The love this film inspires in Judge Jesse Ataide is anything but regular.
"This time tomorrow
"This Time Tomorrow," The Kinks
Art film controversy! The Dreamers, Bernardo Bertolucci's polarizing, sex-soaked paean to the May '68 student uprisings in Paris, raised eyebrows after being slapped with an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. Then word began to get around that Philippe Garrel, an equally revered (though much more obscure) European director would be taking on the same subject; and he was not hiding the fact that it was a direct response to Bertolucci's controversial film. And to top it all off, it would star none other than the director's son, Louis Garrel, star of The Dreamers! Quel scandale!
Or, not really. Whether or not Regular Lovers (Les Amants Reguliers) was meant as an art film smack-down is ultimately rendered wildly beside the point, as the films are so different on aesthetic and philosophic levels that attempting to pit the two against each other comes off as completely unnecessary, and more than a bit silly.
Facts of the Case
After the exhilaration and sense of purpose provided by the May '68 protests (a tens of millions-strong general strike that threatened to cripple the whole of France) the young, idealistic leaders and fighters in "the cause" are forced to confront a harsh new reality: life after the revolution. Regular Lovers depicts a group of artistic, pseudo-bohemian young people readjusting to the general banalities of everyday living. A general sense of disillusionment and vague despair prevails, leading to a massive ingestion of opium, listless sexual encounters and a whole lot of sitting around in languid groups, occasionally engaging in conversation about nothing in particular.
Playing against this backdrop is the quick development and equally quick denouement of a relationship that forms between Francois (Louis Garrel), a brooding, aspiring young poet, and Lilie (Clotilde Hesme, Les Chansons d'amour), an art student studying sculpture.
It's the same old story: despite rhapsodic raves from film festival critics worldwide, a write-up in Film Comment magazine and a hopeful token release in New York City, Regular Lovers seemed forever doomed to that shadowy wasteland where foreign films languish indefinitely without American distribution. And it's not difficult to see why—if the name of a well-known director and a ratings scandal was capable of yielding only a tiny audience for The Dreamers, what hope could there possibly be for an ungainly three-hour behemoth of a film where nothing in particular takes place? Are there really people out there who desire to partake in this type of film?
This is where I raise my hand. If you're also the type of person who gets a rather masochistic pleasure from being slowly, teasingly drawn into a seemingly banal world by hard-to-find rhythms, obscure themes and vague emotional pulsations, Regular Lovers is a must-see film.
One can see the attraction of using the May '68 events as a springboard for a film. Despite its failure as a political revolution, it still provides a tantalizing canvas in which to paint stories of youthful idealism, political and artistic dedication, and the general chaos of an entire society seemingly on the verge of achieving something great. And what could be more satisfying for the serious movie viewer than a true story of dedicated movie patrons rising up en masse to uphold their artistic ideals, in the process help spark a major political movement that threatened to topple a world power? It's beside the point that Regular Lovers doesn't specifically depict or even reference the "Langlois affair" (in which a mass protest ensued after the Henri Langlois, beloved curator of the Cinematheque Francais, was forcibly removed from his post, and is generally acknowledged as a main prelude to the May '68 events), as the event hangs over Regular Lovers and its artistically-inclined cast of characters with a heavy, unacknowledged presence. Or perhaps more accurately, the events leave a residue in which all of the film's characters must directly (or more often than not, indirectly) come to grips with.
This is what Regular Lovers primarily deals with. The film's first half hour does indeed depict the open warfare of May '68, though it seems adamant in its de-glamorization. The open fighting between young activists and heavily armored policemen is depicted as sweaty, physically taxing, and in the air is an undeniable sense of uneasiness and dread. Still, it's more exciting than what will follow, and it is the mundanity of everyday living that suddenly becomes the young rebel's chief adversary.
