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Born in '68 (15)

French hippie ideals sour in less than convincing style

Artists drawn toward the sweeping statement must find the generation-spanning, state-of-the-nation ensemble drama an irresistible temptation. Pick a turbulent period, gather a peer group, follow their divergent paths over the ensuing decades and - hey presto! - you've got instant social history. One consequence of this genre is that it puts make-up artists on an equal footing with writers or cinematographers. No amount of rhetoric will convince if the cast's wrinkles suggest the work of a face-painter at a school fete, or if the grey wigs could pass for roadkill.

The ideal to which such works (and arguably much film-making in general) aspire is Michael Apted's Up series of documentaries, which has the advantage of employing time itself as both make-up artist and scriptwriter. But it is another important British TV landmark that comes to mind as you watch Born in '68. This film about students who establish a hippie commune in early-1970s Figeac has the air of an Our Friends dans le Sud-Ouest, though the comparison turns out to be unfavourable.

The problem is one of scale. Oliver Ducastel and Jacques Martineau are writer-directors who have hitherto specialised in chirpy, pocket-sized comedy-dramas. So it's quite a leap from their last film, the sunny roundelay Cockles and Muscles, to Born in '68. The new picture touches on the May 1968 uprising, collectivism, free love, Aids and the French presidency, whereas its predecessor asked only: "Isn't that plumber a total dreamboat?"

It's not exactly that Ducastel and Martineau have taken on too much. In a strange way, they have taken on too little. The canvas has expanded, but they are working in pencil; even at three hours long, there is a sketchiness to the material. The picture is at its strongest during the first third when the potential feels limitless, as life does to its protagonists. Catherine (Laetitia Casta) is a 20-year-old student enjoying relationships with her fellow leftist rebels Yves (Yannick Renier), by whom she is pregnant, and Hervé (Yann Trégoüet). In the aftermath of May 1968, the trio and their friends leave Paris for a tumbledown farmhouse commune.

After a honeymoon period, their utopia starts to crumble. Ordinary resentments intrude, as they will in any situation where people are free to break into Joan Baez songs without warning. As the commune shrinks, with Catherine alone refusing to budge from her idealistic principles, the sight of one formerly tranquil hippie after another storming off in a huff becomes a neat running gag.

Watching Born in '68 is a frustrating experience because you can see what it yearns to be - namely, an analysis of how the hopes and disappointments of one generation shape those of the next. But the dots are never properly joined between the dramatically rich opening section and the 1980s material, which focuses largely on Boris (Théo Frillet), the gay son of Catherine and Yves. Only one scene, where their daughter Ludmilla (Sabrina Seyvecou) accuses Yves of being the architect of France's latter-day ills, even attempts to make plausible connections. "It's all the fault of May '68," she says when Jacques Chirac is elected. "You killed authority, and now France wants a father."

The picture doesn't have the visual scope to reflect any grand ideas. Presumably it was budgetary considerations that persuaded the film-makers to condense the entire period of the Paris revolts into a shot of three gendarmes running along a boulevard. By the scenes set in the 1980s, the charm of this frugality is wearing a bit thin. We'll give the benefit of the doubt to the reconstructions of Act Up demos, which could have used a few more extras or, failing that, some strategically placed mirrors; maybe those scenes amount to a sly comment on France's tardy response to the Aids crisis. The same excuse cannot be used for the presence of Aids in the film itself, where it is boiled down to some brow-furrowing and the death of a character marked out as cannon fodder.

Then there is the matter of whether the make-up department rises to the challenge of ageing the film's young cast convincingly. I don't want to point the finger, so let's just say that all concerned could learn a lot from watching Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter