France (2012). Dir: Olivier Assayas; Scr: Olivier Assayas
It is 1971 in the Paris suburbs and the zeitgeist of May 1968 – the student occupations, wildcat strikes and street violence – is felt strongly by a group of restless, creative high-school friends. In a perfectly composed recreation of the early seventies Assayas, unashamed but with some confessional humility, presents a (self) portrait of the artist as a late teen passing into a twenty-something: middle-class, rebellious, searching but rather more self-centred and just “afraid to miss out on his youth”. It’s a film so rich in atmosphere, so evocative of place and time, so immaculate in detail that story becomes subordinated to the feeling that we are drawn into Assayas’ memory. It’s less nostalgia than a shared experience: the terrible adrenalin thrill of running from crowd violence, the hopeless love for a (more) sophisticated free-spirit and the comfort of drifting. Time passes, chapters open and close, often in flames. It envelops you.
We first see Gilles, played by Clement Metayer, scratching the anarchy symbol into his desk in class. He distributes leaflets by the school and argues – angry, self-contained – at smokey meetings. We see his breathless and terrifying escape from the Police after he and his friends join a demonstration in the city. Early on we also see Gilles’ muse, Laure (Carol Combes), an ethereal child of nature (they meet on a woodland pathway). She reads lesser-known beat poets and is unselfconscious about her body and sex. She tells him she is moving to London because her dad is going to work with Soft Machine.
Gilles’ group step up their nocturnal activism (against their school buildings) and Gilles gets closer to Christine, played by Lola Creton. But their lives change when a night raid goes badly wrong and one of the group faces charges, so Gilles, Christine and another friend, Alain (Felix Armand), travel to Italy to lie low. There they they hook up with beautiful itinerant young people on a higher plane of grooviness. Alain heads off to Afganistan with Leslie, an American who wants to study spiritual dance and Christine drives off in the campervan of a group of political film-makers. Eventually they each drift homeward, Gilles first.
The film steers clear of developing a coherent political argument, because Gilles can’t – the filmmakers in Italy deride his reading material and don’t take him seriously enough to help his film project,“We do agitprop, we don’t lend for fiction”. In fact, Assayas doesn’t want us to like Gilles: he is always “outside the real struggle”, wealth cushions any risks he takes (he’s happy to rely on nepotism back in France) and he is selfish. But while we feel more sympathy for the committed Christine, whose (hopeless) love for Gilles endures, and the idealistic and supportive Alain, Gilles is no less real.
The cinematography is exquisite. It glows. The music of the time is selected with a passion: Syd Barrett, Nick Drake, Soft Machine, Captain Beefheart and Tangerine Dream. Assayas is also particularly in tune with a kind of asymmetric young love – the disappointments are poignant and quietly dramatic. And around this he reminds us of a communication that we may have lost: when she leaves for London, Christine gives Gilles a copy of Corso’s book of poems, Gasoline, and, most moving, Alain gently urges Leslie to go to see two paintings on display near to where she will be. At the time it is the most loving, thoughtful present he can give.