Austere, underlit, uncompromisingly lackadaisical at three hours, and anachronistic in a half dozen ways, Regular Lovers is the first New York theatrical opening for the veteran French avant-gardist Philippe Garrel. Avant-garde, of course, is a relative term: When Garrel and Michel Auder, another Warhol-smitten French filmmaker, showed their “underground movies” here in 1970, Jonas Mekas called them “very sad cries from the past, one almost pities them.”
Garrel, however, has endured. He’s made nearly 30 features (despite a prolonged ’70s heroin jones) and Regular Lovers, which was featured in the 2005 New York Film Festival (Garrel’s first Lincoln Center appearance since 1972), is personal in ways we can only guess. It stars Garrel’s son Louis as a version of the filmmaker as he might have been in the high ’60s—a sincere poseur and humorless poet named Francois, smoking hashish and opium, and passively resisting the draft.
Regular Lovers celebrates the events of May ’68 with a long (long) street-fighting nocturne and an even lengthier sequence of police pursuit. It’s exhilarating and futile. “Can we make the revolution for the working class despite the working class?” one comrade wonders. The answer may be a foregone conclusion but Regular Lovers plods on dutifully, exhibiting the same glum perseverance as Garrel’s career. Although the distinguished William Lubtchansky shot the film, its frissons are rarely visual. More surprising than any of Garrel’s set-ups is the abrupt introduction, amid more random piano doodles, of the opening chords from “I Am the Walrus.”
Revolutionary failure brings girls, rock music (including a song by Garrel’s mid-’70s paramour, Nico) and a certain listless communalism. There’s still considerable hanging out but once Francois starts lying around with the aspiring sculptor Lilie (Clotilde Hesme), the emphasis shifts. Scenes from revolution become scenes from a romance. With its attention to detail and character,
Regular Lovers is novelistic, albeit in a special way—the characters have little inner life and engage in relatively few actions. Ambiance is all. A fondness for cutting from mid-scene to mid-scene and a few primitive dream sequences notwithstanding, Garrel’s most daring device is his use of duration. Ultimately this languid tone comes to seem a strategy, quite poignant, to extend youth as long as possible.
The film’s subject matter and casting present an unavoidable critique of
The Dreamers, Bernardo Bertolucci’s risible evocation of Paris ’68, which also starred Garrel
fils. Dourly withholding as it may be, Regular Lovers
is superior in every sense—not least in its near-complete absence of cinephilia. (The one reference is to Bertolucci.) For Garrel, culture isn’t restricted to movies. It’s the Paris air. When Francois is tried for draft-dodging, his lawyer defends him as a poet; in a later scene, cops bust the commune and stop to admire the paintings. It’s ironic but heartfelt. Garrel is not just an artless aesthete, he is unexpectedly and intensely romantic—imagining and realizing a character who can die for love.