Sunday, May 11, 2014

Regular Lovers (Philippe Garrel, 2005)

[The following is a belated Blind Spots entry.]

The grainy black-and-white imagery and raw sound give Regular Lovers an impression of verité instantly belied by Philippe Garrel’s aesthetically minded composition. Often, the film resembles a documentation of experimental theater more than a recreation of the director’s memories of May ‘68, particularly in its first half. The frontloaded scenes of violent student protests are presented as flattened, static looks at both students and cops, each group set against a pitch-black void as they shuffle nervously from side to side rather than in deep recess toward the opposition. Canned explosions and minimalist barricades only complete the oneiric vision of protest, so much so that a dream sequence of the students rendered as 18th century Jacobins almost passes by unnoticed for looking no less real than the riots in the present.

This alienated, dispassionate rendering of May ‘68 protests, the opposite of more vividly captured replications in films like Something in the Air, avoids nostalgia or belated self-justification on behalf of the author in favor of his mature reflection on the events of his youth. Regular Lovers stretches out for three hours to cover a well-worn subject in French cinema of the last 46 years, and by getting protests scenes out of the way quickly, it does not bother to tease the audience with thrills from a foregone conclusion. Other films on this subject attempt to capture the fury and defiance of youth in revolt, but this one cannot muster any excitement for so bitter a loss.

That approach allows the rest of the film to act as a protracted comedown, slipping in and out of the opium daze of protagonist François (Louis Garrel), a poet who partakes in the protests. Like François’ slowly deflating energy, May ‘68 did not suddenly cease so much as stubbornly peter out, and the film’s lethargic, rambling movement charts the mounting realization of the movement’s futility, as well as some reasons for its failure. In the funniest scene, François finds himself before a judge when apprehended for refusing to show up to the draft office and gets off when his defense attorney argues that military service could negatively affect his client’s poetic mind, robbing France of a contribution to its artistic legacy. The bourgeois privilege that this anti-bourgeois crusader relies upon echoes in a later scene of another young intellectual blaming the failure of May ‘68 on the ignorance of the working classes, the same proletariat for whom they nominally fought.

The ambivalence of the film is overpowering. Early on, François tells a friend that he was given a Molotov cocktail to throw at the police, but he lost his nerve at the thought of taking a human life. A more strident film would lambaste François for his cowardice and lack of commitment, but Garrel’s takes a more measured tone, recognizing the movement’s doom in such individual action but also the moral justness of pulling back from radicalism. That colors Garrel’s reminiscence of the protests’ failure with as much relief as regret, and the inability to square these feelings into an easily digested opinion contributes to the film’s sense of anomie and detachment as much as the opium that freely passes between dejected students.

Not content to just focus on political disappointment, the film lets its defeatism ripple out and affect personalities. François and his peers meet at the opium den of their friend Antoine (Julien Lucas), who at one point explains that he received a hefty inheritance when his parents died and uses it to keep himself in narcotic bliss, a tragic glimpse into his psyche, and the perverse means he uses to make and keep friends, soon swallowed by the pervading sense of ennui. Later, François' sadness over the movement's implosion turns into hand-wringing over the state of his relationship with Lilie (Clotilde Hesme), a sculptor he met while hiding from cops. Her love helps him move on from the protests, but it causes him stress of its own when she gets lured to America with the promise of good connections in the art scene there.

Regular Lovers is a film that, despite its relative feelings of stasis, always pushes its way forward through life, and as François' political frustrations become romantic ones, the film subtly explains why revolutions are youth movements, and why they fail. The young have nothing to distract them, nothing to tie them down. When they finally start to take on the responsibilities of life, however, they do not so much see the light of the status quo as they cannot keep their own fire stoked while keeping track of everything else.

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