You should really have some sympathy for the Baby Boomers. They had it the weirdest. War, social upheaval, tons of new drugs that fried their brains, free love, The Strawberry Alarm Clock: it was a lot to deal with. And the students of that historical moment, the ones with the resources and time to study, contemplate, protest, organize, read Marxist philosophers and make everything psychedelic, they're the ones we make fun of today for indulging in the extremes of that era and then making movies like The Big Chill.
But not Olivier Assayas (Carlos, Summer Hours, Irma Vep). His latest film takes those teen ideologues seriously and treats them with a tenderness they're often not afforded. He was there, after all. Born in France in 1955, he was 13 at the time of the May 1968 rebellion in that country (the film's original title is Apres Mai), where students and workers went on strike and brought the economy to a standstill. It lead to a re-thinking of social policies and is considered a pivotal moment in late 20th century French life.
Set in 1971, three years after, 18 year-old Gilles (newcomer Clement Metayer, bringing to mind another semi-autobiographical Gilles from Assayas' 1994 film Cold Water) is part of a revolutionary student group. They debate leftist tactics, they graffiti walls, they read John Ashbery and Gregory Corso, they get beaten up by police, they discuss the role of the artist, they try to out-proletariat one another with show-offy working class part-time jobs, they enjoy a lot of weed and easy hookups. But mostly they drift. Too young to have participated in '68, they want to keep the spirit alive now that they're old enough to do it like adults.
But time dissolves furious burning energy. Splinter groups, factions and the need for love and a paycheck intrude into their post-idealist bubble. Friendships fade or break over parents and politics; romance distracts ("We're in love, the rest can wait," says one of the formerly angry young men). The women of the group find themselves setting tables and making dinner before dumping the whole thing for feminist co-ops. Lunch chats about the proper role of labor are occasionally superseded by talk of the proper syntax of revolutionary cinema. In fact, everywhere Gilles looks he sees his comrades making choices that dilute their commitment to radicalism and others making decisions that feel too dangerous, eventually finding himself setting aside art and revolution for filmmmaking. And not cool collectivist agitprop either: he becomes a production assistant on a B-movie featuring dinosaurs, bikini-cavewomen and Nazis. That first adult compromise hurts the most.
Assayas knows this, so he lets his young men off the hook, his camera freely moving from shaky commitment to car bombing to hippie light show to post-coital daydreaming. And when he knows he has to send Gilles off to the cruel capitalist world he gives him a paperback copy of Situationist theory as a kind of narrative parachute. Of course, the Situationists are dissolving themselves right around then, too, so that's kind of a bummer.
A glimmer of hope: five years later Situationist ideas will create punk rock. Gilles will probably join a band. You hope so, anyway.