French filmmaker Olivier Assayas is still fascinated with the continuation of human cultural tradition, what we can learn and what we in turn leave behind when we go. With Après mai, Assayas moves from the family value-laden art objects of L’heure d’été (2008) to an even straighter-forward statement.
We can’t so easily abandon our cultural alphabetics. Mutiny against the establishment is simply the necessary step on the way to adulthood, part and parcel of the compulsory, empty movement that is vital in creating the tension upholding the present.
Yet, Après mai is not cynical at any turn, but achieves something unique: it tackles the paradoxically hygienic revolution of the hippie generation (our present status quo!) with surprising warmth. A retrospective look could turn things ugly, a failed opposition of all things easy and fun a sad joke. There’s so much to chuckle at, but you can’t help falling in love with the children of the revolution.
Along the way, cinema shows its many faces as an agitator, educator, creator and, above all, as an artifact of memory.
Set in the immediate aftermath of 1968 student revolution, Après mai starts with refreshing political fervour. Camera glides into a violent demonstration where leather-jacketet, Naziesque riot police beat skinny protesters. Bushy-haired Gilles (Clèment Métayer) and his friends are active and resourceful, their evident narrow-mindedness extremely productive. They put up posters en masse, plant fires, destroy property. Instead of walking they run. Assayas portrays the hasty young agitators with surprising gentleness, though the hypocrisy is evident throughout.
Gilles’ character is, naturally, the most symptomatic, raised in a cultural home filled with books and social capital. Like changing between jackets or falling in love, Gilles experiments with the arts without boundaries. Starting with Jackson Pollock-style drip painting and moving on to portraits, naivism, psychedelic illusions and finally, film, the main protagonist suggests an auto-biographical reading. Featuring idiosyncratic characters and funny dialogue (“I study sacret dance”), Assayas’ effortless storytelling refuses labeling and ordinary chit-chat. Dreamy and descending visuals, hues ranging from dawn to sunburnt guide us intuitively from spring till autumn.
At the end of that journey, the beginning is already nostalgic, as Gilles’ visit to the experimental cinema screening shows. By putting the distance between, analytical ability to measure appears. But something is lost in the experience.
Assayas plunges into final, banal joke involving Nazi officers, a submarine, a curvy woman in leopard skin and a B movie monster, most likely suggesting the absurdity of ideals lost. Gilles smiles and leaves, now walking instead of running. We may exit the theatre laughing, but the parable of compromise remains as a sting in our chests.