One wouldn't think anything good could result from something as unjustifiably pretentious, and (ultimately) intellectually mediocre as The Dreamers, Bernard Bertolucci's indulgent homage to Paris in 1968, site of what has passed into pop cultural legend as "les événements", which seemed only tangentially concerned with evoking May 1968 and amounted to little more than arthouse (and hence guilt-free) titillation.
One would be wrong: Bertolucci is in the final analysis to be thanked, as his film has led to a "response" in the form of Les Amants Réguliers (Regular Lovers), Philippe Garrel's 2005 homage to an era the director lived through as a twenty year-old, and to the "New Wave" cinema so inextricably intertwined with our collective imagining of that era. Garrel's film is a cinematic triumph, its 171 minutes of black & white splendor superbly crafted to evoke the anxiety, anarchic optimism, restlessness, longing, loss, and violence of a time that is all too often viewed -- at least from this side of the Atlantic -- only through the prism of Baby Boomer nostalgia. The chessboard hues of Regular Lovers are thus not a response but also serve as a corrective to the lush hues of The Dreamers, the latter's hothouse ambience (smothering whatever point Bertolucci wished to make about cinema, political engagement, and youthful love underneath its interminable languor) being replaced by frenetic -- and far from depressing -- angst. That's not to suggest that, like The Dreamers, this film does not feature oodles of footage of young people lounging around smoking dope; it does, but in Garrell's world that does not result in an enclave secluded from the world outside, but is instead a space from which engagement, revolt, whatever, is dreamed. Neither wholly inside nor outside, Garrel problematizes the space, often with an admirable visual economy and sense of irony (such as when one of the youngsters despondently remarks upon the failure of the working class to join in the students' revolt against the French state to his mother, whose vaccuuming has been interrupted by her son's arrival; the camera lingers on his shoes, left where he has dropped them, before the mother's hands pick them up). The philosopher generals of this, as many another, revolution are guilty of an abstraction that runs the risk of ignoring the particular in favor of an overarching project. But Garrel is not passing judgment on his protagonists' ideologies or limitations so much as he is attempting to evoke the experience of being there when, to paraphrase Milan Kundera, life was elsewhere. And if from our vantage point we cannot resist a little condescension toward the would-be revolutionaries in Regular Lovers, we would do well to remind ourselves that history might well be an unkind judge of our own abstractions.
At the core of Regular Lovers are Francois (Louis Garrell, who also starred in The Dreamers to far lesser effect) and Lilie (Clotilde Hesme), two of a group of youngsters caught up in the students' revolt, some of them participants of the Molotov cocktail-throwing variety, others mere hedonists. After a meeting at a party, the draft-dodging Francois and the foundry worker Lilie become lovers, but "life" presses upon them, and upon the rest of the group -- and by implication upon the ideals on which the 1968 students' revolt was predicated. Over time, the group of friends becomes oriented inward to an ever greater degree, as the street radicals are transformed into "mere" bohemians for the most part. By film's end, it is clear, "the pure" will not survive in the ordinary world, leaving it to the rest of us to remember, but not from the vantage point of youth -- that is the first to die.
No discussion of Regular Lovers can be complete without discussion of William Lubtchansky's wonderful cinematography, elegiac in every frame, and so richly expressive the term "black & white" cannot do justice to all its shades and nuance -- indeed the Bollyfan in me found himself musing on the utter rightness of this visual idiom for Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Black. I would go so far as to say that ultimately the cinematography is a large (perhaps the largest) part of what makes Regular Lovers singular. Garrel and Lubtchansky incorporate a number of visual references to France's glorious New Wave cinema, although this film certainly does not aspire to the feather-like lightness of the best of that tradition; indeed its visual seriousness -- at times even ponderousness -- reminds the viewer that what we are seeing is a representation, of 1968 certainly, but more specifically of a youth that is irremediably dead.