The two and a half hours that follow wraps itself in these broken dreams and sensations of displacement, and more often than not gives off the feeling of witnessing a string of memories or watching a series of home movies unfold. Director Phillipe Garrel, who was himself a first-hand witness of the May '68 events, has hinted that there are certainly parallels to be made between the film and his own experiences, and as a result, Regular Lovers is a film etched by autobiography, if not actually a film preoccupied with the reconstruction of a very personal mythology. But if determining autobiographical accuracy is a rabbit hole of speculative guessing, the film's luminous, oversaturated black and white cinematography (by master cinematographer William Lubtchansky, the man behind the look of classics by Rivette, Godard, Truffaut and many others) certainly gives the impression of memories that are beginning to fade and distort around the edges. Emphasizing this is the way scenes abruptly start and stop halfway through what would seem to be their logical duration, while other scenes drag out far longer than what seems of interest to anybody than the filmmaker silently observing behind the camera.
Regular Lovers also seems heavily indebted to silent film aesthetics. Not only do several sequences play entirely without sound, but the infrequently interspersed score involves moody samples from a tinny piano that frequently recall to mind live musical accompaniment from cinema's earliest stages. The flickering black and white cinematography also reinforces this seemingly archaic quality. The overexposed white gives places, people and faces a ghostly (or perhaps angelic?) pallor of different filmmaking era entirely.
If Regular Lovers has a major selling point, it's undoubtedly the presence of Louis Garrel, the charismatic young actor who, since his breakout performance in The Dreamers, has gone on to become one of the most popular and recognizable stars of contemporary French cinema. Often described as an uncanny throwback to heady heyday of French New Wave cinema (I certainly said as much last year in my review of Ma Mere), Garrel the younger seems as period-appropriate as any meticulous set or costume detail. And if anything, Regular Lovers is yet another film that demonstrates Garrel's insistence on taking on challenging, experimental projects that are anything but financially lucrative (or in other words, he doesn't seem interested in becoming French cinema's Tom Cruise). He's a remarkable talent, and wherever it takes him, I hope he never abandons the risk-taking that is quickly defining his career.
Despite being touted as the central character in the film, the fact of the matter is that Garrel's character is not given a whole lot more screen time than many of the other characters. In fact, he often comes off as an anti-character, barricaded glumly in corners, with the scowling look of being lost in thought. Tellingly, he is absent from what could be the most memorable moment in the entire film, an impromptu group dance to the Kinks's giddily upbeat (yet lyrically reflective) "This Time Tomorrow," where many of the characters seem to temporarily throw of their oppressive malaise and twist orgiastically to the beat for several short minutes. A quick cut-away shows Garrel slouching on a nearby sofa, observing coolly (what we assume) is the scene before him. At this moment Garrel could be seen as a stand-in for the film itself—seemingly suspended somewhere unknown in time and space, rather aloof, more than a bit enigmatic, but somehow, undeniably compelling.
One could describe the image quality of Regular Lovers as grainy and overexposed, but it seems that both are a deliberate aesthetic choice by the director. The high contrast blacks are effectively, oppressively dark, and the whites are a shimmery, luminescent haze. One way or the other, there's nothing really to detract from one's appreciation of the film in either the picture or audio quality—if anything, the flaws (if they are indeed flaws) seem to only enhance the experience. Optional white subtitles in English are included.
A 30-minute Venice Film Festival press conference with Garrel the director, Garrel the star, Clotilde Hesme and producer Gilles Sandoz serves as the film's main extra, but I found that the voiceover in English being spoken over the responses in French nearly impossible to follow, which is a shame since personal insight into this film would be very valuable. Much more helpful is an essay provided by critic Kent Jones that is included in the liner notes, which fills in many biographical details and gives a nice overview of Garrel's entire oeuvre.
Also included is the tremendously unimaginative original French theatrical trailer (all it does it show the abovementioned dance sequence unaltered, slapping on a title card at the conclusion), as well as a "Philippe Garrel Filmography," which is rendered superfluous in light of the IMDb and other similar internet sources. But this isn't the type of film that much money or resources get channeled toward, and all things considered, I can't find much room to complain.
As time passes, Regular Lovers seems to grow and expand like the treasured memories of the past it attempts to depict. A magnificent achievement.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
• Venice Film Festival press conference
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