A teenager sits in class, barely listening to a lecture on classic French literature. The student begins the film actively political, taking part in demonstrations against an oppressive social order, thriving in an artistic environment, and ends it stuck in a solipsistic rut, alienated from family, friends and memories of the “loved one”. There is a disproportionate display of young female flesh.
This, of course, is a plot summary of Abdellatif Kechiche’s controversial Palme d’Or winner La Vie d’Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Colour, 2013), as well as Après mai (After May, 2012), a docudream by Olivier Assayas (“docudream” as opposed to “docudrama” – as so often in his work, Assayas sets up situations rich in potential conflict only to diffuse, undercut or bypass them altogether). Both films are set in the relatively recent French past: Blue is the Warmest Colour in the early 2000s, Après mai in 1971, three years after the 1968 protests. But a major determinant in Blue is the Warmest Colour – class – is fudged in Après mai, and points to a difference between the two works and arguably accounts for Assayas’ lack of bite.
Les événements of May 1968, when students and workers occupied universities and factories in Gaullist France, has often been dismissed by both right and left as a middle-class carnival that petered out as quickly as it erupted. Many student participants went on to prominent careers in politics, the media, education and big business, while workers’ rights have increasingly eroded and the standard of living for many has decreased.
Pier Paolo Pasolini famously said at the time that he sympathised with the young proletarian policemen against the bourgeois students he dismissed as left-wing fascists. I have always hoped that someone would take Pasolini’s provocation as the basis for a film, as most recreations of the period invariably take the protestors’ side. At one point it seems Assayas might be making that film, when the student protestors maim a security guard, but he doesn’t exist as a human being in his own right, and is soon forgotten about. As with so much of Après mai, Assayas’ “position” is ambivalent. Whether this is the ambivalence of the artist or the political opportunist will depend on the charity of the viewer.
Certainly the film begins predictably enough with the kind of set piece you would expect in a Bertolucci film (1). This is history as spectacle, with a student demonstration brutally crushed by police cracking heads with batons and the throwing of tear gas. Such scenes always remind me of the opening street sequence of François Truffaut’s La Nuit américaine (Day for Night, 1973); it is hard to avoid registering the logistics of such sequences, or imagining the director and his assistants just out of frame, barking orders, giving timed cues to extras to move to pre-prepared positions.
This sequence is immediately followed by the film’s main character, Gilles (Clément Métayer), at his parents’ rural retreat, cadging some small change. The film seems to be full of such moments of undercutting bathos or pathos – Gilles’ scooter breaking down after sex with his idealised lover Laure (Carole Combes) just before she dumps him; crane shots that pull away from the character’s frantic, historically situated concerns to reveal the still, eternal beauty of summer sunlight illuminating the trees (this is “after May” in more ways than one).
Is Assayas having fun with his charmlessly earnest young characters and their protests fuelled by privilege? At one point, when it seems their “revolutionary” activities might get them into actual trouble, the friends can afford to lay low in Italy, while the security guard is forced to take a lower paid job when he recovers from a coma. But we should remember Assayas’ weary refutation of the insult “petit bourgeois” in his celebrated memoir A Post-May Adolescence: “always this horrible word, always lacking any true object, and always wielded by those who resemble it most” (2).
A Post-May Adolescence was Assayas’ first iteration of this time in his youth, his sense of having missed out on the life-changing events of 1968 and condemned to feed on the mouldy gleanings of its aftermath: “I wished I could have been there to take part, even minimally” (3). While Assayas is no Nabokov, A Post-May Adolescence has better style than the prose of most film critics, but tends to over-writing and the complacency of hindsight. Après mai tries to overcome this by the meticulous recreation of its early 1970s moment in a kind of imparfait present tense that makes no obvious appeal to either nostalgia or “what came next”. Clothes, hairstyles, books, modes of conversation, awful music, and hair-cavilling political debates, are as lovingly curated as a Merchant-Ivory adaptation of E. M. Forster, and with the same dank whiff of the museum.
Like most of Assayas’ films, Après mai is a breathless attempt to depict the workings rather than the content of thought and feeling. Appropriately for the bildungsroman (4) of a painter-turned-filmmaker, various media of image-making are invoked: Baroque and Impressionist painting, home movies, mainstream TV, popular, art house and radical cinema, posters, magazines, flyers, drawings, paintings, stencils for prog-rock lightshows, illustrated letters, diary doodles. The students’ struggle is placed in a historical continuum of French radicalism, with references to the Dreyfus Affair and the Resistance as well as 1968 (though not, significantly, the anti-colonialist tradition). The patriarchal shortcomings of such movements are noted – though it’s hard to take seriously a critique of bearded men self-gratifyingly waffling about “the struggle” while their young female companion (Lola Créton) acts as administrator, cook, housekeeper, sexual receptacle and breadwinner, when the film itself is happy to strip and punish her and the other female characters.
For all this temporal specificity, Après mai’s style is essentially the same as that of other Assayas works, encompassing a turn-of-the-20th century period piece (Les Destinées sentimentales ), urgent contemporary dispatches (Irma Vep , Fin août, début septembre [Late August, Early September, 1998]) and a futuristic techno-thriller like Demonlover (2002). Italso slots neatly into the current vogue for bombastic European recreations of the recent political past, such as Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (Uli Edel, 2008) and Wer wenn nicht wir (If Not Us, Who?, Andreas Veiel, 2011) (5), Il divo (2008, Paolo Sorrentino) and Assayas’ own Carlos (2010), never mind middlebrow TV films like L’école du pouvoir (Raoul Peck, 2009), set in the years just after Après mai.
This is not to suggest for a moment that the film would have worked better as a pastiche of its era’s cinema, whether that is the abrasive soul-searching of Jean Eustache, Maurice Pialat and Philippe Garrel (whose own deeply affecting, equally autobiographical 1968 film, Les Amants réguliers [Regular Lovers, 2005], is a highly wrought etching compared to Après mai’s glib screen print), the political experiments of the Dziga Vertov and SLON collectives, the derelict atmosphere of Melville’s late thrillers (6), or the anxious comedy of Bernard Blier. But some of that cinema’s personal ferocity, thematic heft, formal conviction, or, most of all, sense of risk, might have cut through Après mai’s pervasive, if always elegant and fluent, self-satisfaction.
1. Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003) is set during May 1968.
2. Olivier Assayas, A Post-May Adolescence: Letter to Alice Debord, and Two Essays on Guy Debord, Österreichisches Filmmuseum, Vienna, 2012, p. 29.
3. Assayas, p. 16. Assayas’ breakthrough film, L’eau froide (Cold Water, 1994), covers the same period but does not address its politics.
4. Cf A Post-May Adolescence: “still today, I carry with me a terrifying memory of these moments when I finally began to become myself”. See Assayas, p. 41.
5. Assayas discusses Gerhard Richter’s Baader-Meinhof funeral portraits in A Post-May Adolescence, pp. 39-40.
6. Though the night-time vandalism sorties seem to be an ironic evocation of Melville’s contemporary heist movies.
Après mai/After May/Something in the Air (2012 France 122 mins)
Prod Co: MK2 Productions/France 3 Cinéma/Vortex Sutra Prod: Charles Gillibert, Nathanaël Karmitz Dir, Scr: Olivier Assayas Phot: Eric Gautier Ed: Luc Barnier Prod Des: François-Renaud Labarthe
Cast: Clément Métayer, Lola Créton, Felix Armand, Carole Combes, India Menuez, Hugo Conzelmann