The first and most daunting hour of Philippe Garrel’s Regular Lovers is concerned with the clash between revolutionary rioters and the Paris police in May 1968. These images are paradoxical: long, static shots of unrest, people crouching behind barricades waiting for something to happen, scored by off-stage clamor. There’s no real violence but we have its anticipations and effects. And it’s all in the giddy moment, devoid of any context, with no expository conversations to catch us up to what’s going on.
This languid montage of shadowy figures in the middle distance will lose many a viewer.
Then something marvelous happens in the midst of all this faux-newsreel construction. A group of grubby anomalous figures out of the previous French Revolution, 200 years prior, emerge from the fog of history bearing torches and pushing an old cannon! We are given a couple of minutes to register the strangeness of this before something frightens them away and they scurry back to whence they came.
It’s a moment that could be read as a summary of the movie, and it’s bracketed by shots of our drowsing hero, Francois (Louis Garrel, the director’s son), a 20-year-old poet with an injured hand who crouches there in reverie behind a pile of junk, waiting for the cops to overrun him. Thus he’s established as a “dreamer”, like the role he played in Bernardo Bertolucci’s film The Dreamers, on the same historical moment.
After the collapse or passing of the revolutionary spasm, Francois takes refuge for the rest of the movie in a love affair with Lilie (Clotilde Hesme), a gorgeous young sculptress who loves him but can’t help wandering to other handsome guys—a predisposition to stray usually portrayed in love stories as a masculine affliction. The emotional hermeticism of their affair is balanced by the activities of the crowd they hang with, who flutter around Antoine (Julien Lucas).
Antoine is rich, decadent and jaded almost to the point of parody, yet completely realized and plausible. He inherited his father’s money and created his own revolution, he says, a world without laws. Now he lounges around, dispensing opium and worldly deflating rhetoric, providing a space for everyone to listen half-stoned to Nico (with whom Garrel made several films in the ‘70s). They dance with exhiliration to The Kinks’ “This Time Tomorrow” in a scene so perfect, it’s used as the French theatrical trailer, included as an extra.
I won’t go further into plot details because there’s very little plot and very many details. This is a rich emotional epic, a double-album of a movie, and it requires more than one viewing to process many of its subtleties, such as the small box of illegal dream-stuff Antoine keeps in a safe and gives to Francois, which proves crucial to the finale. Francois and his friend Jean-Christophe, a committed and frustrated revolutionary, look so similar with their square-jawed faces and bushy hair, so reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Leaud, that I spent half my first viewing confusing them.
Well, one good way to clear a room is to suggest that everyone watch a talky, three-hour black-and-white French movie, and perhaps I’m not doing my best to describe this movie’s spell. If it’s a room of cinephiles, however, they may answer that they’ve already seen it, in Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore. And they should be forgiven for thinking they’re seeing it again, for the opening scene of Garrel’s film deliberately copies a scene from that film by his late friend.
The geek’s ability to recognize references isn’t crucial to enjoying a film that gets inside youthful emotions of romance, camaraderie, excitement, ambition and disillusion, but we can’t resist acknowledging that pleasure for those who do. How can a French movie have a character named Jean-Christophe without reminding us of Romain Rolland’s epic novel-cycle about an artist’s unhappy loves and his brush with revolution? How dare it give one bohemian lass the name Camille? It can immerse us in such details gloriously and without distraction, as we are immersed in the shimmering high-contrast photographic dazzle of cinematographer William Lubtchansky.
Garrel believes that artistic works should speak to and of each other. This is more than characters referring to books they’ve read and movies they’ve seen, though such Godardian chatter is here too. He has stated in interviews that although he witnessed May 1968, this movie’s events and characters are more literary invention than autobiography, and its main
inspiration is Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma and The Red and the Black, with their heroes carried through history like opportunistic or tragi-comic flotsam.
Garrel wants us to know this, if we can pick up on it. A character mentions his brother Fabrice—a reference to Fabrizio, the hero of Parma. One key moment, whose sense of aesthetic shock I won’t spoil by describing, has Lilie mention Bernardo Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution. It’s appropriate contextually, thematically, and artistically, since that film is also inspired by Parma.
So this film has many clear links to Bertolucci and wears them proudly. This makes some critics read the film as a put-down of The Dreamers. In an essay with the DVD, Kent Jones makes mention of what he calls Bertolucci’s “utterly awful” film, “which Garrel can’t resist puncturing with one brief and extremely pointed moment.” Similarly, J. Hoberman’s review in The Village Voice calls this movie “superior in every sense” and “an unavoidable critique” of Bertolucci’s “risible” film. These are examples of critics projecting their own opinion of one movie into another.
After seeing the film at the New York Film Festival, Nick Pinkerton (in ReverseShot.com), wrote more even-handedly, “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.”
In the interview from the Venice Film Festival that comes as an extra—dubbed by a simultaneous translater, United-Nations-like, into semi-incomprehensibility—Garel never criticizes Bertolucci’s film (and he’s given plenty of opportunity) but cites it as the only Hollywood production he can think of that praises the revolution. These remarks are refined in an interview with Fabien Lemercier in CinEuropa.org:
In no way can I say that I left him in the shade since it was a huge international production and I can’t compete with Gone With The Wind. But in the spirit of a B movie filmed on the sets of A movies, you could say that I pinched the costumes and the extras from Dreamers. Bernardo Bertolucci’s film is, however, very important since it gives a positive vision of the revolution and it toured the cinema theatres worldwide. And that’s rare, apart from Viva Zapata by Elia Kazan.
Again, it’s unnecessary to be familiar with The Dreamers in order to be caught up in the delicate rapture of Regular Lovers, but these dialogues are clearly important to Garrel. The dream, which is art, is also an act of defiance. (Those dubious of The Dreamers are advised to check out Maximilian Le Cain’s analysis in. SensesofCinema.com.)
Two more qualites of Garrel’s film must be mentioned, or one self-conscious quality in two aspects. There’s the subtle, disarming sense of humor, dropped in at random to leaven any looming pretention. As the riot footage begins, a shot of the street address “68” becomes a visual pun marking the year. Months later, when Francois and Lilie are deep in their happiest hours, there’s a quick shot of the next address: 69. The following year? A sexual wink?
And why are two minor lovers called Luc and Lea? Is this really a Star Wars joke? Then there’s the textural quality that permeates the film, always more or less noticeable, of flashes of light, sprocket holes, black-outs as of missing frames or reel-ends, and even iris shots that refer less to the silent era than to Francois Truffaut’s use of the same device in hommage to the silent era.
When Francois takes a photo of Lilie making her sculpture, the close-up of Francois and his camera bursts in turn into a moment of over-exposure. These bits of self-conscious style don’t function as ironic alienation effects to distance us from the film, but rather draw us in further to a celebration of the beautiful fact that we’re watching a movie.
In love with cinema, Garrel has made intensely personal films for 40 years. The curious and intrigued among us could hope that this DVD foreshadows a resurrection of his fiendishly elusive output—but ah, that would be like waiting for the revolution. Well, we can dream.