What is most striking is that the soundtrack of their lives was American and British rock and folk music. Assayas’ choice is not the obvious ones; there is no Bob Dylan, although we see LPs displayed as Gilles picks records to listen to while painting, of the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo and a blues album by Hot Tuna. We hear Mike Heron, Clive Palmer and Robin Williamson of The Incredible String Band, a highly influential ’60s group but hardly the Rolling Stones. In one sequence, at an outdoor party of the young revolutionaries, a young American New Left folksinger tourist serenades the European comrades with one of the late Phil Ochs’ least remembered songs, which he sings in its entirety, as Leslie explains its meaning and context to the assembled listeners. (The song is actually about an individual who once blurbed one of my books.)
The film, realistically and honestly filmed, presents viewers with the choices the director’s subjects faced as they enter adulthood. Assayas does not preach or hector. We watch, of course, from our present context, and we see a group of narcissistic, foolish yet idealistic, privileged children seeking to become revolutionaries. Some give up the dream, while others perish. Rather than glamorize or eulogize these New Leftists as principled and heroic youngsters, Assayas lets us see them as they were.
Assayas himself, of course, became a filmmaker in his own right, often making movies today that confront the truth about the leftist illusions of his youth. We get a glimpse of this when Gilles picks up a book by Simon Leys, an expose of Maoist China published in the ’60s, at a time when his comrades all were singing the praises of the Cultural Revolution and extolling the virtues of Maoism. Even then, we know that Gilles’ future is most likely promising, since back in the day, he could read forbidden literature and glimpse the truth about what revolution really meant for those who suffered living in the society its spokesman created.
The film opened this week in Landmark theaters and, for those who have “On Demand” on their cable systems, can be rented for home viewing.