After the Revolution
By Nick Pinkerton

Regular Lovers
Dir. Philippe Garrel, France, Zeitgeist Films

“Those Who Make Revolutions Half-Way Do Nothing But Dig a Grave”

At a single 11 a.m. screening in 2005, the New York Film Festival presented Philippe Garrel’s monumental 178-minute hoard of period-specific emotional memory, Regular Lovers; it's miracle enough that the movie was made—but now it's getting its American distribution? I don’t want to call Garrel’s movie Great (though, oh, it is)—that’s one of those hefty words that tends to crush dialogue with the finality of its import, a disservice to a film that begs to be thought on, mixed-up with, bored or smothered by, but not put on a shelf labeled “Masterpiece” to gather dust and dispassionate appreciation. I love and respect this movie far too much for deadening hyperbole—such a mass of celluloid deserves its fair chance to engage a living audience before our sect of art-house obscurists ceremonially put it in mothballs.

Garrel’s new film, like much of his work, has the stillborn French Revolution of May 1968 at its center, though the Events exist literally rather than symbolically here. Few critics will be equal to the challenge of discussing Regular Lovers without reference to Bernardo Bertolucci’s ‘68-set 2004 film The Dreamers, and Garrel doesn’t ask us to; the connection is explicitly urged in a scene where actress Clotilde Hesme, discussing the Italian director’s Before the Revolution, turns to the camera to deliver a measured enunciation of the auteur’s name: “Ber-to-lucci.”

I can’t figure if Garrel’s movie is intended as an upbraiding counterpoint or staid intellectual sister film to The Dreamers—or even as some kind of disjointed sequel. It shares a leading man with Bertolucci’s insouciant work, Philippe’s son Louis, and as Garrel the younger steps off the streets of an uprisen Paris in an early scene, he tells friends, “Some guy gave me a molotov and all I had to do was throw it”—the same dilemma which ends Bertolucci’s film. But though Regular Lovers spends more time around the melee than The Dreamers did, it conversely seems the less invested film—Bertolucci’s complicitly adolescent approach made a total coup (or anything!) seem possible; Garrel, filming at the sidelines, seems incapable of participating in the party for more than a few moments, burdened by full knowledge of the hangover ahead.

Regular Lovers (the connections between Garrel’s movies’ titles and their texts is like that of New Order song titles to the songs—almost only what we make of them) follows a free-floating cadre of young Parisians during the eruption and cool-off of '68-'69, their base of operations the palatial flat inherited by their friend Antoine (Julien Lucas)—snazzier digs even than the posh apartment of The Dreamers. The movie is a massive, rather broke-backed work: the first hour is dominated by the long-shot chiaroscuro of police and students’ pitched urban warfare during the Night of the Barricades—the images, in some of the richest black-and-white photography in recent memory, recall Garrel’s works of Symbolist painterly myth-environment and medieval abjection from the early Seventies (The Inner Scar, The Bed of the Virgin). I’d found the reading of those films as allegories in political despair a bit tenuous, but the protestors’ barren battleground is too close to the scorched landscapes of those early works, right down to the omnipresent jots of sourceless flame, to ignore a connection—it’s obvious those weeks of martial law left a deep imprint on the director’s hypersensitive imagistic imagination.

The remainder of Regular Lovers is the sort of intent, ascetic relationship study that’s characterized the director’s films of the last 25 years. As such, Regular Lovers is the perfect primer to Garrel’s body of work—a summation of sorts, and if you’re not engaged on some level by this outsized chef d’oeuvre, you’d probably do well to stay away from the sketches. At the movie’s foreground is Francois (Louis Garrel), a poet of uncertain accomplishment who’s 20 in ’68, as the director was—and Louis has inherited his father’s deferential but concentrated screen presence, monumental, unruly-looking head, and chin-down stare. Francois meets Lilie (Hesme), a young sculptress from a proletariat background (the movie has a muted genius when handling class), and the two lithe androgynes—lovely, pretentious twin sylphs in the Patti Smith/ Robert Mapplethorpe mold—wrap together in a cloistered love affair. Garrel’s romances are concentrated, self-absorbed things, their dynamic determined in large part by the director’s penchant for steadily fixing his camera, at close range, on his actresses. There’s something wonderful about the desire to look and learn that Garrel’s patient fascination exhibits; he’s an obsessive, affectionate watcher—but maybe Bertolucci has a responding riposte ready-made for Garrel with the scopophiliac cuckolded cineaste played by Jean-Pierre Leaud in Last Tango in Paris

