Olivier Assayas on Post-May 1968 France and Romanticizing Youth Rebellion

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Yesterday evening, as part of the Festival Albertine, Olivier Assayas was sort of questioned about his films by a panel consisting of legendary music journalist Greil Marcus, Village Voice film critic Stephanie Zacharek, and screenwriter Larry Gross (We Don’t Live Here Anymore). Mostly, though, he was questioned about the atmosphere surrounding May ’68 — the attempted student revolution in Paris that Assayas didn’t really experience — by the audience.

The Albertine is an astonishing, newly minted, star-ceilinged Franco-American bookshop in the French Embassy that “brings to life French-American intellectual exchange… [and] reflects its belief in the power of literature and the humanities to increase understanding and friendship across borders.” The talks at the six-day free festival (which will also include Matthew Weiner, Mary Gaitskill and Marjane Satrapi) take place in another opulent room in the French Embassy’s Payne Whitney mansion, whose utter Upper East Side-iness provided a fitting counter-environment to the ’60s/’70s critiques of the bourgeoisie being discussed.

May ’68 was the failed revolution that Occupy wanted to be — while Occupy never made much of a mark outside of its specifically occupied areas, the similarly student-led occupation of universities in May ’68 soon gave way to full-on workers’ strike, wherein around 11 million French citizens protested, at one point leading President de Gaulle to need to escape the country for six hours. Because the highly leftist student body’s protest aroused a wildcat strike among workers — going against the unions — it was hard to categorize the movement as either anti-capitalist or anti-Communist. Within these already contradictory umbrellas, many nascent radical ideologies, which in the ’70s would solidify into more concrete leftist/Communist identities in France, were at odds with one another. Critiques of disorganization and discordant thought within the movement are similar to those of Occupy.

All that being said, Olivier Assayas made it clear from the beginning of his talk that he wasn’t particularly interested in discussing May ’68 itself, partially because of the “awkward” monumentalizing fashion by which attempted revolutions are historicized, and partially because he was 13 and not living in Paris when the student revolution happened. (While Assayas is seen as a cinematic genius, even 13-year-olds who’ll grow up to make important films would probably much rather protest the tyrannies of cafeteria tilapia than advanced capitalism.)

Despite the ways in which critics have (somewhat sensibly) detected a pervasive sub-textual (and sometimes quite textual) allusion to May ’68 in his films, Assayas constantly had to reiterate that it was not the events of May ’68, but rather the more dogmatically discerned forms of radicalism that it led to in the ’70s that he was concerned with in Something in the Air (Après Mai, or “After May” in English) and his mini-series Carlos (about Venezuelan pro-Palestine terrorist Carlos the Jackal). His other films likewise do not hark back to May ’68 itself, but rather the leftover sentiment of the impact of its failure, and where that led both French and international politics and identities.

Said Assayas of the period he depicts in the films featured at the event (Carlos and Après Mai), “I was a kid. I was identifying… with everything that had to do with how society was deeply changing. But [eventually] the stiffness, the rigidity of leftism of was unbearable; it was justified for a while. Gradually it became an enemy to itself; it became suffocating until it faded. That’s the arc of my experience.” He spoke of how, in France, the sartorial adornments of hippie-dom were seen as almost antithetical to radicalism, and rather than dressing the part, high-schoolers would align themselves with different branches of Marxist extrapolation. They’d worship the famous faces of leftism, it seems, like contemporary American teens might form brand loyalties, so long as said brands ease the near-impossible task of adolescent self-definition.

“I was defined by a period where your political ideas were essential to your identity,” Assayas continued. “In high school, when I was growing up, you had to be able to explain to the other kids if you were a Trotskyist — and the nuances of Trotskyism — and if you were a Maoist, then why not a Trotskyist, and if you were anarchist, then why not a Maoist? And the nuances between all of those groups all had to do with the history of the workers’ movement, the history of Marxist politics during the 20th century. This was something that was the language, knowledge, conviction that we shared. I started writing about how seriously I took it, and why, at some moment, I had to part with it. It was a fascinating moment in history — it was the closest to a historical moment I had lived in my lifetime. It opened the possibility for me of making some kind of cinematographic revisitation of those times and those characters and that lost language…”

