Since I wasn't really a francophile before moving here, but knowledge of French history is a bit spotty. I'm pretty good on the Revolution and World War II, but a lot of other periods I really only know about from reading fiction or seeing movies. The events of May 1968 is one these lapses. What I know about it has been gleaned from films like "Milou in May" or "The Dreamers", which are not exactly documentaries.
Here's what I do know: in May of 1968, factory workers joined with students to protest both the repressive education system and poor working conditions in factories. The demonstrations often erupted into violence and wildcat strikes brought the country to a stand-still.
Olivier Assayas' semi-autobiographical new film, "Après Mai" (known in English as "After May" or "Something in the Air" depending on where it's being released) takes place 3 years after these events. It loosely tells the story aspiring artist/filmmaker, Gilles, who is trying to balance his revolutionary ideals with his artistic ambitions. Gilles and his friends, Christine, Alain and Jean-Pierre spend their free time attending protests, posting flyers and spray-painting slogans on the school walls. When one of their outings results in a security guard being injured, they decide to get out of dodge for a while and travel to Italy with a group of adults from a filmmaking collective.
In Italy, they smoke, do drugs, have sex, smoke some more, and do a lot of talking about revolution. As the film goes on, the characters become more or less radicalized, but ultimately all of them become disillusioned with the movement and seem more lost at the end than the beginning. Except for Gilles, who despite the fact that he eventually moves to London to do an internship on a trashy commercial film, doesn't actually seemed to have changed much at all. The last shot of him is selling copies of a radical student newspaper, just as he did in the opening of the film.
Although I've admired Assayas' past films, like "Clean" and "Les Destinées Sentimentales", I found this film hard going. There are some beautifully directed sequences, from the hand-held camera shots of the protests to the fluid dream-like sequences of the characters on drugs. He also makes great use of the period music in totally non-clichéd ways. But I found it hard to care about anything that was going on.
The film meanders around with no real structure and the young actors, who are pretty much newcomers, mumble so much that it is actually difficult to hear them, much less understand the in-fighting between different leftists group that comprises much of the dialogue. Both the student protesters and the adults in the various collectives come off as slightly ridiculous with their intense discussions of whether this documentary or that book are subversive enough. We are never sure exactly what they are fighting for.
This may have been Assayas' intention of course, but with the flat, distanced way he has directed the actors, it's hard to tell. Maybe it's best just to look at the film like a memory piece, a collage of moments from his youth. I certainly came away with the feeling that I had a taste of what is was like to be young in France at that time, but it wasn't a particularly good taste.
But maybe I'm a square and just don't get it, man. It's true I'm old-fashioned in that I like my film-going experience to be a journey. I don't necessarily need a straight-forward story or a likeable protagonist, but I do need a character that I can become attached to, who ends up in a different place (and I don't mean geographically) than where he began. I wasn't really involved in anything or anyone in this movie, which made it pretty hollow experience for me.
I'd love to hear from someone who had a different reaction. The film is a festival darling, so there must be a whole lot of people out there who disagree with me. What am I missing?