If you have any interest in seeing Philippe Garrel’s latest feature on the big screen, its three San Francisco International Film Festival screenings may be your only chance. While Regular Lovers is a major film by an important director associated with the French new wave, it’s hard to fathom a distributor gambling on a three-hour foray into French history with more emphasis on philosophy than on plot. In its reconsideration of the chaos that was 1968, the film is, in part, a response to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers; there was a time when European art cinema mattered enough for this kind of exchange to turn heads, but such is not the case in today’s film culture.
If that seems too gloomy an opening, it should be said that Garrel’s disillusioned movie is all about things coming to an end. Whereas Bertolucci’s last film builds to epochal May ’68, Regular Lovers opens with fighting in the streets. Our protagonist, a young poet-radical named François (played by Louis Garrel, who also starred in The Dreamers and just happens to be Garrel’s son), skirts through the Latin Quarter as unorganized bands of freedom fighters overturn cars and toss Molotov cocktails. Garrel has said that this ghostly hour-long sequence attempts to re-create the documentary footage he himself shot during 1968, and, indeed, the perspective is almost journalistic in its distance. In one long shot, a man and woman embrace in the corner of the frame while cars burn a few meters away. If he had filmed the same scene, Bertolucci would have stylistically emphasized the kissing because, for him, this was a time when sex and politics were inextricably linked. Garrel’s vision is colder but makes more sense with 40 years of hindsight. For him, the romance and sexual liberation come after the revolution, or, more precisely, these elements (along with other distractions like opium and music) shift the revolution’s focus away from the political and toward the personal
And so it is that François falls in love with Lilie (Clotilde Hesme), a pensive girl-with-bangs who is a sculptor and goes to all the right parties. Young François trades his idealistic politics and poetry for romance and an increasingly nihilistic take on bohemianism, moving from the action of the Latin Quarter to the inertia of opium dens and artists’ lofts. By the film’s end, the events of May ’68 seem like more of a head trip (at one point François wonders whether it’s possible to "make the revolution for the working class despite the working class") than a true revolution.
Throughout Regular Lovers, there’s an obvious tension in the way Garrel uses ’60s-era new wave conventions (handheld camera, location shooting, etc.) to undercut that same decade’s mythos. But careful, the Paris of this film isn’t that of Breathless. Gone are the exhilarated long shots of boulevards and canals; Garrel pictures the city as a series of shadowy, bare interiors and geometric exteriors — more along the lines of Fritz Lang’s nightmarish visions of Berlin than, say, Cléo from 5 to 7.
Now that we’re seeing the return of the repressed in French culture and cinema (France’s postcolonial legacy haunts Michael Haneke’s Caché as well as at least three films playing at this year’s SFIFF: The Betrayal, I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed, and October 17, 1961), the entropy of Garrel’s narrative arc seems that much more dark and, as Paris burns once again, tragic. Although overlong and sometimes didactic, Regular Lovers reveals a filmmaker impressively responsive to change. SFBG
(Philippe Garrel, France, 2005)
Fri/21, 8:45 p.m., Kabuki
Sun/23, 12:45 p.m., Kabuki
April 29, 8:15 p.m., Pacific Film Archive