Monday, 13 May 2013

Assayas’ “Après Mai”

French director Olivier Assayas’ story of ‘Carlos the Jackal’ was a gripping television series turned into a six-hour film (Carlos), which I not only saw in its uncut version but might even sit through again. It reminded me of how certain left-wing ideas that had penetrated profoundly the culture of my youth went off the rails into what was then properly called ‘terrorism’. The deadly bands around Venezuelan adventurer Illich Ramírez and other ultra-left entities like the Red Army Faction, Baader-Meinhof and their imitators saw the carnage of the Vietnam years, recalled the horrors of the recent world war and mistakenly imagined themselves into a worldwide revolutionary struggle that required them to go out and commit murder. Once they had crossed that line, as Carlos and another fine film, The Baader-Meinhof Gang, showed, it was easy to justify all sorts of criminal brutality.

But Assayas’ latest offering about the post-1968 generation, translated here as Something in the Air, strongly suggests that his devastating take on cracked militants like Ramírez stems from an underlying problem with political activism itself. His latest characters are high school students in the 1970s, which means that they just missed the upheavals of 1968 (the ‘Mai’ in the title’s reference) but are carrying on in the radical garb handed down from those times. They produce tracts, hold raucous debates, and spray-paint their own school, and while their fellow students dutifully accept the leftist newspapers, the slightly dazed expression on their faces suggests that everyone can sense that the air has gone out of that balloon.

There’s certainly plenty to mock in the messy, naïve and foolish gestures of the seventies, a period Assayas said in an interview he ‘hated everything about’. He gets mileage out of Gilles, his artistically-minded protagonist, who is an island of intuitive good sense while his friends head off into sour left-wing sects or goofy mysticism, usually as part of fragile and/or exploitative romances. Gilles can easily be read as a stand-in for Assayas himself who obviously chose an artist’s life rather than dedication to a cause, and good for him. But because Assayas finds no credible reason for ongoing activism, no social ills that might merit attention, and begins to look like a self-righteous scold.

If he had looked a little beyond his youthful distaste for the excesses of his peers, Assayas might have found the seeds planted by ‘Mai’ in other places, among competent professionals toiling in law, medicine, journalism, unions, the nonprofit sector, or what have you, pursuing the goals of 1968 steadily and sensibly. He could have included characters who overdid it as youth but landed on their feet, who made bad mistakes but recognized them and also took something positive away from their misguided militancy, like solidarity with the downtrodden or hatred of brutality and war.

Instead, Assayas draws a portrait that will be comforting to the smug and selfish of succeeding generations who can’t be bothered with anything not directly related to their own careers, pleasures and private lives. Those are the real descendants of the hated 70s, which culminated in selfishness raised to an art form precisely at the decade’s end, i.e., the advent of Reaganism in 1980.

That counter-revolution is still with us in the form of grotesque exploitation by the bankster 1% and all manner of dangerous Tea Party-style wacko influences on our daily lives. But Assayas’ focus on fringe characters like Carlos and the beknighted adolescents of Après Mai suggests that resistance is not only futile but pathetic.

No comments: