “this world”. Instead of trying to involve his children into a critical understanding of this world’s logic and its shortcomings and potentials papa-poet stimulates them to distance themselves from their human “passions”. In this shot he looks like a zoologist staring at the tiny lives of the young people (his own children including) like at little insects.

For Matthew as a young American with intellectual interests Paris starts with its “best museums and libraries in the world” including the impressive private library of his new friends’ father. The meaning of the composition of this shot is that intellectual pursuits in a healthy – existential culture couldn’t be in the corner of life without ways out. As a matter of fact, in this scene there is a narrow, cave-like, as if a secret passage-corridor out of this book-corner, but it leads only to private life without any reference to social nature of human being.

Matthew learns how in relations with his Parisian friends to be the needed third. The so called sexual freedom in a sophisticatedly repressive society tends to be such that the “conventional” sexual object (CSO) is not more than a surrogate for the one which had existed earlier, during childhood and which the subject was prohibited from wanting and didn’t have a right to touch. CSO (personified for Isabelle by Mathew) is always the subject’s vain attempt to “re-incarnate” the “forbidden”/repressed infantile-sexual object-fantasy. In this sense, the situation in “The Dreamers” is not exceptional but typical for our civilization. Even for Bertolucci (who never shies away from addressing psycho-social problems involving the sensitive spots buried beneath the social norms and values) it took a lot of courage to go to the area of a paradoxical and “bizarre” sexual triangle: Isabelle’s infantile sexual object (her brother), she as the subject with a compulsive phantasy, and her conventional sexual partner (Matthew).

In the film we see a lot of sexuality – multifaceted flirtations, stripteases, emotional pulsations, masturbation, sexual acts and psychological manifestations and vignettes around. Bertolucci has opened this Pandora‘s box for the viewers, in order to, it seems, to make the point that until human sexuality is a “moral” problem (mass culture instead of trying to de-puritanize it, vulgarizes and by this re-puritinizes it), all other areas of life including behavior in the public realm are impregnated with irrationality, idolatry, aggressiveness and compulsive fears and excessive risk-taking. In this shot we see Isabelle doing a striptease for Theo and Matthew but cannot avoid behaving as a virgin who she really is – while dancing she is not able to look at the world (she retreats into herself, she cannot look at the world looking at her because she is too shamed and too shy to look at herself as a body while she is quite strong and an imposing personality). The reason of her unexpected shame/shyness is, of course, what the meaning of “The Dreamers” is all about – repression of her and her brother‘s old incestuous urges that psychologically poisons not only their future but, according to Bertolucci’s daring generalization, the life of people in a sexually repressive cultures. Sexual repression leads to de-existentialization and, paradoxically, to dogmatization and flattening of our spiritual life. Together with innocent and fleeting childish urge it locks the human creative energies and transforms a young person into a morbid combination of arrogance and conformism.

While being shame-shy, Isabelle is also childishly-stubbornly assertive in her right to be with two guys in the same bathtub: rebellious self-assertion is absorbed by unresolved sexual problem and its infantile context and it becomes “abstract” (as any defiant/“political gesture” of young people with repressed infantile sexuality). Bertolucci’s point here is that until sexual liberation is not achieved (until infantile sexuality is repressed and disavowed) people will not be able to fight effectively for their non-sexual liberation, that sexual freedom is the background of a mature fight for freedom in the public sphere. The letter of protest will be used instead of its meaning, its ritualistic pomp instead of its essence, instead of a sober program of modest actions. The protest becomes spectacular and is mythologized, exactly as it happened in American sexual and drug- and mass-cultural “revolutions” of the 60s.

When infantile sexuality is repressed (it means, it persists and is metastasized in masked form), sexuality which is allowed – is infantilized and superficially sentimentalized or/and transformed into fun (as it is advertized in sap-soap-operas and in Hollywood melodramatic spread). This infantile aspect of pop-sexuality is suggested in this still where Isabelle and Matthew are “dating”. Psychological essence of this dating is mutual consumption and proud demonstration to everybody around their ability to consume (to have sex with) each other.

