Philippe Garrel sets out to demythologize the French student strikes of May 1968 and afterward in his intentionally logy three-hour history-play Regular Lovers. His first step: A lengthy street riot re-enactment that emphasizes how hard it is to mobilize large groups of people to do anything—even random acts of anarchy. At one point, one of Garrel’s draft-dodging rebels tries to set fire to the French flag, and we see the whole awkward process, from the first embers to the final tepid blaze.
Europe’s late-’60s youth movement has bewitched filmmakers almost since it happened, inspiring impassioned films from the likes of Chris Marker, Louis Malle, and, most notably, Bernardo Bertolucci, whose sensuous The Dreamers inspired Garrel’s far more prosaic Regular Lovers. Garrel casts his son Louis (who also starred in The Dreamers) as a poet and pacifist who gets swept up in the revolutionary fervor, then sidetracked by the decadence of sponging off his waifish sculptor girlfriend Clotilde Hesme and smoking opium with his rich buddy Julien Lucas. They all spend their days talking about art, experimenting with free love, and complaining that the revolution isn’t what it used to be. Before they know it, three years have gone by.
Though Regular Lovers is slow-paced, it’s somewhat misleading to call it inert, because that’s partly the effect Garrel wants. Anyway, the filmmaking is anything but flat. The camera moves fluidly and almost unceasingly, broken up by stylish iris-ins-and-outs and sumptuous portraits that could pass for post-punk album covers. William Lubtchansky’s grainy, high-contrast black-and-white cinematography is as vivid as any color film, with blobby white faces fading into the pitch like waking dreams.
But at the same time, much of what May 1968 meant to Garrel’s generation remains locked in his own head. Regular Lovers is dotted with telling scenes, like a lengthy courtroom sequence where the adult world’s impatience with their children becomes wincingly clear, but he balances those with scenes of quiet nothingness, and scenes that seem exciting—like the shots of a crowd dancing spontaneously to The Kinks’ “This Time Tomorrow”—but only because something is actually happening, not because it has any real narrative purpose. Regular Lovers isn’t a folly-of-youth story that aches with emotion, like Au Revoir, Les Enfants or The Squid And The Whale. It’s drier, and simpler. You are there. Iris out.