After the Revolution
By Nick Pinkerton
Dir. Philippe Garrel, France, Zeitgeist Films
âThose Who Make Revolutions Half-Way Do Nothing But Dig a Graveâ
At a single 11 a.m. screening in 2005, the New York Film Festival presented Philippe Garrelâs monumental 178-minute hoard of period-specific emotional memory, Regular Lovers; it's miracle enough that the movie was madeâbut now it's getting its American distribution? I donât want to call Garrelâs movie Great (though, oh, it is)âthatâs one of those hefty words that tends to crush dialogue with the finality of its import, a disservice to a film that begs to be thought on, mixed-up with, bored or smothered by, but not put on a shelf labeled âMasterpieceâ to gather dust and dispassionate appreciation. I love and respect this movie far too much for deadening hyperboleâsuch a mass of celluloid deserves its fair chance to engage a living audience before our sect of art-house obscurists ceremonially put it in mothballs.
Garrelâs new film, like much of his work, has the stillborn French Revolution of May 1968 at its center, though the Events exist literally rather than symbolically here. Few critics will be equal to the challenge of discussing Regular Lovers without reference to Bernardo Bertolucciâs â68-set 2004 film The Dreamers, and Garrel doesnât ask us to; the connection is explicitly urged in a scene where actress Clotilde Hesme, discussing the Italian directorâs Before the Revolution, turns to the camera to deliver a measured enunciation of the auteurâs name: âBer-to-lucci.â
I canât figure if Garrelâs movie is intended as an upbraiding counterpoint or staid intellectual sister film to The Dreamersâor even as some kind of disjointed sequel. It shares a leading man with Bertolucciâs insouciant work, Philippeâs son Louis, and as Garrel the younger steps off the streets of an uprisen Paris in an early scene, he tells friends, âSome guy gave me a molotov and all I had to do was throw itââthe same dilemma which ends Bertolucciâs film. But though Regular Lovers spends more time around the melee than The Dreamers did, it conversely seems the less invested filmâBertolucciâs complicitly adolescent approach made a total coup (or anything!) seem possible; Garrel, filming at the sidelines, seems incapable of participating in the party for more than a few moments, burdened by full knowledge of the hangover ahead.
Regular Lovers (the connections between Garrelâs moviesâ titles and their texts is like that of New Order song titles to the songsâalmost only what we make of them) follows a free-floating cadre of young Parisians during the eruption and cool-off of '68-'69, their base of operations the palatial flat inherited by their friend Antoine (Julien Lucas)âsnazzier digs even than the posh apartment of The Dreamers. The movie is a massive, rather broke-backed work: the first hour is dominated by the long-shot chiaroscuro of police and studentsâ pitched urban warfare during the Night of the Barricadesâthe images, in some of the richest black-and-white photography in recent memory, recall Garrelâs works of Symbolist painterly myth-environment and medieval abjection from the early Seventies (The Inner Scar, The Bed of the Virgin). Iâd found the reading of those films as allegories in political despair a bit tenuous, but the protestorsâ barren battleground is too close to the scorched landscapes of those early works, right down to the omnipresent jots of sourceless flame, to ignore a connectionâitâs obvious those weeks of martial law left a deep imprint on the directorâs hypersensitive imagistic imagination.
The remainder of Regular Lovers is the sort of intent, ascetic relationship study thatâs characterized the directorâs films of the last 25 years. As such, Regular Lovers is the perfect primer to Garrelâs body of workâa summation of sorts, and if youâre not engaged on some level by this outsized chef dâoeuvre, youâd probably do well to stay away from the sketches. At the movieâs foreground is Francois (Louis Garrel), a poet of uncertain accomplishment whoâs 20 in â68, as the director wasâand Louis has inherited his fatherâs deferential but concentrated screen presence, monumental, unruly-looking head, and chin-down stare. Francois meets Lilie (Hesme), a young sculptress from a proletariat background (the movie has a muted genius when handling class), and the two lithe androgynesâlovely, pretentious twin sylphs in the Patti Smith/ Robert Mapplethorpe moldâwrap together in a cloistered love affair. Garrelâs romances are concentrated, self-absorbed things, their dynamic determined in large part by the directorâs penchant for steadily fixing his camera, at close range, on his actresses. Thereâs something wonderful about the desire to look and learn that Garrelâs patient fascination exhibits; heâs an obsessive, affectionate watcherâbut maybe Bertolucci has a responding riposte ready-made for Garrel with the scopophiliac cuckolded cineaste played by Jean-Pierre Leaud in Last Tango in ParisâŚ
A friend, whoâd caught the beginning of Regular Lovers, hit me with a tough question when I professed my admiration: âSo did it ever go anywhere?â I canât answer in the affirmative, but if it lacks drive, Garrelâs big, busy canvas has a dreamy propulsion and compositional logic whose effect is additive rather than just anecdotal. His excrescence of little scenes doesnât seek to overwhelm but, through accretion of detail, to work up an internal rhythm that can adapt and absorb a viewer whoâs up to the task; the movieâs little formal quirks, like letting some shots run through a reelâs final, exposed frames, donât even pry you outâthey occur as natural phenomenon, like passing clouds.
