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In contemporary French and European cinema, the events of May 1968 live stubbornly on – intensely debated and treasured and re-mythologised. A whiff of tear gas is a madeleine. For wasn't it cinema itself, and the attempted sacking of the Cinématheque Française chief Henri Langlois, that helped spark the Paris uprising? Philippe Garrel's Les Amants Réguliers, or Regular Lovers (2005), showed a young poet, played by the director's son Louis, taking to the barricades in 1968. Louis Garrel played something similar in Bernardo Bertolucci's soixante-huitard swoon, The Dreamers (2003). Before that, Louis Malle's Milou En Mai, or May Fools (1990) starred Michel Piccoli as the provincial Milou, whose family estate in May 1968 is on the verge of being dismembered by history itself.
Olivier Assayas's Après Mai, or After May, is in this tradition. It is released here under the title Something in the Air, and indeed there is: a concrete block heading for the skull of a security guard. Of this, more in a moment. The action takes place in 1971 when the revolutionary spirit is still present, but beginning to be coloured by lassitude, anger, violence and a nagging sense that livings have to be earned and careers built. This is a great-looking movie with a sure sense of time and place; it is obviously a personal, and in fact, autobiographical work about Assayas's own youth. But for all its flair, I came away dissatisfied at its colossal self-indulgence and creamy complacency, and the way historical perspective and meaning are permitted to dissolve in its sunlit nostalgia. Its sense of revolutionary politics is very different from the hard, fierce drama of Assayas's epic Carlos, about the international terrorist.
Clément Métayer is Gilles, a politicised kid in high school and would-be artist who is angrily participating in the radical spirit of the times: he is the lover of Laure (Carole Combes), but the relationship is disintegrating because she is leaving for England, and Gilles is increasingly drawn to the beautiful Christine (Lola Créton). In the cause of consciousness-raising, Gilles and his comrades crank out agitprop zines on mimeograph machines and creep into the school at night to cover the walls with graffiti – the kind of graffiti that in 2013 has been reportedly wiped out by social media and Web 2.0. But it isn't simply that: a concrete block is pushed over a walkway handrail, hitting a security guard below, putting him into a coma, and this serious act of violence – the one moment at which, in fact, the whole idea of violence is brought to a head – means Gilles has to leave town. He heads south to Italy and finds that the further south he goes, the more lenient and hedonistic the revolutionary spirit becomes, very different from the arguments and smoke-filled rooms of Paris.
A good deal happens to Gilles and his contemporaries during the movie: experimental films about the workers' revolution in south-east Asia and South America are shown and excitably discussed, a lot of good-looking young people have sex, and there is a tragedy. But that injured security guard does not figure greatly – until a fraught encounter near the end – and it is not easy to tell if anyone's minds have been changed about what happened to this poor man. Gilles does not appear particularly penitent, or guilty, yet neither is he specifically defiant on the subject of necessary violence: when the subject arises, Gilles's attitude is one of tense self-pity.
For all this, Assayas does a superb job of immersing you in a forgotten world. At the beginning, Gilles riffles through his extensive record collection and puts Syd Barrett's The Madcap Laughs on the turntable. Good choice. And then it's time for a romantic encounter with someone who later says: "My step-dad's doing the light show for Soft Machine." Cool. Clearly Gilles and his friends are well-connected, and when he has to travel across Europe, it eventually becomes clear that it isn't just a network of revolutionary cells who are putting him up – his family is really pretty well off. Although the question of money is never mentioned, it is clear that this kind of travelling is not for the proletariat.
Like Assayas himself, Gilles winds up getting a job with his dad, who is a TV director – they have an amusing argument about Georges Simenon's Maigret novels that are being adapted for the small screen. And then – oh the indignity – Gilles finds himelf working on a goofy dinosaur movie at Pinewood studios in uncinematic Britain. What would François Truffaut have to say about that?
Inexorably, the revolutionary passion turns into a summer romance. But what precisely has been betrayed in this, and what principles have survived? The ideas get lost in the nostalgic, elegaic glow, but that glow is nurtured expertly.— Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
Wed September 18, 2013, 7:00 only, Muenzinger Auditorium
France, 2012, French w/ English subtitles, Color, 122 mins, DP, 1.85:1, NR • official site