Despite his saying this, and again, despite how he began the Q & A by not claiming to be a May ’68 expert, the audience — who did a great deal of the questioning — seemed to be begging him to align his films with the dogma(s) and electric energy of the movement itself. Many of the people who raised their hands to comment were older. And about 75% of them had either lived in France at the time (the room was full of expats), or had been there on study abroad, or had been in college in the States, excitedly responding to the movement from afar. At this semi-formal, undeniably bourgeois Q & A, a group of clearly well-off former hippies were trying to remember their youths, and asking Assayas to advocate for the causes they once supported, and time and time again, Assayas replied that he was more interested in capturing the complexities of rebellion in his films than taking an obvious political position.

Assayas was able to elaborate when Stephanie Zacharek, who should have had more of a chance to talk that evening, made perhaps the best comment on his work. She thankfully wove in Assayas’ new film, The Clouds of Sils Maria, which other people avoided, because it has nothing really to do with May ’68 or revolutionary sentiment. But in using this film as a lens through which to look at the earlier work we were discussing in greater detail, she got at something that few of the other audience members or panelists wanted to acknowledge. She said:

In The Clouds of Sils Maria, Juliette Binoche plays an actress. She’s a little bit of a diva, but not too much. She’s on a train to Switzerland at the beginning of the film to pay tribute to a playwright who is very important in her life and career. She’s on the train and dressed in what we’d call “comfy clothes.” But she arrives at this hotel, and a representative from Chanel is waiting, and they have a gown for her to put on and jewels, and she’s transformed. At the Press Conference at Cannes, a European journalist took offense at this and said that the presence of Chanel in the movie was an example of crass commercialism — aside from the fact that it was an idiotic observation, it bothered me. This gentleman had no concept of glamor in life or in the movies, and I wanted to ask you — there’s a glamorous character in Après Mai, the protagonist’s first girlfriend, and then in Carlos you have this celebrity-terrorist. What’s your sense of the power of glamour in the broader sense?

Assayas responded, “It’s complicated, because I could discuss glamor, I could discuss women, and I could discuss sex. In Carlos, there’s so much glamor. In Carlos, so much of it has to do with the presence of desire and the presence of sex. The sentence is that I’m formulating is ridiculous: the presence of sex in movies is actually present in real-life, in more real and more interesting ways.”

While he’s not disregarding or at all disparaging revolutionary acts — and indeed, seems to still have a fondness for his days of revolutionary spirit — he acknowledges that, especially because they’re so often carried out by the young, iconoclasm is intrinsically linked to sex and a fervent desire to concretize inchoate identities, something that people who are older no longer feel the urge or need to do. Assayas acknowledges the impact of these movements, as well as, on a micro level, the beautiful selfishness to these acts. But, like so many filmmakers do when asked to reveal the politics behind their work, he here cited the filmmaker’s duty to ask questions, not answer them.

Assayas’ films aren’t apolitical — it’s just that they’re not concerned with endorsing a particular school of thought from May ’68. It seemed that so many audience members — seemingly still romanticizing ’70s ideals of governmental restructuring — merely wanted Assayas to say, “I was and am a Communist, and let me tell you the particular branch of Communism I think was best,” as though endorsing a lipstick. And it became hard to tell if the audience wanted to return to the idealistic politics Assayas depicts, or to return, simply, to the abstract idealism of youth.

It was very fitting that in this same audience — an audience that was so vehemently unwilling to let go of what these radical politics meant before in order to discuss what they mean to the world now, an audience that failed to bring up Occupy (one panelist mentioned it once), or even Palestine — the radicalism of the “then” would be replaced by a complacency or even a complicity in the hyper-capitalist “now,” here on the Upper East Side. Where, on leaving, I overheard an audience member telling another audience member, “Now’s the time to buy in East Flatbush.”

Really, it evinces the biggest questions about revolution that Assayas asks: how much is it enacted as a matter of youthful identity-searching, or in the case of Carlos, even megalomania? Is it disposable once that search has ended? What is its purpose if it’s something we let go of, but then merely reflect on, for the exhilaration of recapturing that moment (but a moment perhaps stripped of its ideology)? Perhaps its purpose is just to help us live, to recall the electricity of our youths, before it becomes something you have to force filmmakers to reminisce on at talkbacks.