By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Regular Lovers,” Zeitgeist Films, 2007]
As much as I would’ve liked to have been, I wasn’t in Paris in May of 1968, when the student strikes broke out and burned all the more brightly the more they were suppressed by police violence, when labor unions joined in and virtually shut the country down, and when Molotov cocktail revolt filled the middle-class streets in a heretofore unprecedented Zeitgeist of resistance to the exploitations of state power. But it’s been such a lavishly, lovingly depicted cultural moment in movies that sometimes I feel as if I had indeed been there, manning the barricades. (Call it, in retrospect, the Woodstock of France.) Still, May ’68 awaited its definitive film portrait until the arrival of Philippe Garrel’s “Regular Lovers” in 2005. (It opened here in January.) The movie is in fact more of an impressionistic personal meditation on the place and time than an outright historical film. But the feeling of the era, the cataclysmic, romantic, liberating and finally tragically disillusioned emotional thrust of resistance, coupled with the electric sense of being 19, sexually alive, responsibility free and ready to dope up and drop out all of it seeps out of this neglected three-hour epic like fragrance from a valley of lilacs.
Garrel, of course, had been there having begun as a young experimental filmmaker in the ’60s, he rode shotgun along with the New Wavers (literally, in 1968 at the age of 19, shooting scenes in the streets with Godard), never attaining their international profiles but consistently producing challenging, eccentric work at home. (“Regular Lovers” is, as far as I can ascertain, his first film to be distributed in the U.S.) “Regular Lovers” has the burning conviction of firsthand experience, and it’s hardly a coincidence that Garrel cast his own son, Louis, as his laconic, lovelorn protagonist. Garrel fils was also the co-star of Bernardo Bertolucci’s silly May ’68 valentine “The Dreamers” two years earlier and given Garrel père‘s history of prickly recalcitrance, it’s possible that Bertolucci getting so much wrong in his film largely inspired Garrel to get it right.
The film meanders in the young Garrel’s shadow as he wanders through a demimonde of wealthy college kids and, soon enough, the Night of the Barricades, filmed in inky black-and-white by master D.P. William Lubtchansky in a nearly hour-long idyll, as if the revolution was caught in suspended animation. From there, the film evokes the post-revolutionary hangover, as Garrel’s François begins a wary romance with Lilie (the radiantly ordinary Clothilde Hesme); together, they are born icons of post-adolescent cool, but just as insurrectionary fervor wanes under the glare of the workaday sun, so does their love. It’s a heartbreaking film, but not because it tells you so. Like the best of the French going back to Renoir, the filmmaker locates three-dimensional pathos and beauty in simple images, acts and gestures, captured honestly and without bullshit: a dance party, getting high in a rich family’s apartment, wandering through the strangely empty morning streets as if the couple were the survivors of a holocaust. An ambitious, grown-up, old-school art film, “Regular Lovers” (such a humdrum title) may be so far the best film of 2007.
Then there’s real old school: Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Sansho the Bailiff” (1954), a must-have, must-see film culture classic that, up to now, had only been available in godawful public domain video copies and war-trodden 16mm prints. If that’s how you’ve seen it and not, perchance, in the 2005 retro that roamed the country’s retro screens then you haven’t seen it at all. The new Criterion edition is jewel-like and breathtaking, which simply makes the classic fable in warlord-run medieval Japan, a railroaded governor’s wife and children are waylaid on a journey and sold into slavery all the more devastating. No other film so carefully interrogates how tragic injustice plays out over years of life. (It’s not a film you should sit down to lightly; keep hankies, oxygen and ice water close at hand.) Mizoguchi, semi-forgotten today and the peer to Ozu if not the superior to Kurosawa as well, is hopefully on his way to being reinstituted as a cultural giant worldwide. Of course, the DVD package is fiercely reverent, buttressed with new interviews, scholarly exegesis, a new essay of things Mizoguchian and two versions of the original narrative: the 1915 short story by author Ogai Mori, and a transcribed version of an earlier version, from when it was merely an oral folktale. All told, it’s justice done.
“Regular Lovers” (Zeitgeist) and “Sansho the Bailiff” (Criterion) will be available on DVD May 22nd.