Children of the revolution

After May (MA). Director: Olivier Assayas. Starring: Clément Métayer, Lola Créton, Felix Armand, Carole Combes, India Menuez. 122 minutes

When released in the US the film was titled, rather innocuously, Something in the Air. Indeed its characters inhabit a world where, for better or worse, the very oxygen that they draw seems infected by the revolutionary fervour of the previous generation. As high school students in 1968 they are too young to have begun the cultural revolution. But they are trying to fan its flames and bring its ideals to bear. They clash violently with overzealous police during a protest, disseminate underground newspapers, and graffiti school property with posters and slogans.

This latter action brings them into violent altercation with security staff, the consequences of which prompt a core group to depart for Italy for the summer, to regroup, and to broaden their exposure to revolutionary ideas and counter-cultural lifestyles. As the characters navigate the whirlwind of divergent ideas and philosophies into which they have been swept, they buffet too against their own desires for personal achievement and fulfillment. In fact, strip After May to the bones and you just might find a fairly straightforward coming-of-age story.

The central character Gilles (Métayer) is an aspiring artist who is caught up in the revolutionary fray. To create, and to revolt, are not mutually exclusive desires, but career and lifestyle ambitions can take the fire out of fervour. This tension in Gilles is intensified by his love for the alluring but flaky artist Laure (Combes) and fiery activist Christine (Créton), who are both beset by their own doubts and insecurities. Their friend, Alain (Armand), is pursuing his own art as a kind of metaphysical imperative; he is first inspired, and later challenged, in this quest by free-spirited but increasingly weary American dancer Leslie (Menuez).

The characters' idealism is at times tested against the cynicism or jaded moral certitude of older revolutionaries. Gilles clashes with a filmmaker who is using bourgeois language to carry revolutionary ideals to the masses, which Gilles claims to be inherently contradictory, but which Christine sees in a more pragmatic light. Gilles is also chastised by one older revolutionary for entertaining legitimate doubts about the means employed by Mao Zedong as part of China's Cultural Revolution. There clearly is a gulf here between healthy skepticism and wilful blindness.

Assayas' film is exquisitely detailed, not just in its attention to recreating the physical worlds of 1968 France and Italy, but in the content of its dialogue, which as a whole becomes a kind of multifaceted interrogation of various ideas. It is frank and honest, and neither cogent nor arrogant enough to offer answers. It is too cold and hazy to be considered a pure coming-of-age story, but it is highly accomplished, and its haziness is given aural substance by a soundtrack of 1960s psychadelia that reveals the film, primarily, as a piece of heady nostalgia.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Apres Mai, Olivier Assayas, Clément Métayer, Lola Créton, Felix Armand, Mao Zedong, Cultural Revolution



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