I will dream a gentle dream
a soft dream.
I am at peace in this dream.
I am safe...
Dream Lover is a not-uninteresting Freudian psychological thriller from the director of Klute, derailed by a too-clinical fascination with the sterile, simultaneously uncinematic and exposition-reliant, world of dream therapy.
|Kristy McNichol as Kathy Gardner|
|Paul Shenar as Benjamin Gardner|
|Ben Masters as Dr. Michael Hansen|
|Justin Deas as Kevin McCann|
Kathy is a talented and gifted jazz flutist (you’ll just have to take the movie’s word for that) living in a state of infantilized, vaguely incestuous arrested-development under the dictatorial thumb of her overbearing father (Paul Shenar), a prominent D.C. attorney.
After winning a scholarship to a prestigious New York music academy, Kathy, in an uncharacteristic show of independence and in strict defiance of her father's wishes, sublets an apartment in Greenwich Village, and, in short order, becomes romantically involved with her curly-permed jazz improv instructor (Justin Deas). Unfortunately, before Kathy even has a chance to adjust to her newfound freedom, Freudian guilt and paternal retribution comes swiftly and brutally in the form of an "I warned you it wasn't safe away from Daddy" apartment break-in and assault, resulting in Kathy killing her assailant with his own knife.
Now, haunted by recurring nightmares in which she is forced to relive the attack, Kathy submits to an unorthodox, experimental sleep therapy. A treatment which, while proving to be successful in quelling her nightmares, may have the unforeseen side-effect of inducing, in her waking moments, the compulsion to act out and upon emotions heretofore confined solely (and safely) to her dream world.
—with its themes of violence, sex, dreams, and repression (redolent of Marnie, Spellbound, and Vertigo)—would be Pakula picking up the Hitchcock mantle after serial Hitchcock homagist Brian De Palma at last appeared ready to set it aside following the flop critical reception to his Rear Window-inspired Body Double (1984). If so, I was beyond excited at the prospect of what a director of Pakula's skill and sensitivity with actors could bring to the genre.
Thus, I turned a blind eye to anything negative portended by Dream Lover being released in the dump month of January (a traditionally low-attendance time), and remained blissfully ignorant of the fact that I was one of the few (the very few, as it turns out) enthusiastically anticipating the opening of this, Alan J. Pakula’s first film in four years…since 1982's Sophie’s Choice.
My imagination was tweaked by Dream Lover’s striking, pulpy poster art (my work commute took me past MGM’s Culver City studio, so for over a month I got to gawk at the sight of an enormous and threatening billboard featuring America’s teen sweetheart brandishing a switchblade). I was sent thoroughly over-the-top the first time I saw the theatrical trailer—all fast cuts, Psycho-strings, and ominous voice-over: “Imagine the terror of living a nightmare every time you sleep. Every... time… you sleep….” And I was unaccountably taken with the intriguing notion of seeing squeaky-clean Kristy McNichol in a role that promised to be a dramatic departure.
Starting Over (1979) single-handedly reinvented Candice Bergen’s career by unearthing the self-effacing comedienne beneath the actress' much-touted ice-princess veneer.
It’s this latter directorial alchemy I anticipated Pakula working on Kristy McNichol, a talented actress I’d always liked (even in the wretched-but-oddly enjoyable The Pirate Movie), but who, when not busy being the only good thing in a string of mediocre films, appeared headed on a career collision-course that threatened to turn her into Marie Osmond’s answer to Erin Moran.
|Kathy, Scat Singing With a Jazz Combo|
Remarkably, this is NOT the reason someone tries to kill her a few moments later.
(McNichol also played a flutist in 1984's Just The Way You Are)
However, when I say Alan J. Pakula is one of my favorite ‘70s directors, I say it with emphasis on the “70s” part, for I tend to be a tad less fond of the late director’s post-1979 output (Pakula died in 1998). Starting with the soporific financial thriller Rollover (1981), Pakula's work during this period vacillated between ambitious (Sophie's Choice), banal (See You in the Morning - 1989), conventional (The Pelican Brief -1993), and, in the case of Dream Lover, fascinating but flawed.
|Kathy's dreams are affected by the repressed, conflicted feelings |
she has about her love-hate relationship with her controlling father
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
As contemporary psychological thrillers go, Dream Lover is very much up my alley. Yet, due to reasons easily attributable to its script (a first effort by one-time Pakula assistant and co-producer Jon Boorstin), and less verifiably ascribed to Pakula’s directorial choices; Dream Lover proves itself to be one of those high-concept, high-style thrillers that starts out promisingly, only to later develop serious problems sustaining suspense and maintaining a consistent tone.
Before its script gets hijacked by the self-serious contributions of a phalanx of sleep-research technical advisers (presented with the kind of grave earnestness guaranteed to make it sound absolutely crackpot), Dream Lover at least has the benefit of a marvelous setup. From the outset the central conflict is established as one both emotionally subjective (Kathy’s unresolved feelings about her father) and psychologically reactive (resultant of the discrepancy between Kathy’s dream reality – aka her desires - and her actual existence). In being made privy to the content of Kathy’s dreams, we’re made aware of how her rather vague daily persona as a dutiful daughter contrasts significantly with her vivid and active dream life.
