The French film After May has a low key but memorable opening. As former Pink Floyd member Syd Barrett sings on the soundtrack, a teenager flicks through a pile of records and we get to see the covers. They're all from the late 60s and early 70s, including The Byrds, The MC5 and Blind Faith.
But the bucolic spell is quickly broken. The film moves to nail-biting scenes of the teen, Gilles, and his friends being chased by police through streets enveloped by tear gas. Batons swing, molotov cocktails are thrown, cars are set on fire.
After May, as the title hints, is set in France in the early 70s when the country is still dealing with the aftermath of a series of protests and strikes in May 1968, which brought the country to a standstill.
Gilles and his friends, who look so good they could be fashion models, enthusiastically make political pamphlets and posters, graffiti buildings, party, paint, travel around Europe and listen to ageing communists argue with the young new Left. But as Gilles discovers, as he juggles relationships and experiments with drugs, the political and the personal aren't necessarily compatible. He then finds himself drawn into the film industry.
Olivier Assayas, the writer and director of After May, is 58, so would have been a little younger than Gilles at the time. Carlos, his previous film about the notorious terrorist "The Jackal", was also set in the early 70s. But Assayas is used to being asked just how much of After May is really his own life in disguise.
"It's a very difficult question for me to answer," he says.
"It's pretty obvious that there's a lot of elements about my own personal story, but honestly I do see it as only one of the elements in the fabric of the film. And I'm not sure if it's the most relevant [element] ultimately."
Assayas, whose diverse career includes Summer Hours, starring Juliette Binoche, and Clean, with Nick Nolte, says he first thought of opening After May with some narration about how he had been involved at the time in political activity at high school and was also an artist. "But it was more [about using] specific memories of the time on which I could build something that had to do with more of the general mood of the time.
"The film is made of things I've done and things I've not done. It's made of things I've gone through and things I have imagined. It also has to do with the stories of other characters, of friends."
Assayas says he also knew that trying to depict Europe in the early 70s could only be his interpretation. "It's so difficult to represent the period in a way that can be acceptable. Everyone has their own reading of that specific period. I just wanted to find an angle. You can't just make a movie about the 1970s, it doesn't work like that."
Assayas says his award-winning Carlos – both a 5 1/2-hour mini-series and movie – had a "completely different historical perspective on the period".
"It's seen from what we know now about the history of Carlos. It was very analytical and a very physical movie. There was lots of action and it deconstructed the politics of the 1970s.
"But what was missing was my own personal experience of the time. It kind of drew me to make a more personal film about the same period. It was something important that was missing from Carlos, but at the same time I think I used the biographical elements as I used the historical research in Carlos. It was more like pillars. Things I could build on, something that was believable."
Assayas chuckles when explaining his decision to show Gilles looking through his record collection. "I wanted to pay some kind of homage to those times and to the excitement of a period where everything was being re-invented. What was happening in music, in painting, in experimental cinema. There was a sense of changing the world."
It was also something Assayas wanted from his largely young cast. Only Lola Creton, who plays Gilles' girlfriend, Christine, had prior acting experience. The rest, including Clement Metayer as Gilles, were new to movies. "Some of them had been in drama school for like two months. But most of them had never even imagined they would be acting. I was looking for kids who connected to the times and their parts and could understand one of the layers in the story.
"I was looking for kids who had this kind of rebellious streak. Then I tried to figure out if they could act or not," he says.
But it's still hard not to notice other autobiographical references in After May. Gilles' father works in television. Assayas' father was successful French screenwriter Jacques Remy. Gilles goes to London and works as a dogsbody on a low budget film featuring dinosaurs, a cave woman and Nazis. Early in Assayas career he worked in London, including the editorial department for the 1978 Superman.
"I worked in Pinewood [studios] for a while as trainee in the editing room for Superman. I was locked in this room stamping numbers on film stock. It was a boring, horrible job but I was just so happy to have it. It was really exciting times and I would go on to the set [of Superman] and would give a hand if they needed me.
"I went to this other set on Pinewood where this film-maker Kevin Connor was making these crazy B movies. The movie that I represent was shot a couple of years earlier and was called The Land that Time Forgot. I'm not sure if I had a cave woman. I kind of added the cave woman but it had the dinosaurs and it had the Nazis."
After May is part of the New Zealand International Film Festival Autumn Events series at the Embassy and Paramount. It screens at the Paramount on Sunday, 6pm; Tuesday, 2pm; Wednesday, 6.15pm and April 27, 8.15pm. For all movies go to nzff.co.nz/autumn-events
- The Dominion Post
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