'Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves': Film Review | Karlovy Vary 2017
French-Canadian directors Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie's portrait of radical contemporary revolutionaries is as uncompromising as its mouthful of a title.
Sitting through Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves (Ceux qui font les revolutions a moitie n’ont fait que se creuser un tombeau), a French-Canadian radical tract about contemporary political activists, can sound like quite a chore. After all, the three-hour film, about four far-left, radicalized and violent youngsters who hope to stoke the fires of a revolution that will topple the current system, is made in the likeness of its protagonists, with their penchant for anarchy and vandalism reflected in the feature’s approach to narrative and character development. But thanks to a foursome of fearless leads and several clearly articulated insights into how ideological revolutions can be a revitalizing and destructive force all at once, the film is instead a vibrantly alive and vital piece of work for the age we live in.
Directors Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie made Laurentie together in 2011 before Denis directed the biopic Corbo solo, about a teenager who died in a 1966 Quebec Liberation Front bombing of his own making. Corbo and Revolution are clearly thematically related, but thankfully their latest joint effort is much more fully alive, mixing a documentary background with fictional characters and embracing the radicalism of the characters even as it is not blind to their follies.
A winner of the best Canadian feature prize at TIFF last year, this film hasn’t stopped traveling since then, recently screening at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in Czech Republic. It should continue to appeal to bold festival programmers and to boutique distributors who know how to drum up niche interest for what’s essentially a millennial, post-Maple Spring update of Godard’s La Chinoise (which, in turn, was inspired by Dostoyevsky’s Demons, proving the material is at once timely and timeless).
Revolution kicks off in a way that immediately sets the feature’s uncompromising tone, as, for a full five minutes, military march music is heard while the screen remains pitch black. This should help get rid of any viewers that are unclean — i.e., those that may have accidentally walked in from the umpteenth Transformers: Cool Stuff Explodes Real Good screening next door — and suggest to the audience that what’s in store is formally bold and not your run-of-the-mill, every-storyline-will-be-neatly-tied-in-a-bow-by-the-end narrative.
The music also literally functions as a call to arms. The twentysomething protagonists are first seen trying to spread their message for the masses by vandalizing billboards at night so they read, “People do not yet see they are miserable, we will show them." They are not only ready for the revolution of the title, they are also aware that, as the film’s moniker suggests, you either have to fight for a full-on revolution or you might as well not fight at all. And as will become clear as we meet some of their parents and siblings, the leads all come from the very middle-class background they now profess needs to be overthrown.
The bulk of the film is composed of scenes from the (entirely fictional) lives of four Quebec youngsters who, inspired by the enormous student protests of the Maple Spring movement in Quebec in 2012, radicalized and denounced the permanent return of most students to their classes in September of that year as a sell-out to the system. “Maple Spring” is a literal translation of “printemps erable,” which, unlike the English, sounds a lot like “printemps arabe,” or Arab Spring, which had started in 2010 and was slowly coming to an end in the second half of 2012. Seen through this prism, the term Maple Spring casts the mass protests, which started as a way to denounce a plan to make university studies more expensive in Quebec, as a much broader awakening, a struggle against and dreamt-of liberation from a — in this case, capitalist — dictatorship.
The handsome leads go by the noms de guerre Ordine Nuovo (Emmanuelle Lussier-Martinez), Tumulto (Laurent Belanger), Giutizia (Charlotte Aubin) and Klas Batalo (Gabrielle Tremblay), with Klas providing the foursome with their only funding through her work as a transsexual prostitute. (How this doesn’t make Klas even more of a slave of the capitalist system is never properly explained, though the paradox is clearly intentional.) The rules of the group, hiding out in a picturesque squat, can sometimes be obscure — they can’t have sex with each other because they’re “at war,” but they love hanging out naked together, one supposes as their purest form of themselves — and there are days they barely have enough to eat.
But endless political discussions and reading Rosa Luxemburg are used to keep stoking the fire of the revolution they know will come. Some of their public protests amount to nothing more than mischief, wantonness and defacing other people’s property. But a few of their actions, including planning a gas attack on the subway and the posting of letters with (fake) white powder, are more serious, suggesting at once their desperate need to be heard and their realization that being really radical might involve having to overcome their ingrained bourgeois habit of propriety.
Even so, a tiny cell with no funding will have a hard time bringing about change and as one of them notes, we live in a time of profound inequality, where there are no choices, either you “accept the system or you are marginalized.” Denis and Lavoie are very clear-headed about both the youngsters’ desire and profound need for change and the fact that, like so many marginalized groups (and, indeed, most of countries that ushered in the Arab Spring), their fight will likely fizzle and end with a form of defeat. But the directors, who also wrote the film, take their characters and ideals seriously, never mocking them nor turning them into necessarily tragic figures. Instead, it insists on observing them in the now, without melancholy — which often plagues films about student protesters, from Bertolucci to Garrel — but also without being unrealistic about how mismatched their desires and dreams and their opportunities to fulfill them are. As if to underline the point, there are a few brutal scenes of self-inflicted corporeal punishment for those who are found guilty of “the crime of nostalgia.”
The French have a term for long, sprawling films: “film fleuve,” or a “film like a river.” Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves certainly has a title as long as a major waterway, but there’s nothing meandering or calm about it; it’s more a movie like a potent waterfall crashing down from a great height. As part of their agitprop tactic to keep the story in the present tense over the course over three hours, the filmmakers employ a wide array of cinematic tricks to keep audiences awake and in-the-moment. Texts can take over the screen, aspect ratios change, there’s a mock intermission and documentary footage is blended in several times. There are even appearances by a campaign-era Justin Trudeau and Jack Kerouac (whose parents were French-Canadian and whose first language, the Quebeckers proudly note, was French).
Denis also edited the oeuvre, and he manages a near-impossible feat, sustaining the film’s energy over its 180-plus minutes using a collage technique that always feels more organic than haphazard. But all the audiovisual tricks in the universe would be useless if the actors weren’t four firebrands you can’t keep your eyes off of, and thankfully this is the case (and props to the directors for casting Tremblay, a trans actress in a trans role). It is the actors’ utter dedication to their roles that finally make the film feel as palpitatingly alive as it does. Their characters aren’t regular lovers or simple dreamers; they are crazy idealists, possibly dangerous and yet well-intentioned and pure. In short, they are walking paradoxes like the rest of us, which makes them both relatable and terrifying.
Production company: Art et Essai
Cast: Charlotte Aubin, Laurent Belanger, Emmanuelle Lussier-Martinez, Gabrielle Tremblay
Writer-directors: Mathieu Denis, Simon Lavoie
Producer: Hany Ouichou
Director of photography: Nicolas Canniccioni
Production designer: Eric Barbeau
Costume designer: Becca Blackwood
Editor: Mathieu Denis
Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Sales: Stray Dogs