Matthew is grateful to his French friends for letting him to be Isabelle’s “incestuous ersatz-object”, for allowing him to collect the emotional crumbs off from the table of their forbidden incestuous passion. Of course, he doesn’t formulate his predicament in this way – he imagines himself as their real partner, a helper of the two beautiful Parisians. And, eventually, moved by desperate (psychologically defensive) megalomaniacal wave, Matthew wants to win over them both. But what other options does he have? He is not loved by Isabelle (because she loves Theo) and he cannot lose her (exactly because he never really had her) – so, he unconsciously tries to become indispensable to them, their “prophet”, to awaken their spiritual life.

Isabelle’s body engulfs Matthew’s being inside their mutual experience of toy-sexuality – an artificial psychological formation for a pleasant consumption (named sexual liberation) which engulfs the largest segment of young generation (today already at least three generations) of the Western cultures.

Matthew triangulates banana (as a pop-phallic symbol) in front of Theo by trying to secure a place for himself in Theo-Isabelle’s relationships impregnated by a debilitating torment. Here, he makes yet another attempt among many to dissipate Theo’s permanent jealousy (made exaggerated by the twins’ need for a surrogate partner).


Being a dreamer deserves whole-hearted endorsement only if “dreams” don’t take the person away from real life, don’t rip him/her off the existential soil: if dreams are not stronger than the dreamer. But if dreams are stronger, then the young person’s mental balance is in danger. Young people by definition cannot be stronger than their dreams (which are like clouds – frivolous and changeable, and like winds – despotic and indifferent). For young people dreams are like obsessions appropriated by the faculty of imagination. They need identification with positive and mature adulthood to be able to be equal to their dreams. But when dreams are masters humans are slaves. They are kidnapped by their dreams as Ganymede by the eagle or the American neo-conservatives by money.

That’s what happened with young heroes of Bertolucci’s film. Their imagination and intellectual potentials are kidnapped by their innocent and touching love of cinema. They use cinema as a surrogate of living because their emotional connection with life is disrupted by the repression of infantile (incestuous) sexual desires. For this reason their intelligence in general is de-existentialized and infantilized – they are able to produce only foam of resistance to established norms, in which they try to catch a rainbow. Cinema for them becomes not just escape from reality but the area where they can project their intelligence and enthusiasm outside life. It’s possible to be involved even with serious cinema in mass-cultural manner – heroes of “The Dreamers” are the proof of this. And what’s left for life is only conformist strategies of personal self-realization and sentimental acting-out of non-conformist poses of pyrotechnical protests.

“The Dreamers” analyzes the psychological and socio-cultural reasons for young people’s inability to promote progressive changes in society, be it in Europe (the student rebellion of May ’68 in France that the film depicts) or in US around the same period. Among the psychological reasons for this failure, Bertolucci focuses on the problem of repression of incestuous desire (infantile sexual phantasies) – this repression forms the human psyche in a way that it precludes young people’s libidinous investment into life. Among the socio-cultural reasons Bertolucci points out the omnipresence of traditional spirituality with its emphasis on hierarchical structural order of the universe in which the place of living “in this world” is on the bottom. Traditional spirituality represented by the father of the two main protagonists (Theo and Isabelle) who as a poet didn’t help them develop their aspirations “inside this world”.

The situation of the young French brother and sister (locked inside an incestuous emotional knot) is combined through the plot of the film with the destiny of their American peer spending time in Paris. This allows the director to analytically address the film to both – European and American realities. The incestuous brother and sister are fixated on their infantile desires and not able to discover a larger life. Their American friend is doomed to be sucked into a whirlpool of their emotional agonies and battles and, finally, can’t resist being used by them as a sexual prop.

