I wasn’t greatly impressed with the first hour or so of Olivier Assayas’ Après mai. Despite being roughly based on the French director’s teenage years, there’s a sketchiness to its ensemble of young characters that keeps the director’s remarkably rich evocation of early-1970s Europe from feeling weighted with the emotional investment of (semi)autobiography. But by the end of the film, it became clear that the film’s emotional core is broader, more thematic than specific—it’s about growing up (in privilege) while the world crumbles through its cycles of political chaos, over and over, and finding art as a constant to hold on to. This is a cumulative film, one that builds to an effective confluence of melancholy and uplift by its quiet, unhurried climax.
Après mai follows a group of leftist high-school students “not far from Paris,” channelling their teenage frustrations into radical activism in the aftermath of the momentous civil unrest of May 1968 in France (hence the title, ‘After May,’ changed to Something in the Air in North America). The group’s activities lead to the serious injury of a security guard on their school campus, provoking a trip across Europe during their summer vacation to escape scrutiny and explore what they believe to be the beginning of a global political revolution. And it is, in a way—every decade is a cultural revolution of sorts, with few clear successes or victories, and much clearer defeats and tragedies. But the revolution these young men and women think is beginning is on its way to ending, to be replaced in the 1980s by a global capitalist revolution. By 1971 (when the film picks up), counter-cultural idealism was already beginning to sour into cynicism, and its this pivot-point that corresponds with these teens’ approaching adulthood. The narrative centres roughly on artist and aspiring film-maker Gilles (Clément Métayer), the clear Assayas-analogue here, but also devotes a fair amount of time to his friends, including on-and-off girlfriend Christine (Lola Créton), whose idealism proves the most durable in the face of disappointment.
None of the teenagers feels fleshed out, and barring Créton’s charming turn as Christine, the actors’ (many of them first-timers) performances fall on the laconic side of naturalism, making it hard to get attached to their stories. But as the film drifts episodically through their summer of counter-culture and heartbreak to the accompaniment of a fantastic period-appropriate soundtrack (including Soft Machine, Syd Barrett, Kevin Ayers and Nick Drake), the sense of immersion created by Assayas’ masterful direction makes one feel in the midst of re-living the glow and ache of the teenage years, even as it dims and flickers into the forced breakdown of romantic idealism that is adulthood. Collaborating with cinematographer Eric Gautier again after the gorgeous Summer Hours (2008), Assayas perfectly bottles the firefly-haze of summers past in the film’s warm, saturated palette, while keeping his recreation of the era grounded with languid editing (Assayas’ Summer Hours editor Luc Barnier also returns here) and camerawork that rarely calls attention to itself (such as in a hypnotic long take at a country house party just before an accidental fire).
Après mai is something of a cinematic comedown after Carlos (2010), Assayas’ epic five-hour biopic about Venezuelan terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez. It doesn’t have the incendiary energy of that film (technically miniseries) nor its more precise characterization and stakes. But it’s a thematic cousin to that film, observing again the half-life of fiery political activism within the crucible of age and disillusionment. Just as Carlos the Jackal grew unhealthy, complacent and bitter over the decades covered by Assayas’ Carlos, fading into insignificance in the eyes of the same governments and corporations that once dreaded him, so does the youthful (and often incredibly narrow and ill-thought-out) idealism of the students in Après mai crumple under the toll of growing responsibility and self-involvement, crushed by the bourgeois privilege of individualism (to paraphrase one of the older activists in the film). By the end, Gilles chooses to learn how to make movies that cater to fiction rather than agitprop, like Assayas, did. The lingering final frames of a cinema screen becoming one with Gilles’ memory are a haunting reminder that all art returns to the personal and the selfish, no matter how overtly political.
Despite its exploration of counter-culture, Après mai isn’t political—it doesn’t take a stance, only showing a movement that did, or tried to. It’s instead a meditation of how privileged apathy and disillusionment can rot the soul, and how art might just keep the flame of youth from guttering out as one ages. After all, even Christine, who sticks to her political commitments, ends up being a secretary and an impromptu housewife for a political film collective whose radicalism doesn’t quite extend to the recognition of feminism. But Gilles’ guilt remains, because even if we agree that art saves the world from itself every passing day, a single work of art by a single artist doesn’t, and can’t.
The realization of their insignificance hits the film’s young characters hard, and gives the film a sharp sadness that lifts up the final act—as in a lovely montage that shows the mundane toil of their lives in comparison to the romantic, revolutionary fervour of that summer abroad (scored to the psychedelic folk of Amazing Blondel as they sing “shine on, celestial light,” suffusing each frame with beautiful irony). But Gilles has to come to terms with his guilt, as we all do, or be paralysed, vanish under apathy as one character does, lost to depression and drug abuse. Even as Gilles surrenders to the silver screen in the final scenes, so do we, allowing Assayas to evoke something essentially universal—that frisson sparked by the meeting of sadness at the loss of our past and wary excitement at the active creation of our future, just by choosing to live instead of being defeated entirely by our insignificance.