3-1/2 stars (out of 4)

A whirl of sensuality, youth and rebellion set in Paris during the riots of 1968, Bernardo Bertolucci's new film "The Dreamers" is ablaze with poetry and danger, and suffused with an odd kind of intellectual kitsch.

Bertolucci has taken his story from a memoir by Gilbert Adair about a French-American menage a trois, three 20-ish kids who meet as devotees ("rats") of Paris' renowned film library/museum, the Cinematheque Francaise. The trio -- French twins Isabelle and Theo (Eva Green and Louis Garrel) and American Matthew (Michael Pitt of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch") -- meet as the '68 demonstrations are breaking out and soon are enmeshed in their own private last apocalyptic tango.

As we watch, author Adair and auteur Bertolucci fashion a movie in which sex, cinema and revolution are as dangerously entwined as the dreamers themselves.

For better or sometimes worse, "The Dreamers" is quintessential Bertolucci. With his old mastery of sensual images and erotic tension, the director of "The Last Emperor" and "Last Tango in Paris" re-creates the worldwide youth rebellion of the '60s -- a time in which politics, protest, pop culture and sex all fused into an alternative world often seemingly on the brink of explosion.

Like his most famous work "Last Tango," "The Dreamers" is about sex as a delusory refuge from the violent world outside -- a chaos that ultimately breaks through the windows. It's a sexier movie than "Tango," too, more explicit and graphic -- it earned an NC-17 rating -- though the times have so changed since 1973, it's nowhere near as shocking.

Here, Isabelle and Theo are familiar Bertolucci types: very spoiled children of privilege and the French literary world. Their father, like Bertolucci's, is a famous poet, their mother a British intellectual. And Matthew is a movie-loving Yank whose posture is droopy but whose DiCaprio-esque face glows with naive idealism and head-over-heels love for his new pals. After the parents leave Paris for a while, Isabelle and Theo draw him increasingly into their semi-incestuous fantasy world and provocative games.

The background for all this, glimpsed in pieces, is the famous "semi-revolution," which began at the Cinematheque when minister of culture Andre Malraux tried to sack Cinematheque's aging but legendary founder and director, Henri Langlois (for bureaucratic carelessness), arousing much of France's cinema elite to protest. That fight flared into a series of leftist strikes and street battles around France that, for some awestruck young cinephiles, presaged possible worldwide revolution.

Most of "Dreamers," however, takes place not in the streets -- among the rioters, riot police, tear gas canisters and Molotov cocktails we sporadically see -- but upstairs in bathrooms and boudoirs, where Isabelle and Theo taunt and tease Matthew, twining together nude in Isabelle's bed.

For the threesome, as well as their creators, sex and the movies are life: brief, incandescent, less threatening than the battles in the streets. They play movie games based on Dietrich and Garbo movies and Howard Hawks' "Scarface," with sexual forfeits for wrong answers, and they re-enact moments from Godard movies, including the breathless race though the Louvre in "Bande a Part." Locked in their cul-de-sac above the fray, their passions for love and movies fuse, and Bertolucci frequently intercuts black-and-white images from cinema past with their feverish, colored '68 present.

Yet they also want danger. And, more and more, as Paris bursts onto riot and flames, the fire draws them out. The situation suggests Cocteau's and Melville's "Les Enfants Terribles," but "The Dreamers'" mood is closer to "Tango" minus that movie's sense of existential dread. The three leads, especially Green, are stunningly attractive, though only Pitt dredges up much depth of character. Yet if there's something silly and perverse in the erotic tangle we see -- spoiled, lazy or arrogant kids playing their brains out while Paris burns -- it's not really because Bertolucci misrepresents the times. Au contraire. He and Adair remember them well. And even though they use Edith Piaf's anthem "Je ne regrette rien" under the credits, it's not, perhaps, without a few regrets of their own.

"The Dreamers" is so naked and unguarded, I can't imagine it not inspiring both derision and affection in audiences. Still, it's a movie so physically beautiful and ardent that it can make you fall in love or lust against better judgment. I loved a lot of it, lusted after some. Returning us sensuously to the past, "The Dreamers" reminds us how much of that past still lives in the present.

"The Dreamers"

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci; written by Gilbert Adair, inspired by his novel "The Holy Innocents"; photographed by Fabio Cianchetti; edited by Jacopo Quadri; production designed by Jean Rabasse; produced by Jeremy Thomas. In English and French, with English subtitles. A Fox Searchlight release; opens Friday, Feb. 13. Running time: 1:56. MPAA rating: NC-17 (explicit sexual conduct).

Matthew -- Michael Pitt

Isabelle -- Eva Green

Theo -- Louis Garrel

Father -- Robin Renucci

Mother -- Anna Chancellor

Patrick -- Florian Cadiou