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Heaven and hell remain optional
[February 26, 2013]

Heaven and hell remain optional

BEIRUT, Feb 27, 2013 (The Daily Star - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- In a high school classroom not far from Paris, a teacher is absorbed in "Pensees," Blaise Pascal's posthumously published thoughts on rational Christian belief.

As the teacher reads to his class, a young fellow with overgrown hair (it's 1971) uses the sharp end of his geometry compass to carve an Anarchist symbol -- a slapdash "A" bound by a circle -- on his wooden desktop.

"Between heaven and hell is only this life," the teacher recites, "which is the most fragile thing in the world." As the sequence unfolds, the filmmaker's "point," it appears, is to illustrate the gulf separating France' post-1968 high school curriculum and a student body whose main interest was still political activism.

By the time the closing credits roll -- you're required to quietly read the credits of a great filmmaker's work, regardless what language they're in -- the craft of that opening image has come into full resolution.

The Anarchist emblem did signify one of several strains of anti-establishment politics in '70s-era pop culture. Carving it into a wooden desktop is among the pastimes that led sceptics to dismiss student activism as "a politics of futile gesture." A piece of wood is also a sculptor's medium, and carving an Anarchist symbol into it can be the gesture of a visual artist, one as drawn to activist iconography as he is to its practice and the thought behind it.

"Apres mai," the 2012 feature film of Olivier Assayas, is the loose-limbed story of Gilles (Clement Metayer) -- the compass-wielding aspiring anarchist of the opening scene.

The story follows Gilles' mutable relationships with women and militant student activism, his bourgeois father and the revolutionary politics and aesthetics that preoccupy his restless noggin.

"Something in the Air," as the film is titled in English, opens its Beirut run at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Thursday. It's the capstone of "Jeunesse, Desordre et Ideaux" (Youth, Disorder and Ideals), a fragmentary retrospective of Assayas' works designed as an art-house launch pad for the new film.

The cycle has also served to suggest the curious mixture of stylistic restlessness and thematic continuity that marks Assayas' oeuvre.

"Apres mai" begins at the end of Gilles' high school years, which find him wading though the vortex of political and cultural ferment that marked the early post-1968 period.

It also marks the end of Gilles' relationship with Laure (Carole Combes), a young artist. She informs him that she intends to move to London with her dad and that Gilles shouldn't follow her.

Gilles is pissed, but he finds another outlet for his reserves of sexual energy in Christine (Lola Creton), an aspiring filmmaker who is also deeply involved in student politics.

The story follows Gilles, Christine and a small cluster of friends and comrades as they battle school authorities and the French state's fascist policing tactics with spray paint, leaflets and, eventually, Molotov cocktails.

When their political vandalism leaves a security guard in a coma, it's decided the kids involved in the action should leave town for a spell.

Gilles, his aspiring artist pal Alain (Felix Armand) and Christine travel to Italy, where they immerse themselves in the rich and varied social and cultural soup that was the late counterculture.

At the end of a projection of a Leftist documentary about the Laotian peasantry, Gilles listens in while an audience member asks why the filmmakers choose to use bourgeois film syntax for their work. Shouldn't a revolutionary film use revolutionary syntax The filmmakers ask the audience member whether his notion of "revolutionary syntax" isn't just mislabeled bourgeois individualism. The response wounds Gilles' radical sensibility. It's his first intimation that radical politics and radical aesthetics may not go hand in glove.

The trio fall in with a pair of U.S. hippies. Leslie (India Salvor Menuez) is an entitled rebel en route to Julliard before deciding to travel east to learn how to dance for the gods. Her pal Carl (Paul Spera) is a communist-hating Hindu en route to nowhere in particular -- perhaps a drug rehab center.

Alain hooks up with Leslie, abandons his plans for art school and journeys with her and Carl to Nepal. Christine decides to take up with a revolutionary film collective and asks Gilles to join her. Put off by the collective's "boring films and primitive politics," he declines, returns home and ultimately takes a job with Pinewood Studios in London.

Between France, Italy, South Asia and back again, Assayas bathes his audience in an audiovisual treasure trove of early-1970s counterculture -- music, re-enactments of pop art happenings, clips from political films -- and the denizens that propagated and consumed them.

In narrative terms, "Apres mai" is a coming-of-age film.

Read in political terms -- difficult to avoid given the subject matter -- the film is the latest installment in Assayas' project to narrate the revolutionary final quarter of the 20th century in his own terms.

As with "Carlos," Assayas' 2010 miniseries-cum-feature about Venezuelan militant Ilich Ram rez S nchez, "Apres mai" nods to the political and ideological ferment that shaped the narratives of stalwart militants and invested cultural historians. Both films simply decenter ideology and politics in favor of culture.

Compared with the ill-defined ideological and political breezes that blow past the characters, Assayas' soundtrack, Eric Gautier's camera and Diane Sorin's art design caress the detritus of that period's cultural production with affection.

Like a re-hung shirt worn for a second day, "Apres mai" is also redolent of autobiography. As critics observed in the wake of the film's summer debut at Venice, the opening situation -- a classroom near Paris in the early 1970s -- was also the premise of Assayas' 1994 feature "Cold Water," whose principal characters' names are also Gilles and Christine.

Compared to "Apres mai," "Cold Water" grinds no axes. Gilles and Christine are restless but, bereft of either artistic talent or ideological-political commitment, the characters are simply self-destructive delinquents.

If, as these overlapping elements suggest, "Apres mai" is an early-20th-century redux of "Cold Water," Assayas' audience should perhaps be grateful that the writer-director is so transparent in hitching the shiftlessness of his early years to contemporary society's anti-militant mores.

By the final scene of "Apres mai," with Gilles' gazing up in recognition at the film screen, you may agree with old Pascal about one thing. Human life is indeed fragile. Belief in heaven and hell remains optional.

Olivier Assayas' "Apres mai" ("Something in the Air") opens Thursday at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil. "Jeunesse, Desordre et Ideaux" concludes at Metropolis Wednesday evening with a projection of Assayas' 2008 feature "Summer Hours." For more information ring 01-204-080. All films are in French with English subtitles.

___ (c)2013 The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon) Visit The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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