After May 1968

June 11, 2013 § 1 Comment

I have a large box of postcards from sundry exhibitions and museums over the years. Shuffling through these to choose one for a friend, I came across a Matisse, no longer recalling where it was from and peering at the date on the back. The painting is titled Pont Saint-Michel, 1901 and it appeared in the 1970 Matisse exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris. I remember going to the exhibition that autumn, and this would have been the first time I saw any paintings by Matisse; I was living in Paris and probably chose this card because when you cross the Pont Saint-Michel you enter the Latin Quarter, where I spent a lot of time. Since then I’ve seen many Matisses, in museums and exhibitions. I’ve even been to Colliure, where there are none of his paintings, only on-site reproductions of the sea-lit spots where he and Derain sat at their easels in the Fauve summer of 1905. Forty-three years ago Matisse was only a name to me, and the reminder made me reflect on the newness of things and ideas when you’re young, the books, paintings, music and unimagined life you discover on your own or with the help of others. This process never really ends, but the quality of fresh emergence it has in youth is quite particular.

Later that day I went to see a film that conveyed a strong sense of all this, of young adulthood beginning to move independently through the larger world. Olivier Assayas’ partly autobiographical Après Mai (Something in the Air) has a fluidity and sweep that matches his characters’ experiences, their collective convergence as a generation, and their subsequent divergences – driven by the ways in which intellectual, aesthetic and personal discoveries relate to the political. It’s 1971 and the group is in their final year at a lycée in a Paris suburb. The film opens towards the end of a philosophy lesson; while the prof quotes Pascal – ‘Between us and heaven or hell there is only life, the most fragile thing in the world.’ – the camera leads us to the face of Gilles (the director’s alter ego), then to the school gates, where he turns and waits to sell revolutionary newspapers to his fellow students. We follow him through urgent activism and engaged debate, love, travel, reading and the pursuit of his talents as an artist. The last book we see him open is a Situationist text, his anti-authoritarian inclinations by now well confirmed.

Most of the films made about May 68 over the years have been disappointing. One notable exception is Philippe Garrel’s Les Amants Réguliers (2005), nocturnal, dreamlike, anchored in a brief space of time yet slipping beneath it into others: at one point the ghosts of revolutionaries from an earlier moment in French history momentarily appear, and the conjunction of this with the soixante-huitards routed at the barricades hovers in my mind less as defeat than as persistence. From what I’d seen of Assayas’ work (Irma Vep and Carlos), I knew that, like Garrel, he was serious about cinema and about politics, and Après Mai does not disappoint. It is an ambitious, accomplished film. Alas, in a culture that so often mocks the French for taking themselves too seriously, sneering at their revolutions, and apt to trivialise the 60s, it has not been spared the glibness of reviewers.

Some of these have misplaced the film’s chronology, which is quite specific: not 1968, but 1971. Or else they locate it as the ‘aftermath’ of 1968, bringing an inevitable loss of illusions. ‘Aftermath’ denotes the consequences of something that has ended. Certainly, in 1968 there was a genuine moment of threat to the whole political and economic order in France (strikes and factory occupations as well as student barricades and battles on the streets of Paris). But although short lived as the promise of revolution, the politics did not fizzle out. Protest continued and took different forms. Out of this New Left and its refusal of Stalinism (not only in France) came the impetus of many movements for change, not least the women’s liberation movement. (There is yet another narrative where revolutionary frustrations give way to organised violence, which Assayas explored in Carlos).

There’s also been a tendency to reduce the film to the ‘coming-of-age’ genre, as if its protagonists were merely going through a phase or rite of passage, and implying youthful folly. Their seriousness, however, remains a constant. The Guardian review awards a stingy two stars and suggests proof of juvenile callousness by dwelling on the injury done to a security guard when a concrete slab falls on his head. In fact this accident happens as the guards give chase armed with iron bars while Gilles and his friends aim to keep them at bay by throwing stones and whatever comes to hand. The risks of violence were very real: at a peaceful demonstration against police brutality in February 1971 a young protester, Richard Deshayes, was hit directly by a teargas grenade which exploded in his face, incurring horrific injuries and the loss of an eye. A photograph taken at the time appears on posters in the film; I remember these flyposted in the Metro and all over the Latin Quarter.

Après Mai is wrought with careful and nuanced detail, much of which will elude younger audiences, but it achieves such cinematic conviction that many will surely respond to its spirit (and to its great soundtrack). Assayas has talked about the near impossibility of explaining the politics of the time to his young actors, because of its complexities and contradictions. The film shows us fierce debates where tensions are angrily aired; these can be construed (as they are by careless reviewers) as things falling apart, the revolution’s self-destruction, or instead as the frictions of change when party lines are rejected. Things don’t end well for everyone in Après Mai, but when they do go their separate ways it’s not because of lost illusions or failed commitment. Gilles’ ex-lover Christine joins a left-wing film collective and is involved in the women’s movement; his friend Alain returns from the hippie trail having met the Arte Povera artist Alighiero Boetti in Kabul (where Boetti was then working) and inspired by him to focus on his own work as an artist. There is no question here of art being in opposition to politics; we see instead that who we are or become can contain and fuse the two in a fruitful way.

Interviewed in Le Monde, Asseyas’ cast didn’t all see a need for change now. But Clément Métayer, who plays Gilles, compared these times with those: ‘Young people had a wall right in front of them so they knew what had to be destroyed. Whereas we don’t really know what needs to be destroyed, everything is so unclear. All that connects young people today to those revolts is films.’ Lola Créton, who plays Christine, observed: ‘I don’t know whether they had more freedom then, but they took more.’

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