A friend, who’d caught the beginning of Regular Lovers, hit me with a tough question when I professed my admiration: “So did it ever go anywhere?” I can’t answer in the affirmative, but if it lacks drive, Garrel’s big, busy canvas has a dreamy propulsion and compositional logic whose effect is additive rather than just anecdotal. His excrescence of little scenes doesn’t seek to overwhelm but, through accretion of detail, to work up an internal rhythm that can adapt and absorb a viewer who’s up to the task; the movie’s little formal quirks, like letting some shots run through a reel’s final, exposed frames, don’t even pry you out—they occur as natural phenomenon, like passing clouds.

Yes, it can be a slightly stagnant movie, but this in no way diminishes the throat-clutching feeling when Francois explains to Lilie the simple contrast that proves his love for her is truer than those that preceded it: “I wasn’t listening to the girls I was with.” Or the effect of the film’s most potent scene, which feels almost like an insert: a fey, dandy-ish secondary character in a tight-fitting velvet jacket moving across a dance floor, absorbed in his satyr-like frug to the Kinks’ “This Time Tomorrow.” One could slough it off as a hip movie cliche, dusting off a handpicked piece of vintage wax, then shrewdly dropping the needle when a jolt of emotional import is called for (The Royal Tenenbaums set the bar with Nico’s “These Days,” and Squid and the Whale admirably performed the honors with Loudon Wainwright, “Street Hassle,” Pink Floyd…), but this moment of shivering synergy between mediums is larger than any record geek showoff—a lovely, ardently strummed tune about daydreams on a transatlantic flight is suddenly invested with the collective question of Regular Lovers’ ridiculously beautiful youth: “This time tomorrow/ Where will we be?…This time tomorrow/ What will we know?” It’s Garrel’s capacity for moments like this, abrupt emotional levitations through music, which must’ve prompted Olivier Assayas, equally keen in merging cinema and pop, to name a series of soundtrack-anchored films he curated at Brooklyn’s BAM Cinematek “I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar,” after Garrel’s 1991 film of the same title.

But isolating standout moments isn’t fair to the way Regular Lovers actually works: I took reams of notes during the movie, but I’ll be damned if I can remember the scenes or dialogues that most of them are in reference to. What really lingers is the impression of having been somewhere fragile, foolish, and lovely for the film’s three hours—among a young generation solipsistically convinced of their significance and historical import: key is a pot-hazy drift-off dream in which Francois imagines his brothers-in-arms as a mob of Jacobins—deposed militiamen in dirty tunics and scythe-wielding sans culottes—rolling an antique cannon through the streets. But in life, as in the dream, the rebellion breaks rank and scatters.

One might encapsulate Regular Lovers as fragments of an after-the-revolution comedown—one reviewer broke down the film’s formula as “one third idealism, two thirds disillusionment”—but I don’t think that either-or polarity is quite equal to Garrel’s movie. You can detect an older man looking back dubiously towards youth’s utopianism and us-against-them ethos even at the height of the film’s rather languid fervor: the jabber between the movement’s leaders is a muddled mockery and a “pig” police inspector who visits the kid’s house turns out to be a benevolently paternal art lover.

There’s room for more than one disappointment: after the coup has dissipated, Francois replaces his wide utopian ideal with a narrower but no less grandiose one, the Egalitarian Love-In at the End of History is replaced by Love Everlasting. Francois’s verse hints at a long acquaintance with melancholy (“the terrible roar of nothingness”), and he pushes a slender pistol to his temple in a gesture of practiced poetic despair, but he has full faith in redemption through one absolute or Another—so he keeps pressing Lilie to promise him eternity, which she does, though with ambiguous eyes. A crash is as good as inevitable, and the film’s fall-off ending only increases Regular Lovers’ passing resemblance to Robert Bresson’s litany of disappointments, The Devil, Probably (1977). But I think that Garrel’s film, better than Bresson’s, may deserve the unusual praise offered by Francois Truffaut after seeing Devil; for him it was the beauty of that film’s leads that “animate the film…and I am insisting on their beauty because it is in part the subject of the film: wasted beauty, wasted youth.” Regular Lovers is a sad, admiring movie about love at 20, basking in the flare of the impossible potential pompous kids can find in the world, and the loveliness of that impossibility.