May to September

18 05 2010
 
 

Louis Malle 'Milou en mai'

'Milou en mai'

When I was fifteen

It was a very good year

A very good year for foreign films on Channel 4…

 

In The Wasteland TS Eliot famously wrote that ‘April is the cruellest month’. Well, I have to say, I’ve never really much agreed with him. Perhaps its the sight of the first butterflies and housemartins of the year, perhaps its the budding and blossoming of the trees, or perhaps its just that my birthday falls on the 28th of the month, but for me April’s always seemed to be a time of year full of hope; a time to start looking forward to the long hot summer ahead, or, if you’re not going away to the Med., at least to bank holiday weekends and fresh strawberries in the supermarkets.

But if April is a time of renewal then May is doubly so. May is bluebells in shady woodland groves and tentative visits to the seaside. May is fresh asparagus and cherries and that first barbecue of the year. For cinéastes May is also the month of the Cannes Film Festival: a time to be intrigued and excited by a whole new batch of fresh, nutritious world cinema.

But if May is a time to look forward, as you get older it increasingly becomes a time to look backwards too, towards other springs and other summers, lost forever; towards fading memories and vanishing youth. In this spirit I returned recently to an old VHS copy of Louis Malle’s Milou en mai, a film that I first saw as an impressionable teenager in the dog days of the Major administration.

Thinking about it now, Milou… may well have been the first vaguely-French-New-Wave film that I ever saw. That I did so at all was a matter of pure chance: it was on TV late one night and looked interesting, so I taped it, as one did in those days. In retrospect, Milou… maybe wasn’t the best introduction to the joys of French cinema that I could have had. After all, it was released  in 1990, a whole thirty years after the first great eruption of the nouvelle vague, and it was the work of a director who, while often inventive and controversial (Ascenseur pour l’ échafaud, Au revoir les enfants, Damage) was never quite considered to be at the very cutting edge of his generation of film-makers.

On the other hand, the film’s star Michel Piccoli is an actor who, perhaps more than any other, has been involved intimately with the last fifty years of French cinema. Now aged 84, Piccoli has acted for everyone from Luis Buñuel to Claude Chabrol to Jacques Rivette, and he continues to make two or three films a year. And then there’s the fact that Milou en mai is set in1968, a pivotal year for French culture in general and for the nouvelle vague generation in particular.

Milou en mai, May Fools

So, after retrieving the VHS tape from a dusty shelf in my parents’ house, I cracked open a beer and sat down to watch Malle’s film for the first time in fifteen years.

Set somewhere deep in rural south-western France, Milou en mai tells the story of the events of May 1968 from the perspective of Milou (Piccoli) a middle-aged man living quietly with his mother in the country house where he was born. As the first radio reports start to come in of the disturbances in Paris, Milou’s mother suddenly keels over and dies, bringing his extended family back home for the funeral. The funeral is delayed however, as events in Paris spiral into a national crisis, and local priests and gravediggers go on strike.

The childlike Milou tries to continue with his free-spirited bucolic routine, cycling around the grounds of the house and fishing for crayfish in its ponds. Other family members have other ideas however. Milou’s daughter Camille starts to weigh-up the worth of the estate, while her children run amok around the house and her proto-yuppie husband shuttles backwards and forwards to Bordeaux. Milou’s niece, an antiques dealer, spends much of her time eyeing up the furniture and being unpleasant to her put-upon lesbian lover. His journalist brother, on the other hand, is glued to the radio, following political events in Paris and oblivious to Milou’s gentle flirting with his English wife.

As De Gaulle resigns and a national strike is called, an apolitical trucker and a hitchhiker – Milou’s nephew – turn up on the scene. The nephew has just come from the capital, where he is a student, and soon spreads tales of revolution and free love amongst the reluctant sojourners.

And so, in the middle of nowhere, the assembled house guests have a little ‘May ’68’ of their own, in which old inhibitions and jealousies are cast aside for a day or two in expectation of the new Parisian spring which may or may not be about to sweep over the land.

Tellingly, very little of this new revolutionary optimism seems to seep down to the servants on the estate. Adèle, the maid and (in the manner of ‘Allo ‘Allo) Milou’s lover stops working only for long enough to discover that she has inherited a quarter of the estate, while Léonce, the hardy dialect-speaking groundsman, gives the impression of being as ancient and inured to revolutionary consciousness as the trees and rocks on the property.

Louis Malle, Milou en mai

On a fait un pique-nique. 'Milou en mai'

To my fifteen-year-old eyes, Milou en mai seemed to represent a kind of cinema that was very different from that with which I’d grown up, a kind of cinema that I was only just starting to discover. Now, more than fifteen years later, it feels inevitably less radical than before, its formerly sharp edges smoothed by all the other film- and non-film-related culture that I’ve imbibed in the intervening years. At 32 I’ve seen enough Chekhov to appreciate just how much the film’s bittersweet tragi-comic tone owes to the Russian master, and I’ve seen enough other French (and German) New Wave cinema to recognise how small a place Milou… must take in the great canon of European film.

At fifteen there was still a world of great cinema to discover. That I was able to do so, ensconced in a rural nook no less remote than Milou’s, was thanks in large part to the film seasons that ran in the early nineties on BBC2 and Channel 4. Seasons on Krzystof Kieslowski, Sergio Leone, Ingmar Berman and, yes, Louis Malle introduced me to work that I might otherwise have missed or never known about at all. I remember clearly my first taste of Aleksandr Sokurov’s Mother and Son on BBC2 or Robert Bresson’s Mouchette on Channel 4, both suicidally uncommercial films that surely drew very small audiences to their 2 AM slots.

Today, it seems, all of that is gone. Late-night TV has been turned over to grubby little phone-in ‘game shows’ and Police, Camera, Action!, while independent and world cinema seems largely ignored by public service broadcasters. Of course, a fifteen-year-old today has literally dozens of specialist film channels and online DVD rental companies at his fingertips. But still, how does he know what to look for in the first place? And how does he know what might be interesting or important to see?

The great age of TV film coverage brought with it an element of unpredictability and randomness that is hard to replicate nowadays. In May 1993, you might turn on the TV one night and see a film that would change your life from a director you’d never even heard of. In May 2010 that’s much less likely to happen, Let’s hope though that somewhere some youngster is still taking a chance on an unfamiliar DVD with an interesting cover, or that some late-night screening on Film Four is still able to excite and win over new converts to the cause of cinema. If life’s about anything, after all, it’s about new and unexpected experiences, and about looking forward to the glorious summer ahead.

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3 responses

20 05 2010
paul Wiseman

Some films I unexpectedly discovered on late night tv when younger (probably whilst looking for tits) – The Vanishing(original), Les valseuses, Exotica, A Short Film About Killing (& Love), Come and See and many more that I can’t remember. Obviously, I realised pretty quickly that the tit yield with some of these films would be pretty low yet I found the films engaging enough to watch to the end.

21 05 2010
kieronclark

Yeah, I’m sure there is a pretty strong link between tits and arse and most people’s first experience of world cinema. After all, if you get caught watching Betty Blue or Lust, Caution, then you can always claim that you’re watching Legitimate Art. Or, if you’re not caught, you can fast-forward to all the rude bits, and possibly accidentally absorb a bit of culture too.

Have you seen Dogtooth yet? That’s another good example of a pretty decent arty film with lots of rude bits thrown in for good measure.

24 05 2010
Paul Baxter

[frantic scribbling noises]

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