by Luise Mörke
In early October, an email reached me. Comrades of the Kino, the first line addressed its recipients in a staccato fusion of German and English. The bold font alluded to early industrial design, circa 1920, a decade from which the attached drawing of a geometrically abstracted male half-portrait, fist raised skywards, could equally have originated. But this was no communist pamphlet. It was an invitation, sent out to a group of friends across four time zones, to virtually assemble each week in order to rewatch the ARTE series Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge on the days of the films’ original releases, 26 years after the fact: “As we plummet into the ever-deepening abyss called adulthood, [we] raise our mighty paw to the tyrant of age.” Like Oskar Matzerrath, we would never grow any older. Like his, our own stasis would be a gesture of refusal; if not against fasciscm, then in the face of despotic presidents, climate change, the pandemic.
Nine French-speaking filmmakers – among them Chantal Akerman, Claire Denis, and Olivier Assayas – were commissioned to come up with hourlong portrayals of teenage experience at certain points in the postwar 20th century. André Techiné’s Le Chêne et Le Roseau, set in the early 1960s in a Provençal village not insignificantly touched by the Algerian war, set the prelude, while Olivier Dahan’s Frères concluded the project with a look at life in the Parisian banlieues in the early 1990s.
The verve and hyperbole of the email cracked the dull shell of my day. It also marked the beginning of a sequence of online conversations which, liberated from the need to accomplish a goal, have offered glimpses of profundity. The series itself has led me through autumn, enabling me to travel back in time to my adolescence, through decades that I did not witness and to a teenagehood I lived, not so long ago. The films’ soundtracks often call on me throughout the week, and so I have kicked my way through piles of fallen leaves to the rhythm of The Animals and shuddered at the eerie apparition of a Dr. Oetker factory somewhere on a highway between Berlin and Northern Germany, elevated to sublimity by Nico’s Janitor of Lunacy.
As 2020 comes to a close, the early days of the pandemic congeal into a memory. I am among the billions for whom this year has been one of changed plans, closed paths, and necessary adjustments. I am also among those for whom these adjustments have included a move back into their childhood home, proof that the life I had built for myself still stood on wonky feet: in January, I took a TGV to Paris where I would study and perhaps stay indefinitely, but faltered in the face of weeks of confinement in a tiny room right on the périphérique. Hence I returned, to a place where nothing was the same and everything was as it always was. My parents were still there, now retired, stomping cabbage until the juices ran out like a bubble bath for the Sauerkraut. My brother came North for a while too, bearing sharpened wit and the comfort of siblinghood. New in this familiar constellation was the person I had chosen, who had chosen in turn, to be a part of this family. The room with the slanted blue wall was now shared and we rotated seats for breakfast on Sundays.
The past year has thus been one marked by reflections on my own coming-of-age while inhabiting the very structures of my teenage years. Could there have been a better time to watch Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge, with a group of friends who have all dipped more than one toe into adulthood, yet remain young enough to still be in awe of its actuality? I often feel at arm’s length from the characters and wish that someone had introduced me to these films just a few years earlier. They enable me to revisit the pleasures and pains of being 16, of friendship, desire, after-party lethargy, of being deeply unsettled on the inside yet locked into external demands.
Around that age, I would get up at ungodly hours to run along the waterfront just before the day began. This ritual offered pockets of freedom from the determinism of my high school schedule, which neatly lined up the hours as if time was a succession of boxes to be checked. Ceding to a different rhythm, I would run in the middle of the empty road with my headphones cranked up as high as possible. In U.S. Go Home, Claire Denis conceives of adolescence as a succession of such musical experiences. The film is shaped by the rhythmic environments through which the protagonist Martine moves: singing along to the radio in her best friend’s room, watching others slow dance from the sidelines, a dizzying drive through the dark forest to the foreign tunes on the car radio. In one memorable scene, Martine’s older brother Alain, assured by the false belief that his performance has no audience, abandons himself to the exasperating tunes of “Hey Gyp” by The Animals. His tension and barely concealed aggression erupt in rapid-fire dance movements that spin in tightly wound circles around his wiry frame.
I sometimes miss the uninhibited immersion into rhythm and lyrics, which has become a rarity since headier pastimes have taken over. It returned when I returned to the topographies of my adolescence: during lockdown, I found myself walking the unaltered circuit of my teenage runs with similar regularity. Once again, I trusted literal sea change to breach the enclosure of hometown familiarity, household dynamics, my own head. Sometimes conversations would take the place of music, with thoughts bouncing back and forth like chords between the members of a well-attuned band. But when I was alone, the headphones were with me, blasting songs that colored the landscape with euphoria, melancholy, longing.
Similar to U.S. Go Home, Olivier Assayas’ film about a pair of teenage lovers in the early 1970s, titled L’Eau Froide in its feature-length version, is also infused with music. But where Denis puts forth a degree of playfulness, Assayas approaches his time and subject with the gloomiest of visions. Coming of age is figured as the opening of an abyss, a first encounter with the unspeakability of a fundamental solitude at the heart of even the most intimate of relationships. “You are still just a kid,” Christine tells Gilles as they wander between rows of shampoo on a shoplifting spree. “It’s true,” he replies, “I have my books, my papers, my records and no experience”. She, by contrast, seems to have grown up too quickly; her childhood terminated by a long stay at a psychiatric hospital. The fear of a forced return imbues her actions with a seriousness that Gilles lacks. His desperation is one of youthful fervor, theatrical enough to find expression in the recitation of a Ginsberg poem at dusk, while her unutterable misery finds its most haunting image in the erratic attack on a friend with a pair of scissors. By the end of the movie, Christine has chosen death over life, leaving nothing but a blank page, and viewers must ask themselves: is her loss the experience which pushes Gilles over the edge, into maturity?
Assayas’ pleasure in fatalism and romanticization of apocalyptic moods – as seen in the achingly beautiful images of a bonfire – are directorial choices of which I remain skeptical. They seem to be somewhat conventional metaphors for the political mood of the represented decade and bolster a conservative argument: the revolutionary dreams of the 1960s could lead to nothing but insanity and chaos. Despite these apprehensions, Assayas’ film hits close to home. My own coming of age was not only perforated by distant reminders of mortality, but actually marked on both ends by close encounters with death. When I was thirteen, my grandmother entered a long, painful process of dying that forced me to grapple with loss and old age. Five years later, a classmate took his own life. I learned that youth can indeed be unbearable and was left with the feeling that life had ceased to be a game. This year’s revisitation of my teenage years has coincided with conscious attempts on my part to retrieve a lightness of being. My reluctance towards Assayas’ somber vision of what “growing up” means might stem from this effort. While he figures Gilles’ encounter with death as that which transforms him from ‘still just a kid’ into a young adult, I am wondering whether maturation can actually entail a move away from solemnity. Toward what? Chantal Akerman’s Portrait d’une jeune fille de la fin des années 60 à Bruxelles, whose characters maintain a mischievous humour even as they admit to their despair, can perhaps provide answers. At the heart of the film is an optimism about friendship which finds its most poignant expression in the final image: Michelle, the protagonist, and her best friend traverse an empty clearing at sunrise, holding hands. There is love between them and an uncertain future ahead. Life, the film seems to say, is a proverbial blank page, waiting to be filled.