Most remembrances of youth tend to be about the high points—the moments of keening pleasure and surging emotion that make up what are supposed to be “the best years of our lives.” Part of this is understandable, but it does a disservice to the aimless ennui we experience in the same period. Much of our youth (perhaps I’m projecting here) is a long, unbroken string of downtime, the calm before the storm of lives waiting to begin or lives that are avoiding the big question of what you’re going to do once doing nothing loses its lustre. This is the approach of Philippe Garrel’s Regular Lovers (Les amants reguliers), an astonishingly anti-dramatic take on the children of the failed May ’68 revolution and the going-about-one’s-business that followed hot on that disappointment’s heels. It remembers not the loud ambitions of youth, but the lump in the throat when you discover that those ambitions don’t live up to what was in the brochure.
Much has been made of Regular Lovers’ apparent riposte to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, which you’ll recall was a barrage of outrageous youthful acting out capped off with the “night of the barricades” being written off as the act of irresponsible hellraising kids. It gives us the orgy, followed by the Cecil B. DeMille moral out to save us from actual identification. Garrel’s approach is to reverse that structure: he starts with the events of May 1968, from the hero François (Louis Garrel, son of the director, star of The Dreamers) recounting his vacillation when handed a Molotov cocktail, to the riots, in which everyone stands around wondering what to do next when they’re not fleeing the police. Garrel shoots the riots in such a low-key way that you’re more aware of figures standing in space than of violence and resistance.
The front-loading of this languorous take on the riots means the film can’t use it as a trump card to build tension. Though François drops off and dreams of his young friends participating in the 1789 revolution, it’s just a dream; he’s trapped in the chaotic attempt of the 1968 present, and the whole thing fizzles in what will be blamed on the non-involvement of the working classes. Garrel gives up what would normally be an inevitable climax so as to examine the life that happens after the rebellion disperses, which is only partly marked by a traumatic post-uprising letdown. François is a poet, and he hangs around at a sort-of commune led by a rich young opium fiend with no parents; the wealthy benefactor tolerates the parasites who sponge off of him chiefly through his inability to imagine anything else. “I am my money”, he blithely states after passing around the pipe, his total passivity mirroring that of most of his friends.
The rest of the film concurs with this blithe, aimless existence: though one of the communards gets fed up with the counterrevolutionary scenario and splits, there’s no directive as to whether this disaffection is political astuteness or self-righteous immaturity. At any rate, most are just content to be—including François and his sculptor girlfriend Lilie (Clotilde Hesme), whom he met while hiding out during the riots. Though both are committed to their arts, they’re not committed to careerism (and being a poet, François could hardly commit to that). In one remarkable scene, Lilie goes through her collection of keepsakes and talks of the illiterate artist she once loved, the incursion of personal history intensifying the non-casual nature of their relationship. Neither of them is particularly interested (or at least, think they ought to be interested) in joining the world—they have the luxury of the point in their lives when nothing is certain and decisions don’t have to be made.
But of course, they eventually must. Lilie has to make a choice between poverty and entrance into the art world; she’s tempted by a would-be paramour who entices her with promises of contacts and introductions if she would only take off with him to America. The irony is that this promise splits her loyalties: does she gain a career and lose a devoted lover, or does she stay with François and rot in perpetual limbo? François, for his part, never expresses any interest in another life. And so it follows that were his existence shattered by a terrible change, it would destroy his ego, making for a Sword of Damocles that hangs over the proceedings.
Granted, the matter isn’t handled with the total tension that a normal narrative film would pursue. As I say, this is not a film that emphasizes the emotional high points of someone’s existence: in fact, those points are barely perceptible in the ebb and flow of people largely doing nothing. Even François’ being hauled into court (prompted by his repeated dodging of mandatory military service) is mostly mined for annoyance and embarrassment, with a detour into comedy when his lawyer tries to parlay François’ poetry into alternative servitude to France. You scarcely notice when people say painful things (such as the opium fiend’s recounting of his tragic non-family life) until moments later, when you realize their significance and you try and backtrack as the movie trickles downstream to confound you with yet another revelation handled with a shrug.
That shrug giveth, and it taketh away. To be sure, the film is not without its longueurs: the sense of aimlessness so commands the film that a little boredom is probably unavoidable. Part of the film’s strategy is to evoke the discomfort as well as the pleasure of loafing youth, but it goes a little far in its evocation of the former. The choice also renders powerless the conventional romantic tragedy that closes the movie: it’s such a melodramatic gesture that it seems out of place in the opium-dulled rest of the movie. But though there were times the movie was a chore, it also left me with new ways of thinking about its subjects of youth in general and the post-’68 malaise in specific. And its dramatically reversed structure points up new ways to think about the life that happens after historical disappointment—not just what would have been different, but what would have stayed the same. One can’t divine the difference between the actual letdown and the general diffidence of the characters, showing us how much history changes us and how much it leaves us the same.
Travis Mackenzie Hoover is a freelance writer based in Toronto.