Friday, October 4, 2013

French Movies are Different From You and Me

"Something in the Air,” (‘Apres Mai’) film by Olivier Assayas, 2012

This almost coming-of-age story examines the lives of a group of creative anarchist high school students, starting in 1971 in France, a few years after the 1968 political earthquake in France.  The description on the Netflix sleeve pooh-poohs anyone interested in social change after 1968 as almost ‘old hat’.  Yet 1971 saw the largest anti-war demonstration in U.S. history in Washington, D.C.  Unlike careless dating of ‘the 60s’ – the early and mid-70s were still part of the same political period.  It only began to end in the mid to late 70s, after the liberation of Saigon and the counter-attack by the business class.

This is an intriguing film, with a great sound track including Phil Ochs, Soft Machine, Tangerine Dream, Captain Beefheart, Nick Drake, Incredible String Band, Booker T and some French bands I am not familiar with.  The film is probably based on Assayas own experience as a young man – ‘the artist as a young anarchist,’ if you will. 

The film involves discussions of anarchism, the Communist Party, “Trotskyites,” and Maoism, even name-checking the Situationists, displaying a political depth far above American films set in the same period.  The Trotskyists actually come out looking the best, though perhaps ‘too political’ for the ultimate purpose of this film. 

It displays the French (and Italian) counter-culture in all its laid-back, verdant and druggie glory.  The lead character Gilles actually walks around wearing tie-died T-shirts, even doing a light-show for a band.  These high school kids sell anarchist newspapers at the gates of the school, vandalize the school with slogans against police brutality, throw a Molotov cocktail at a guard shack, dress in helmets and clubs to fight police. They ride around on bicycles with tiny motors. They print and distribute leaflets, go to Paris for posters, and have confrontational meetings.  This is all familiar to those who participated in the events of the ‘60s and ‘70s, though these kids were ahead of American youth in their confrontational style.  At one point, a group of them including Gilles have to leave their idyllic country town just outside of Paris because one of them threw a bag of concrete on a guard who was chasing them, and severely injured him. They head across the border to Florence, Italy, where more anarchists and revolutionaries await.  This leftist youth rebellion, after all, was a pan-European and a world-wide phenomenon.

The tension of the story - as one anarchist who becomes a Trotskyist, only to later become a Maoist, says to Gilles – “You are either political and part of a group, or you are artistic and alone.”  This is a false choice, of course, but not to the director. 

Gilles, whose father is a TV producer of traditional detective stories (‘Maigret’), ultimately chooses art.  And Gilles is a really good artist.  His drawings of frescoes in Pompeii are excellent. Gilles is inspired to dress-down his corporate father for the shabby TV productions he makes.  Gilles first love dies in a firestorm at a Nellcote-like chateau full of hippies taking drugs and booze  (the moralistic penalty for such behavior?), while three others follow some kind of creative paths.  One boy is going to make the iffy move to Kabul, Afghanistan to work with a rug designer; one girl joins a leftist political documentary collective, only to be relegated to doing dishes and buying groceries; and Gilles, in spite of all his talent, ends up as a go-fer on a really-bad science-fiction film involving Nazis and monsters (there is actually a film like this…) None of their lives are turning out very creatively or politically useful.  The film ends in disappointing suspension, but then you only feel 2 years have gone by.  They are still young, after all.

Ultimately it seems that society really has no place for these kids, and that they may drift for years as internal exiles.  It is a great period piece, but also a reflection of what all youth go through at some point - though perhaps without so much politics ‘in the air.’  And that is a great loss to the youth of today.

Other reviews of books covering revolutionary French issues are below:  The current anarchism of “The Coming Insurrection” by the Invisible Committee; a view of 1968 in Paris, “In the Merry Month of May” by James Jones; a book by Paul Nizan on youthful pre-World War II radicals, “The Conspiracy;” and a book by Guy Debord of the Situationist International, “The Society of the Spectacle.”

Red Frog
October 4, 2013

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