CINEMA: by Bill JamesNews Weekly
Nostalgic retrospect on Sixties radicalism
, December 7, 2013
There is a saying that if you are not a communist at 20 you have no heart, and if you are still one at 30 you have no head.
However, the average 20-year-old is quite capable of understanding totalitarianism, torture and mass murder. Perhaps 20-year-old communists could be described as simultaneously heartless and headless — evil and wilfully stupid.
The characters in the film, After May (rated M), are not quite 20: they are late-adolescent French school pupils, living just a few years after the violent events of 1968 in Paris.
During that year, university students and striking workers, carrying banners extolling “Marx, Mao and Marcuse”, nearly brought down Charles de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic, and the failed revolution’s political and social echoes continued to reverberate in 1971, when the film is set.
With hindsight, we can see the time and place as just another ongoing aspect of the great Western cultural upheaval of the Sixties, which is still rumbling along half a century later.
For Gilles (Clément Métayer), the hero of After May, and his friends, it includes everything from long hair, flared jeans and rock music, to experimentation with sex, drugs and eclectic Eastern religious practices, such as the I Ching.
It also involves inter-generational opposition to authority figures (such as parents, policemen and headmasters) and immersion in the great alphabet soup of radical French politics — communists, Trotskyites, socialists, unionists, Maoists, anarchists, and trendy “useful idiots” enraptured with “liberation” movements in exotic locales from Latin America to Indo-China.
Publicity for the film suggested that it might be merely another rose-tinted depiction of an ugly leftwing criminal movement, on the heels of the glamorisation in recent years of the Weathermen and Baader-Meinhoff gangs.
Instead, it turns out to be more of a formulaic baby-boomer coming-of-age story, with the politics as part of the background, rather than the film’s central raison d’être.
Gilles is apparently an autobiographical approximation to the director, Olivier Assayas (Carlos the Jackal), who also started out a budding painter and finished up making films.
Assayas lovingly evokes the era of his youth with everyday details such as typewriters and mimeograph machines in place of today’s ubiquitous computers and printers.
However, if he tends to self-indulgently wallow in the minutiae of life as it was 40 years ago, when it comes to the politics there are hints that his film might be out to undermine the ostensible ideals of those days — to retroactively subvert subversion, as it were.
For a start, there is the risible dogmatism, omniscience and self-righteousness of the student radicals.
At one point they pretentiously liken themselves to France’s World War II Résistance movement, when in fact they are merely holding interminable meetings, printing unreadable newspapers, and vandalising their school with graffiti and posters, instead of risking imprisonment, torture and death by fighting German occupation forces.
Then there are the references to The Chairman’s New Clothes, an exposé of Mao Zedong by Simon Leys (pen-name of Pierre Ryckmans) published in 1971, the year in which the film is set.
One of the young people’s political mentors denounces the book, but in such extravagant terms (suggesting a CIA plot) that Assayas is clearly having a laugh at his paranoia.
And speaking of books, one camera shot pointedly lingers over a volume of the four-part Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, edited by Ian Angus and Sonia Orwell, which is lying on a table.
This was published in 1968, the year of the Paris uprising which glorified the horrendous ideologies exposed by Orwell.
Gilles and his comrades appear to have an endless supply of bourgeois contacts — family members, friends, associates, fellow-travellers — to supply them with money, board and accommodation on their European travels.
Many of the sequences, particularly those set in Italy, are quite languorous and decadent.
Despite the radicals’ professed concern for the proletariat, no-one seems to have much contact with actual workers or their workplaces, much less do any work themselves.
Much of their time is taken up with sitting around doing drugs and listening to revolutionary faux-folk music.
Their contempt for ordinary wage-earners is revealed by their dropping of a lump of concrete on a school security guard.
He is permanently damaged, but none of the students responsible is ever brought to account.
In short, Assayas is just reliving his adolescence, particularly his experimentation with drugs, painting, cinema and girls in (and out of) hippie dresses.
He cannot bring himself to admit explicitly to the silliness and amorality of the era’s fashionable politics, but at least no-one could leave this film feeling any positive nostalgia for them.
Perhaps we should just be grateful for small mercies.