It was supposed to be the revolution to end it all. Director Philippe Garrel’s 2005 film Regular Lovers spends three hours asking the question: why did the May 1968 student and trade union revolt fail? Was it an inability to reach a collective imagination? The core component of this story are François (played by the director’s son, Louis Garrel) and, later, Lilie (Clotilde Hesme). It’s this pairing that inspires the title – nothing is special about their unity, they are brought together by a shared hatred of all things authoritative
Supposedly only one scene in the film is a direct reflection of the director’s involvement in the riots: François’ midnight escape over the rooftops 1. Otherwise, it’s unclear what percentage of the story is based on truth or lived experience—particularly in terms of François and his friends’ planning—but the film regardless reaches far to answer its own questions. The answers it discovers are not nice.
The Paris of Regular Lovers is dark and moody, a precursor to the forthcoming explosive events. Shot in black and white, the film opens with a group of young men making their way across a bridge over the Seine. The shot – and most of the film, for that matter – is lit by ambient light, so their exact location is hard to decipher (given it is night and streetlights are their only guidance, only a native could make out their position on a map). They quickly make their way up a long series of stairs, each telling the other to be as quiet as a mouse lest they wake up the neighbours and, inside a cramped apartment, space an opium pipe is passed around for each to puff on. It’s the fun, heady days of youth, nothing more: François asks if publishing his poetry is a good idea or not because it is making him feel as if he is “betraying something.” Jean-Christophe counters with a bold, albeit confusing statement – “decorators are the ultimate artists” – and it drops off from there.
If it’s an ode to the Paris of the late 60s then it is additionally recognising its own inspirational sources, Godard and Truffaut. Sound is not mixed: the audio contains a noticeable hiss, and piano interludes often bombard without warning, occasionally making the dialogue difficult to hear. The late William Lubtchansky worked with Godard and Truffaut, and was the film’s DOP: the impression of influence is therefore more direct than its diegesis alone.
The crux of the film occurs after François’ evasion of police officers, who wish to arrest him for his failure to attend a compulsory medical examination as part of France’s military service. There is a dramatic cut to the moment of the revolt. We arrive towards the end of the fight, with cars already flipped and see bonfires long burning. “The Girondists are coming!” someone shouts. “Police SS! Police SS!” another chants. At roughly twenty minutes in duration, this lengthy scene is bookended by a sudden flashback to 1789 and the storming of the Bastille. The flashback returns to the 1960s, with François and Lilie in period dress collecting firewood and food. Would they have stayed together if the revolt were successful in the way the Bastille was? Perhaps, but we will never know.
At one point François excitedly recalls how he had the chance to throw a Molotov cocktail at a group of police officers, that it would have killed five of them easily. Faced with this moral dilemma, he rolls it into the gutter limply. He is not a bad man and nor are his friends: their weapons against the police were mostly words and rocks. Perhaps Philippe Garrel found the answer here: François was not strong enough to fight the police, despite his good intentions, just as the people of Paris were not willing to support him or his comrades either. In the scene where François escapes the policemen, the house he planned to hide in denies him entry, turning the light off, disapproving his acts; such were the supposed attitudes of those over thirty at the time.
The revolt lasted almost a month from start to finish. François and his friends are heavily disillusioned by the experience. Jean-Christophe rubs his head in frustration; “Will your mates let us smoke dope?” remark new acquaintances when he speaks on societal ills, as if to ask him to shut up. The spirit of revolution died swiftly.
Like the revolution, Lilie and François don’t work out either, and she leaves Paris for Brooklyn. She is far more self-sustaining than he: in Paris she worked at a sculpture studio, while François was unemployed. Her political spirit is just as strong—she writes him a letter telling him she is now an anarchist—but is not aligned with his own beliefs. François reads Lilie’s letters and decides a life without her is not worth bothering with.
All we’re left with are the memories of those involved in the fights. Approaching the end, a woman, possibly someone’s secretary in Government, sits in a café as Jean-Christophe smokes outside, and she completes paperwork and reminds herself to buy a copy of La Fontaine’s Fables. The revolution may have failed, but Regular Lovers is a film about how these people lived their lives, rather than a romantic, falsified replication. Here, memory is enough.
Les Amants Reguliers (Regular Lovers, 2005 France 2005 178min)
Prod Co: Maia Films Prod: Gilles Sandoz Dir: Philippe Garrel Scr: Phillipe Garrel, Arlette Langman and Marc Cholodenko Phot: William Lubtchansky Ed: Francois Collin and Philippe Garrel Sound: Alexandre Abrard, Thierry Delor, Alain Villeval
Cast: Louis Garrel, Clotilde Hesme, Eric Rulliat, Julien Lucas
- Daniel J. Sherman, The Long 1968. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013, 332. ↩