This sharply well-made French drama tackles an offbeat chapter in history with real skill, although the densely populated screenplay and fragmented approach to storytelling makes it difficult to engage with. Essentially a series of relatively disconnected sequences involving young people coming of political age, it offers plenty of material for the actors to grab hold of. But making sense of the overall story is difficult.
The period in question is the early 1970s, in the wake of the student uprisings of the late-60s. Just outside Paris, art student Gilles (Metayer) joins the anarchist movement with his friends Alain and Jean-Pierre (Armand and Conzelmann), littering the streets with anti-establishment fliers and bombing buildings with graffiti. But when one stunt goes wrong, they're forced to hide out for the summer in Italy with other activists. With his girlfriend (Combes) in London, Gilles starts seeing Christine (Creton). But she leaves with another guy, forcing Gilles to re-evaluate everything about his life and his dreams for the future.
Gifted filmmaker Assayas packs the film with references to iconic books, movies and artists, as these young people develop their own sense of who they are and what kind of art they hope to create. But this adds a level of literary intensity to the film that's not easy to join in on. Instead of indulging in typically teenaged hedonism (like the Americans they meet along the way), these kids are eerily serious. They can't just enjoy music and sex: it has to mean something profound for them.
At the centre of the film, Gilles is an engaging character, nicely played by Metayer as a young man trying to find his voice as a painter. His awkward relationships are realistic, and all of the actors reveal telling details in their characters. But there are so many of them that they crowd out Gilles' journey. Assayas stages each scene organically (the clashes between students and police are especially realistic), and the film catches the period beautifully with sunny cinematography and groovy music. Although by trying to tell so many stories, Assayas has made a film that's fascinating but never involving.