Yes, it can be a slightly stagnant movie, but this in no way diminishes the throat-clutching feeling when Francois explains to Lilie the simple contrast that proves his love for her is truer than those that preceded it: âI wasnât listening to the girls I was with.â Or the effect of the filmâs most potent scene, which feels almost like an insert: a fey, dandy-ish secondary character in a tight-fitting velvet jacket moving across a dance floor, absorbed in his satyr-like frug to the Kinksâ âThis Time Tomorrow.â One could slough it off as a hip movie cliche, dusting off a handpicked piece of vintage wax, then shrewdly dropping the needle when a jolt of emotional import is called for (The Royal Tenenbaums set the bar with Nicoâs âThese Days,â and Squid and the Whale admirably performed the honors with Loudon Wainwright, âStreet Hassle,â Pink FloydâŚ), but this moment of shivering synergy between mediums is larger than any record geek showoffâa lovely, ardently strummed tune about daydreams on a transatlantic flight is suddenly invested with the collective question of Regular Loversâ ridiculously beautiful youth: âThis time tomorrow/ Where will we be?âŚThis time tomorrow/ What will we know?â Itâs Garrelâs capacity for moments like this, abrupt emotional levitations through music, which mustâve prompted Olivier Assayas, equally keen in merging cinema and pop, to name a series of soundtrack-anchored films he curated at Brooklynâs BAM Cinematek âI Can No Longer Hear the Guitar,â after Garrelâs 1991 film of the same title.
But isolating standout moments isnât fair to the way Regular Lovers actually works: I took reams of notes during the movie, but Iâll be damned if I can remember the scenes or dialogues that most of them are in reference to. What really lingers is the impression of having been somewhere fragile, foolish, and lovely for the filmâs three hoursâamong a young generation solipsistically convinced of their significance and historical import: key is a pot-hazy drift-off dream in which Francois imagines his brothers-in-arms as a mob of Jacobinsâdeposed militiamen in dirty tunics and scythe-wielding sans culottesârolling an antique cannon through the streets. But in life, as in the dream, the rebellion breaks rank and scatters.
One might encapsulate Regular Lovers as fragments of an after-the-revolution comedownâone reviewer broke down the filmâs formula as âone third idealism, two thirds disillusionmentââbut I donât think that either-or polarity is quite equal to Garrelâs movie. You can detect an older man looking back dubiously towards youthâs utopianism and us-against-them ethos even at the height of the filmâs rather languid fervor: the jabber between the movementâs leaders is a muddled mockery and a âpigâ police inspector who visits the kidâs house turns out to be a benevolently paternal art lover.
Thereâs room for more than one disappointment: after the coup has dissipated, Francois replaces his wide utopian ideal with a narrower but no less grandiose one, the Egalitarian Love-In at the End of History is replaced by Love Everlasting. Francoisâs verse hints at a long acquaintance with melancholy (âthe terrible roar of nothingnessâ), and he pushes a slender pistol to his temple in a gesture of practiced poetic despair, but he has full faith in redemption through one absolute or Anotherâso he keeps pressing Lilie to promise him eternity, which she does, though with ambiguous eyes. A crash is as good as inevitable, and the filmâs fall-off ending only increases Regular Loversâ passing resemblance to Robert Bressonâs litany of disappointments, The Devil, Probably (1977). But I think that Garrelâs film, better than Bressonâs, may deserve the unusual praise offered by Francois Truffaut after seeing Devil; for him it was the beauty of that filmâs leads that âanimate the filmâŚand I am insisting on their beauty because it is in part the subject of the film: wasted beauty, wasted youth.â Regular Lovers is a sad, admiring movie about love at 20, basking in the flare of the impossible potential pompous kids can find in the world, and the loveliness of that impossibility.