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Archive for July, 2015

The characters in Olivier Assayas’ Après mai (2012) aren’t very interesting in themselves, but taken together, they serve as a microcosm of the French left in the early 1970s, which was in a state of disarray following the events of May ’68. The film tells the story of a handful of politically engaged high school students from an affluent Paris suburb, and as the story opens, the kids are a cohesive unit, carrying out acts of vandalism under cover of night. But when one of them puts a school security guard into a coma, the group splinters with each of its members following a different path. Gilles (Clément Métayer) applies to study painting at Beaux-Arts while his girlfriend, Christine (Lola Créton), joins a filmmaking collective committed to political agitprop. Alain (Félix Armand) follows his hippy American girlfriend, Leslie (India Menuez), to Kabul in search of enlightenment, and Jean-Pierre (Hugo Conzelmann) gets a job working for a Trotskyite newspaper.

This is not to say, however, that the movie gives equal weight to all of its characters. Gilles has vastly more screen time than anyone else, appearing in the majority of scenes, and in the film’s first half hour especially, the framing singles him out as the most important character. He’s the first person we see, carving the anarchy sign into his desk at school in close-up, and even when the camera pulls back to frame the class as a group, he’s still in the foreground near the centre of the image. On the other hand, there’s nothing to indicate that Jean-Pierre (sitting a few seats over, on the far right side of the screen) will be an important character in the story: he has no dialogue or actorly business in the scene, and his clothes are unexceptional. Furthermore, with the exception of Créton (who’s appeared in movies by Catherine Breillat and Mia Hansen-Løve), there aren’t any familiar faces in the cast, making it easy for the other actors to disappear into the crowd, as Conzelmann does in the classroom scene.

As this suggests, the film implicitly endorses Gilles’ eventual withdrawal from politics. At one point, he and Christine follow the collective to Florence where they’re screening a documentary on the Laotian people’s struggle against American imperialism. We only see a brief snippet of the movie, but the earnest voice-over (“Our people have rallied around the Lao Patriotic Front… and will fight until the ultimate victory”) and quaint images of a smiling peasant performing a traditional dance only reinforce our sense of the collective’s political naïvety. (Earlier, when one member caught Gilles reading Pierre Ryckman’s The Chairman’s New Clothes [1971], he dismissed its account of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution as CIA propaganda.) What’s more, during the subsequent Q&A, one audience member asks the inevitable question about revolutionary content needing a revolutionary form, and gets the predictable answer that the collective was more interested in educating the masses than in style, which underscores the impression that their documentary sacrifices aesthetics for the sake of easy legibility. So when Gilles goes back to Paris, frustrated with the collective’s “boring films” and “primitive politics,” it’s clear he’s right and Christine’s wrong.

Indeed, Gilles is pretty plainly a stand-in for Assayas. At the end of the film, he’s working on a silly commercial movie by day and watching experimental shorts by night, implying he’ll grow up to be a director like Assayas who straddles the line between Hollywood and art cinema. Accordingly, the storytelling in this film alternates between clarity and obscurity. Despite all the characters’ wandering around Europe and Central Asia, we’re never disoriented as they always announce in advance where they’re going next. Thus, one isn’t confused to see Leslie looking at paintings by Rembrandt as she already told Alain she was going to have an abortion, even if she didn’t specify that she was going to Holland to do it. On the other hand, when Gilles’ first girlfriend, Laure (Carole Combes), jumps out a window to escape a house fire midway through the film, it’s not clear if she survives, and she isn’t seen again until the final sequence when Gilles spots her in an avant-garde movie, which doesn’t necessarily prove she’s alive. (If anything, the image of her walking blissfully across an edenic field seems to imply she’s gone to heaven.) In its validation of political apathy, Après mai is anything but radical, but it’s a lovely piece of work all the same.

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