Love in the time of revolution: After May (2013)

The similarities between French director Olivier Assayas’ debut feature film Cold Water (1994) and his most recent cinematic outing After May (2012) are far from incidental. Both films take place in the aftermath of the May ’68 protests in France, and both films focus on two young people attempting to define themselves in a now turbulent socio-political climate.

The resurgence of such a tale comes about due to the autobiographical nature of the incidents, with Assayas formally stating that his own self and experiences are tied up in the central character Gilles, a young boy who in both films struggles to carve out a place for himself in the new world. While the similarities between After May and Cold Water are provocative in their own right, it is the differences between the two that are most striking, as they allow a clear view of Assayas’ own development as an artist through an ever changing vision of his own past.

What occurs is a double-edged process of self-actualisation, whereby Assayas’ depiction of his own development comes to define his actual development in the present moment. It’s a beguiling case of hindsight’s perfect vision blurring at the edges, yet all the while becoming clearer in the process, as Assayas’ art and personal narrative become more and more difficult to divide. 

In After May Assayas takes the central protagonists of Cold Water and fleshes out their experience in a more thoughtful manner. Assayas casted unknown actor Clément Métayer for the role of Gilles, an aspiring artist and minor political activist who is simultaneously caught between the utopian ideals of the counterculture and the militant leftist organisations. In his life exist two women who exemplify the political polarity: the illuminous Laure (Carole Combes), who leaves Gilles early in the film and becomes involved in the hedonistic and spirited counterculture, and Christine (Lola Créton, the only known actor in the troupe), the lover who replaces Laure and eventually joins a group of left-leaning ideological filmmakers. To follow either of these women seems the easiest of options and it’s one that the Gilles of Cold Water blindly takes. In After May however, the overriding credo seems to be that “an artist must forge their own path”, a statement that rings true for both Gilles and Assayas it seems.

After May also comes off the back of the release of Assayas’ five and a half-hour epic Carlos (2010), which similarly dealt with the political climate of the 1970s in a curious depiction of history uncommon to the traditional period piece or biopic. Although After May is semi-autobiographical, Assayas avoids rose-tinted linearity and iconography in favour of muted and considered representation, with his recollections avoiding a History Channel-esque sensationalism that traditionally consumes the post-modern period piece.

In the film there is a moment in which characters argue as to whether their cinematic agit-prop should maintain a revolutionary syntax or occupy the aesthetic trends of the bourgeoisie. Throughout Assayas’ career he seems to have been having this argument with himself, as he moves from the complex meta creations of Irma Vep (1996) to the quiet considerations of Summer Hours (2008). After May seems a communication between these ideals, a revolutionary rhetoric in its own right.

There is little in the way of narrative anchors in After May, as the drama floats across time with Assayas’ camera gliding along, a motion that exemplifies the eternal glory of youth on display. The optimism of revolution still hangs in the air in 1971, something Assayas seems longingly fond of, with his casting of such perfect specimens of youth and beauty contributing to the fervour. The nostalgia of the moment is also laced with a careful irony that places the characters convictions at odds with their desperate lack of self-awareness.

After leaving Gilles, Laure starts dating a musician and loses herself in the drugs, the music and the moment. Assayas shows us both sides of her coin when she meets again with Gilles, projecting a confidence and freedom to him that lies in contrast to her new heroin riddled lifestyle. Similarly, Christine seems to lament Gilles lack of political conviction while her own situation at home finds her on the fringes of action, bringing great frustration. It is the idea of activism that ignites the fire of youth in these characters; yet they seem to constantly hit roadblocks when turning ideas to actions.

All except the titular character of Gilles however, whose artistic drive maintains individualisation. Rather than seek immersion in the foreign influences of myth, spirituality or political influence, Gilles seeks truth through art and love. Above all else, After May charts his navigation through the temporal powder keg of post-68 activism towards self-realisation. Gilles, unlike the other central figures, does not follow any influence blindly and thus develops a sense of critical thinking through oppositional thought. This is not to say that he is not influenced per se, but rather that he does not let ideology persuade his own path. He may be responsible for vandalising his school (and abusing a security guard in the process), but the process comes to shape him not define him. He channels his identity through his art, initially in the form of paintings and sketches and eventually through cinema.

It’s a recognition of the thumbprint of any artistic expression, the inherent mark of the author on any work, a fact that many of the artists in Gilles world seem to have forgotten, or worse, neglect. This realisation makes perfect sense then in the context of Assayas, as we see the ways in which his own experience so keenly informs his own creations, both individually and as a collective. After May might not rouse audiences out of their seats and onto the streets, but it doesn’t really want to. It’s a singular artist’s deeply personal recollection of the process of self-discovery on screen and in real time. What’s more inspiring than that?

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