Regular Lovers, 2005
Your excuses for not having seen Regular Lovers yet are wearing thin. It’s in the third week of a generous run at Cinema Village, and you can’t tell me that since then you haven’t killed the three hours of this film’s duration doing something perfectly useless instead of seeing this, Philippe Garrel’s lovely portrait of would-be revolutionaries in 1968 Paris. It’s been frigid in New York this week so you weren’t distracted from moviegoing by any lovely days. Furthermore, Regular Lovers is a retro-romantic Art Film starring pretty people and shot in black and white, so there’s no saying that you couldn’t take a date to it. You’d be sure to be holding hands by the third hour, and for chrissakes it’s got Lovers in the title.
So what about the other word in the title? “Regular,” that deceptive descriptive that hints at some normalcy we all agree about without understanding. Well, it’s the movie’s approach to the notion of regular life that makes it so beautiful. Garrel manages to take this adjective that is more effective as an assignation of mediocrity than as an indication of quotidian pleasure and spin a long prose poem in its honor. Regular Lovers goes after the essence of what’s rapturous about regularity by following François, a twenty-ish poet afraid to publish because it would be betraying something, even though he’s not sure what that something is. François’ self-imposed dilemma describes the youthful angst of feeling split between earnest ambition (being a poet) and rejecting something that you haven’t quite grasped (vague political devotion, resistance to publishing).
This same split plays out aesthetically in the centerpiece of Act I, a languorous depiction of a May ’68 bohemians-versus-cops riot. Garrel adopts a forcefully elusive tactic, especially ambiguous for a movie that will get so intimate. After some introductory lazing about with his young Parisian poets and painters, Garrel gets them into some trouble at the riot. The structure of the scene is strange, and the violence is dreamy, but the slipperiness of Lovers’ beginning is more rapturous than confusing. (One friend said that without the time and place signifiers, it would look like an alien invasion.) Longhairs in blazers camp behind embankments. It’s fashion photo shoot as political movement, teasing out an awkward relationship between these pretty little things and their anarchist hell-raising. In a hash-induced nod-out, one of them wakes up in darkness, alone in the deserted war zone. Sirens whir mournfully in the distance, and mysterious fires cast strange shadows. A repeated shot of riot-geared cops firing a canon over the camera is spatially disruptive, putting the authorities and the students worlds apart.
But how distant are the cops from the kids? One of the councilmen who hears a case about François dodging military service says that “all the Baudelaires and Rimbauds should be put in prison,” but later on, an officer serves a notice of overdue fines to François’ friend (a trust fund kid who hosts the coterie of misfits), and he inspects the apartment’s paintings rather than the apartment itself. His suspicions are so low that the boys shouldn’t have flushed their contraband when he knocked.
Moving from a laughably fascistic councilman who wants to lock up all artists to the affable and art-appreciating officer reflects the main movement of Regular Lovers as it ambles its way from tumult of the times to tremors of the heart with the same loping gate as its denizens. A police officer opining over the art adorning the walls of these self-made criminals makes for funny banter, especially given all the anti-authority posing on the part of the artist-combatants. The scene underlines that the bohemian boys’ brick-throwing is more an artful embracing of the zeitgeist than it is truly dangerous revolutionary activity.
Lovers – both the movie and its characters – would rather talk about painting than the proletariat, and this scene is a reminder in the meandering, trance-inducing reverie of the movie that a sense of humor wins out over arty pontificating or political proselytizing. As the film probes this prospect, the characters start to realize it, and neither seems capable of the conclusion without the other. While Garrel is sending in the friendly officer so that his characters might learn something about themselves, it doesn’t seem he could have done it without them starting to get there on their own.
The political demonstrations fade to the background midway through the film, as characters spend more time napping and chatting than marching or rioting. When Lilie steps into the picture, things get reorganized around her (and rightly so – she is loveliness personified) and the affair she has with François. It’s through her that we see François’ misgivings about the freedom of his changing times: he does not want Lilie to sleep around, but permits her a tryst because she asks politely. When she returns to him – he hasn’t budged since she left – he is as relieved as he is in love, and every moment of her absence was certainly agony. But in the same way that François does not want to publish due to some undefined spirit of resistance, his relationship with Lilie resists full devotion, even when they try to promise each other their lives.
So what is more regular, relationships or riots? The stagy distance of the camera and choreography of the protest in Act I give the goings-on an otherworldliness, but also a feeling that someone here is playing pretend – and it’s probably the cops, Garrel, and his characters. In a word, everyone. But at a party, a good bit later in the film, as the kids dance to the Kinks, everything is loose. It’s the only great scene of spontaneous dancing in any movie I’ve seen, collapsing the distance between film and filmed. (How often do you really wish you were at the parties you see in movies?) Here, the movie and its subjects let their guard down, and nobody’s playing pretend.
It’s not that the “regular” of the title would imply that it’s more normal to dance than demolish, but that there is just as much charge and life in growing close to someone as there is in changing the world. The movie is more interested in people’s little interactions than it is the political climate. When he moves from 1968, that landmark year of protest, into ’69, Garrel seems relieved, and starts to try harder to make concrete the feelings that François and Lilie feel for each other. While Regular Lovers doesn’t revise the template of the Angsty and Artsy French Film (these lovers are as doomed as they are regular), it hangs on heartily to the realities of romantic love. François has a great opportunity in Garrel’s hopeful vision of amorous devotion, more than he does in the questionable rebellion against an ineffable force – that which would have him publish would have him try, which would let him love.
The remarkable thing is that Garrel nails it, and without any sermonizing. He loves François (which might be why he cast his son), and doesn’t paint his problematic disposition as posturing, but as a vibrant incarnation of the personal and political complications that make life and youth robust and commanding. He wants the best for François, which is why he gives him Lilie. And, in a demonstrative show of respect, he lets François take her or leave her.