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Friday, Jan. 5, 2007

'Les amants reguliers'

If you want a big sleep, try this

There's a conversation I frequently fall into with musicians I know; one that assumes there is a clear polarity between art and commerce. On the one side is "selling out," making art that is closer to product, often with corporate backing, and designed to meet a given market's needs. (Think Ayumi Hamasaki). On the other hand is independent or "pure" art, driven entirely by the artist's concerns and imaginings, and totally divorced from any potential audience or conventions.

Les amants reguliers Rating: (2 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Louis Garrel and Clotilde Hesme in "Les amants reguliers"

Director: Philippe Garrel
Running time: 182 minutes
Language: French
Now showing (Jan. 5, 2007)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Despite always being one to respect individuality and imagination over predictable product, I often find myself arguing over the role of pure art with friends. Often I'll suggest that, at some point, a real artist must consider a way to do what he wants and communicate this successfully to his desired audience. The comeback to this is always, "Well, that's a compromise of one's personal vision." Well, if you don't want to take the audience into consideration, if you do what you do solely for yourself, then fine, feel free. But don't then get up on a stage and charge money for your performance and expect people to listen. (And then whine about what philistines they are for not getting it.)

One filmmaker I'd love to have this conversation with is Philippe Garrel. His cinematic style, developed over four decades on the fringe, is resolutely personal and idiosyncratic, so much so that it often leaves the viewer wondering if maybe he isn't superfluous to the process. Take "Les Hautes Solitudes" from 1974, a silent, black-and-white film that features 80 minutes of nothing but intense closeups on the faces of four women, some of them Garrel's lovers.

Now, if you had been involved with these women, yes, there would be a beautiful expanse of memories connected to each laugh, each glance, each REM twitch as they sleep. But since every viewer except Garrel will lack this experience to inform the images on the screen, the film became an intensely boring experience. A photo exhibit isolating maybe 20 of the most evocative images would be brilliant, but Garrel, like most "pure" artists, does not seem to count editing among his strong points.

This is especially evident in his latest work, "Les amants reguliers," a look at the heady May 1968 uprising in Paris and its aftermath, which clocks in at just over three hours. And yet this is far from a historical epic; incident is minimal, irrelevant detail is copious and certain scenes are allowed to run on at inexplicable length. Some will find this dreamlike, others soporific. I guess it depends on whether you thought that Andy Warhol was being brilliant or idiotic when he said how much he liked being bored.

Garrel, who at age 20 was in Paris shooting street footage of the uprising for French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, has obviously shaped the film through his own filter of personal experience of being young, radical, idealistic yet dissipated, into poetry, drugs, and girls. Bernardo Bertolucci already tackled this point in time in "The Dreamers," a film which starred Garrel's son Louis, and "Les amants reguliers" feels very much like a reply to that film, including the casting again of Louis in the lead role. Many are critical of Bertolucci's film -- it owed more to Cocteau's novel "Les Enfants Terribles" than to May '68 -- but it at least provided some context for what was at stake in the uprising.

Garrel -- and here again is the mark of the "pure" artist -- could care less about context. He lived it, it's important to him, and if you were born 30 years later or on the other side of the planet, that's YOUR problem. In this respect, he's the opposite of Ken Loach ("The Wind that Shakes the Barley"), who loads his films with political detail; but then again, he cares and Garrel clearly doesn't, an embodiment of radical chic.

So it helps to know that May '68 exploded after a series of university closures and student-versus-police confrontations that escalated into a nationwide movement of wildcat strikes and protests that nearly brought down the government. The demands quickly moved beyond the specific into revolutionary realms of total change: "Demand the impossible" read the Situationist-inspired radical graffiti of the times. This was bound to fail, and it did. The moment of breathless revolutionary possibility was sweet, but all too brief, which seems to be the film's focus.

Garrel throws his protagonist, Francois (Louis Garrel), right into the street demonstrations, which make up most of the film's first hour. Riots are pure chaos, as anyone who's been in one can attest, but Garrel prefers to portray them as dreamy tableaux. One extended shot sees three policemen, filmed from behind, standing in a smoke-covered street as various projectiles fly overhead. Nothing happens, all action is deliberately left off-screen, and the murky shot is held for a looooong time. True, the black and white cinematography of William Lubtchansky is strikingly composed and redolent of the silent-film era Garrel loves so much, but it's not enough to carry the film.

We never really learn why Francois has joined the protests, but we do learn that he's trying to avoid his military service, the reason being that as a poet, he's too sensitive to serve in the army. (Obviously the boy has never heard of World War I.). He's also sensitive enough to think that the mere publication of his poetry may be some kind of betrayal of it. ("Pure" art?) Yet Francois remains an enigma, with little clue into his motivations or character; mostly it's defined by L. Garrel's naturally brooding brow. After the revolution fails, Francois turns to opium with his friends, and a romance with Lilie (Clotilde Hesme), which will eventually lead to heartbreak. Francois survives the destruction of all his romantic ideals, except one: romance. The loss of this may be fatal.

The film seems to be saying something about escape from society following May's broken dreams, but it plays more like a particularly indolent homage to the nouvelle vague films of the era. "La Maman et la putain" is a much better example of Garrel's escapist theme, while Chris Marker's "Cat Without a Grin" will actually tell you something about May '68. Perhaps Garrel has forgotten one of those key revolutionary slogans from '68: "L'Ennui est contre-revolutionnaire."

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