For a story about the sometimes angrily confrontational, sometimes wilfully naïve student activism of the 1970s, this is a remarkably warm embrace of a film. Possibly that’s because it feels like an autobiographical take on the era from director Olivier Assayas. I don’t know whether its story — of a young tousle-haired art student Gilles (played by newcomer Clément Métayer) trying to find his métier while watching his friends move off in various directions (geographical, emotional and spiritual) — is based in Assayas’ life, but it feels like something that is at least close to his heart after his previous multi-part epic Carlos (2010).
The title (at least in French, where it means “After May”) alludes to les événements of May 1968 which started with riots amongst university students on the edge of Paris and spread across the country to provoke further riots and strikes, convulsing all aspects of the French workforce, not least the arts and cinema. A new more politically-engaged consciousness was reflected in the 1970s films of, for example, Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker, and in the film criticism of such influential standard-bearers as Cahiers du cinéma (where Assayas started his career in the 1980s).
Après mai is set in 1971, amongst a group of students who are just finishing their final year of high school. There are plenty of teasing hints at the volatile new factions which opened up after May ’68, as we see the students at the start of the film engaged in street riots broken up by police violence, and at fractious meetings in which subsequent action is debated and competing leftist points of view are aired (though nobody seems to like the Communists). When the students, seeking an outlet after the brutality of the police, vandalise their school with graffiti and post breathlessly accusatory fliers, the school authorities are shown scratching their heads as to the meaning or relevance of it all. A subsequent ill-judged attack on a school security guard sees the group, now out of high school, disperse to various parts of Europe and further afield.
There’s humour too in all this revolutionary fervour. Gilles’ friend Alain is involved with an earnest American girl who’s been studying sacred dance in India; he himself is seen creating right-on artwork for the lightshow to a psychedelic hippy band (think early Velvet Underground or Pink Floyd). Meanwhile his on-off girlfriend Christine (the lovely Lola Créton) has hooked up with some older filmmakers taking their agit-prop workers’ rights films on the road to Italy, and Gilles is clearly shown to be underwhelmed by their simplistic praxis (in this regard, there’s also a nice scene at a public screening where one crowd member, channelling Jean-Luc Godard, asks these filmmakers why they don’t present their revolutionary message with a revolutionary film syntax).
However, in all of this there’s pathos and and an underlying generosity. Driving all the characters’ actions is a real earnestness of belief in the cause (whatever precisely this may be) and in the power of art to reflect and champion that cause. However detached Gilles may be shown at times to be, these beliefs are never ridiculed by Assayas. His cinematographer Eric Gautier’s camera captures something of an idyll, languorously and in sometimes long, fluid takes moving amongst the characters. The soundtrack is dominated by the wistful, elegiac sounds of contemporary English singer-songwriters like Nick Drake, Kevin Ayers and Syd Barrett, and groups like Soft Machine and the Incredible String Band. These aren’t just deployed (as they might be in advertising) as a shorthand to creating a mood, but seem more like hard-won accompaniments to Assayas’ sensitive characters — characters who may be confused about what they want, but who are trying throughout the film to figure it out.
Director/Writer Olivier Assayas; Cinematographer Eric Gautier; Starring Clément Métayer, Lola Créton; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Ritzy, Brixton, London, Sunday 26 May 2013.