Bertolucci’s ambitious and courageous concept of the importance of being able to resolve incestuous obsession in order to go out of infantile sexual fixation into life and adulthood makes this film an example of how intellectual art can help as a case of innovative psycho-social pedagogy.

Incestuous need as the director depicts it is in no way similar to the anthropological concept of incest (accenting a final amorous choice, marriage and reproduction). It is pure libidinous desire that can be outgrown after being therapeutically satisfied – to open the way to discover adult (oriented on otherness) sexuality. According to Bertolucci’s images, the impossibility to satisfy infantile sexual phantasies creates psychological trauma which is the reason of a lag in psychological maturation. Historically speaking, incest taboo went too far (was too crude and extreme) – together with the repression of incest as a marriage between incestuous partners it represses infantile sexual desire, instead of existentially processing it towards its overcoming. “Enlightened” democratic societies are not an exception from this authoritarian over-reaction on the “naturality” of childhood incestuous phase of human libidinous development. Repression of infantile sexual desires creates a morbid fixation on these desires. The impossibility to satisfy them makes them stronger. The result is de-existentialization of desires and fragmentation of psyche (often creating “incestuous” idolatry of money and consumerism as obsessions not controlled by psychological wholeness) which are the radical obstacles for libidinous development. Impulses and partial interests (the masks of repressed infantile sexual phantasies) start to dominate human life. Sexual love as a position of psychological wholeness is transformed into sex as a desire of psychological fragment.

Like French twins are not capable of overcoming the blind authoritarian taboo on incestuous desires and remain fixated on them forever, their American friend agrees to be used as a sexual prop because his infantile sexuality was shut in the same manner making his libidinous energies ripped off from existential relationships. While Theo and Isabelle personify those who are aware their infantile sexual fixation that is eating them alive, Matthew personifies those who are unconscious about his trauma and who is blindly acting it out. He suffers from the split between love and sexuality (between sentimental love and sexual one). It is his intelligence and sensitivity that makes him to create from his feelings an amorous hybrid of sorts – a sentimental attachment to his sexual desire which Bertolucci “registers” in many details (including the symbolic fact of him carrying Isabelle’s picture inside his underwear).

The father-the poet’s pedagogy has a pernicious influence on young people. He is represented almost as a comic character (the similar approach the director uses in his description of “secular cultural elite” in his “Stealing Beauty”, 1996). In his handling of the problem of incestuous fixation (as the essence of infantile sexuality”) Bertolucci uses Jean Cocteau’s film “Les Infants terribles” (1950) as an analytical trampoline for building his own concept. In his handling of the topic of young people’s behavior in the public realm (of their social condition) he uses Jean-Luc Godard’s “Band of Outsiders” (1964) where personal relationships become a tool for satisfying symbiotic (infantile/ incestuous) fixation on hunting for money and social success. In “The Dreamers” Bertolucci continues to examine the psychological condition of the young people he started in his own youth (“Before the Revolution” – 1962). He detected the same relation between fake “political radicalism” of the hero in “BR” and his incestuous relationship with his aunt, as he found in “The Dreamers” between infantile sexual fixations and utopian political passions.

In the last scene of the film we with amazement discover that the shy and modest American kid has a strong megalomaniacal compensation for being used as a sexual prop (for not being loved while being sexually accepted) in a form of wanting to be loved in general – in an absolute/unconditional way. Is Bertolucci suggesting here that megalomaniacal tendency (in the form of feeling that “we are the first and the best in the world”) exists in American psyche as a result of chronic deficits in enlightened parenting capable of handling the child’s infantile erotic impulses with tact and wisdom?

Bernardo Bertolucci

Posted on Feb 6 2015 –   “The Dreamers” (2003) By Bernardo Bertolucci  by Acting-Out Politics

Posted on Nov, 3 2017 –   The Role Of “Bizarre” Visual Images As An Intellectual Stimulation Of The Film-viewers – From Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” (2003) by Acting-Out Politics