The actual title of Olivier Assayas’ new film is Après Mai–a reference to the months following the student and worker demonstrations of May 1968 in France. And that, in many ways, is the focus of the film: young, sincere characters trying to maintain the commitments of 1968, but somewhat too young still to be a real part and unprepared for the crashing ordinariness of the life to come.
The film begins with high-school students’ listening to their teacher’s monotonous reading of Pascal’s Penseés. Within minutes of screen time, these same students are scrambling away from overzealous police dispelling a student demonstration. The life of the classroom and their political/social/activist lives are much, much different. The teachers give them Pascal and they are reading Gregory Corso, Chairman Mao and listening to Phil Ochs.
I had a friend who was a student in Paris at that time in 1968. When I asked her about it, she sort of shrugged. “The only difference,” she said, “was that afterwards we were permitted to call our professors tu rather than vous.
But for Gilles, Alain, Christine, Rachkam la Rouge, they want very much for the spirit of May 1968 to be carried on, to be carried through. They believe that May was not the climax but the beginning of the revolution. Stuck in their sleepy village outside of Paris, the students join political parties, pack debating halls, distribute the radical free-press, and organize guerrilla graffiti forays against the local establishment and police. One of these night raids goes wrong and a guard falls into a coma when hit with a bag of cement mix. The students decide to scatter.
Gilles (Clémont Métayer) and Christine (Lola Créton) hitch up with a radical collaborative on its way Italy where they become lovers and later part as she continues with the collaborative to make a film on Italian workers.
Gilles is torn in his radicalism–for his passion is art, and he is not convinced that his art must always serve the “cause.” Alain (Felix Armand) and Leslie (India Menduez), an American he meets in Rome, go East to Afghanistan, he an artist and she a dancer looking for spirituality. Disillusioned over time, they all return to France, and ultimately to Paris.
But there is another story running through Gilles life. Of course, in a story of a teenage-boy there needs to be friction between him and his father, a successful movie director. While there is never dramatic conflict between the two, as he grows, Gilles is able to tell his father how superficial and wrong-headed he believes his film adaptations are. (The father makes adaptations of George Simenon’s Maigret novels.)
But the more important sub-plot is about Gilles and his true love, Laure (Carole Combes). When she first appears early in the film, there is a jarring film switch from the smokey riots of their village to an Edenic, woodsy scene. She has come to meet Gilles and is in flowing white and the sun illuminates both her and the shimmering foliage around her. I felt however that I was in a 1970’s shampoo advertisement and that any minute I would hear Donovan singing “Wear Your Love Like Heaven.”
Laure is a bit more worldly than Gilles and his mates, and her wealthy bohemian parents are taking her to London, as the father is the light-man for a fledgling rock band. She is willowy and bright and airy and full of sunshine. And she leaves a mark that even Christine knows she cannot undo. Later, when his father informs him that she has returned, he ventures out to her parents’ chateau for a party. Throughout the party, I was reminded of when the Stones had moved to the south of France in the early ’70s and had worked on Exile on Main Street. There was the same louche, blowsy freedom, the same drug use, the same music, the same comings-and-goings.
The party is important, though I am not positive how it ended. Gilles leaves. Laure jumps from a burning building and that is it.
And then real life steps in. Gilles is a “go-fer” for his father’s film company (although a left-wing broadsheet has begun using his drawings), Leslie abandons her “spirituality” and returns with her father to New York and Julliard, Rackham le Rouge leaves the Trotskyites for inconsequential anarchism, and Christine discovers that the earnest leftism of the man she is living with and the collective they are part of does not carry forward to women.
Olivier Assayas–who wrote and directed–gives us a nostalgic film, a film that even looks from an earlier period. The colors, the lighting, the cutting, the soundtrack all capture a particular moment in time. And the two leads, Créton and Métayer are likeable and familiar–we do care about them and their decisions.
Frequently in the film, we watch characters watching films–and these films within a film are rendered in wavering, sincere, gaudy, and innocent beauty. (Perhaps part of that innocence is the knowledge in hindsight that much of it is not going to last.) Indeed, film and film-making is such an integral part of the story that now I am not sure if Apres Mai (Something in the Air) isn’t a dissertation on film of that era disguised behind a story of that era.
In the end, Gilles is working on a science fiction film in London that features giant lizards and Nazis (and Dolores Chaplin, the granddaughter of Charlie and Oona!); Christine’s collective is releasing its first commercial documentary on Italian workers (though free to workers’ unions) and Gille’s dad is still turning out the Maigret mysteries. However, Apres Mai ends with a haunting, new wave, almost psychedelic clip of a willowy woman walking towards the camera.
We recognize her by the end.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
And for a treat, here’s the Stones live in 1972 doing “Tumbling Dice” from Exile on Main Street.