In her nocturnal life, Kathy variably casts herself as a child; her own late mother (dressed, significantly, in red); and as an imprisoned figure capable of escape only through means of literal flight. Meanwhile, her father, for whom Kathy in real-life serves as a combination surrogate wife figure and eternal child, appears alternately as an idealized figure of warmth and acceptance, or a threatening, faceless specter.
Since Dream Lover is presented from the exclusive perspective of Kathy’s reality—the perspective of a repressed, bordering-on-regressed grown woman with serious daddy issues; the film makes an interesting case of positing Kathy’s attack (though psychologically scarred, she comes to no physical harm due to unleashed pent-up rage) as being a physical manifestation of guilt (she defied her father) and sexual panic (the attack occurs moments after what may have been her first sexual encounter).
|"I stabbed him...he dropped his knife, so I picked it up and I stabbed him! |
And...I never felt so good as when I stuck that knife in him!"
Dream Lover’s Freudian overlays are metered out with such style; its intensifying cycle of recurrence and repetition so measured and deliberately paced…it’s a little too bad that the gripping psychological thriller we’ve been primed for never actually shows up. The introduction of the sleep therapy angle —precisely when things should accelerate—takes what had heretofore been a fairly gripping, fun/trash psychological melodrama, and tries to turn it into a serious exploration of the scientific advancements made in the area dream research. Zzzzzz.
Movies themselves are dreams. If a director wins over an audience’s confidence, he/she can make us believe and accept almost anything, no explanations necessary. Thrillers grind to a pedantic halt the minute they find it necessary to try to ground the primarily emotional pleasures of the genre in sober factualism (especially when, in order to accommodate a patently preposterous climax, the film chooses to jettison all laws of physics and logic). Hitchcock had the good sense to leave all the psychological mumbo jumbo for the end of Psycho, and even then it still came across like the most superfluous scene in the movie.
Throughout the film, Kathy's surroundings consistently reflect her emotional conflicts, reinforcing the theme of Kathy's dream reality having an increasing influence on her real life.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
From a literal standpoint, the phrase “Dreams are what le cinema is for” is no idle claim. Dreams have been depicted in motion pictures since their Inception (a little dream-related film-geek joke there…heh, heh) dating as far back as the early 1900s.
If asked to cite directors whose visual sense best captures what my own dreams look like, I’d have to say Ken Russell and Roman Polanski (making musical room for Busby Berkeley and Vincente Minnelli); but such baroque theatricality isn’t always necessary to make the fantasy world of dreams feel authentic to me.
Fanny and Alexander), who gives Kathy’s dreams an austere luster of atmospheric dread.
Unfortunately, Dream Lover came out just around the time of MTV over-saturation. Freudian symbolism had become such a clichéd, overused mainstay of music videos at this point that Dream Lover’s imagery (as beautiful and fitting to the plot as it is) was met with a lot of been-there, done that.
I know a great many people don’t care for Kristy McNichol in this film (if the words “great many” can be used in reference to a film as obscure as Dream Lover), but I find her to be absolutely riveting. Given what I consider to be the low to marginal quality of most of her films (Only When I Laugh and White Dog being the exceptions) it’s perhaps not saying much to credit this as my favorite of her screen performances, but it really is…she gives an authentic performance and absolutely makes the film for me.All of the performances in Dream Lover are uniformly fine, some suffering at the hand of their utilitarian service to the machinations of plot more than others. But I particularly like Ben Masters as the sleep researcher. He shares an easy rapport with McNichol and his genuine, seemingly nice-guy vibe plays well to the elements of the story centering on Kathy's suppressed distrust of (and impaired judgment regarding) men.
|Gayle Hunnicutt & John McMartin appear in brief roles as family friends|
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Dream Lover embodies two of my favorite things in off-beat films: 1) So-called "serious" directors tacking genre material, 2) Actors cast against type.
Alan J. Pakula can't help but bring a lot of technical skill and intelligence to this thriller (in spite of a screenplay that too often has intelligent characters regularly engaging in dumb behavior in order to keep the plot moving), but Dream Lover has the feel of a melodrama too proud to revel in its own enjoyably schlocky premise, instead it keeps trying to convince us of the soberness of its subject matter. Too bad, because for at least 60 of its 104 minutes, Pakula looks like he's willing to go for broke and serve up a tasty, low-calorie thrill-ride. It only falls apart when he tries to shoehorn in the substance.
As for Kristy McNichol, her participation in the film was a major draw for me back in 1986, it's nice to report that her subtle and affecting performance looks even better to me 30-years later. Not so much the '80s fashions and Kenny G-type sax musical interludes.
|The '80s were not fashion forgiving|
The theatrical trailer that got my pulse racing back in 1986