On the outskirts of Paris in 1971, the spirit of May 1968 still lingers in the air, not least for high-school student and aspiring artist Gilles (Clément Métayer) and his friends Alain (Félix Armand), Jean-Pierre (Hugo Conzelmann) and Christine (Lola Créton, who starred in this year’s “Goodbye First Love,” directed by Assayas’ partner Mia Hansen-Love), who spend their time (at least when Gilles isn’t hanging out with his girlfriend, Carole Combes’ Laure) volunteering for leftist papers, protesting and generally planning the revolution.
Assayas has been upfront about the autobiographical nature of the project – he, like Gilles, was involved in leftist politics as a teen, and like Gilles, was the son of a TV screenwriter father, who after initially rejecting the idea of moving into film, ended up going into the family business. It’s these aspects of the film that work the best, as we see Gilles become increasingly disenchanted with painting, then drawing, then politics, and falling under the spell of the silver screen, initially believing that traditional filmmaking is bourgeois, before ending up as a PA on the set of a science-fiction film involving cavemen and Nazis.
It’s the proverbial Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and it’s the most enjoyable and convincing stuff in the film – watching Assayas’ surrogate evolving into the germ of a filmmaker serves us a reminder of the director’s other strong behind-the-scenes moviemaking portrait on “Irma Vep.” It helps that first-timer Métayer warms up the more the film goes on – initially somewhat blank, he engages more with the smaller, domestic aspect of the film.
Content aside, the film’s something of a triumph for Assayas as director, which won’t come as a huge surprise to fans of his work. Reteaming with regular DoP Eric Gautier (“Into The Wild”), who skipped “Carlos,” virtually every frame of the film is gorgeous in a sun-dappled kinda way, a seemingly light-as-a-feather handheld camera telling the story with immense clarity, without ever becoming showy. Structurally, it’s also wonderfully loose, effortlessly shifting away from Gilles to side-characters without ever making them feel extraneous.
The major problem however, is that most of the characters aren’t terribly interesting. Of the young leads, only one, Armand, is older than 20, and most are in their first acting roles. Assayas seems to have cast as much for look, and for an evocation of the period, as anything else, but sadly most of the actors (bar Métayer and the more experienced Créton) struggle to make much of an impression, falling into a kind of bland prettiness.
It’s a shame, because there’s so much to like about the film, and it’s a mark of Assayas’ skill that it's a hugely engaging watch despite the blankness of the characters. It looks great, it sounds great (the film’s full of tracks from the era by Syd Barrett, Nick Drake, Soft Machine, Kevin Ayers and cameo-ing modern day British folk musician Johnny Flynn), it’ll inspire a hundred magazine photo-shoots, and it’s got plenty of substance. But we had our fingers crossed for the picture to be Assayas’ crowning achievement, but it seems we’ll have to wait a little longer. [B]