Let it not be said that bad art cannot be inspirational. Spurned on by elements he found lacking in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2003 film The Dreamers, French director Philippe Garrel set out to visualize his memories of that fateful Parisian spring of 1968. The result is Regular Lovers, a joyous mash note to the events of May ‘68, as well as the French New Wave. Evidence of its gentle rebuttal of The Dreamers are twofold: in one character’s direct-to-camera mention of Bertolucci’s 1964 film Before the Revolution, and in the casting of Garrel’s son Louis, one of the stars of The Dreamers, as the main character François. Also in counterpoint to The Dreamers, whose characters were cloistered off in a month-long sexfest while the city erupted outside, Regular Lovers opens on the barricades. François, a brooding romantic with aspirations of being a poet, joins a committed pack of youths who spend all night overturning cars and hurling Molotov cocktails at the gendarmes in riot gear. It’s not long before the auto strikes are negotiated and the students relinquish control of the university. What interests Garrel is how the characters’ lives return to normalcy, once the revolution that was meant to liberate them has come and gone.
François meets Lilie (Clotilde Hesme), a sculptor, and soon they’ve taken up inside a large apartment owned by Antoine (Julien Lucas), an opium addict who lives off his inheritance. Garrel is concerned with the gradual cooling-off of revolutionary fervor, as well as the recognition that personal responsibility sometimes comes at the expense of romantic absolutes. To support them, Lilie works in a foundry, casting more successful artists’ work; François refuses to subject himself to such bourgeois restraints, and their relationship suffers for it. To his credit, Garrel respects his characters’ choices, even when they have troublesome consequences, and it’s not hard to imagine they were once his own. But neither does he vilify the older generation—in one delightful scene a police inspector turns out to be an art collector and all-around nice guy despite his status as an authority figure. The gritty black-and-white photography is a constant joy to behold, and the story flies by in a way that belies its 178-minute running time. Garrel marks the passage of time subtly; the turn from ‘68 to ‘69 is signaled with a small house with the number on it and then a rousing dance sequence set to the Kinks’ “This Time Tomorrow.” Like the song, the film is a wonderful tribute to the ideals of youth.