Half A Life (1982)
The French title of Romain Goupil’s debut feature is Mourir à trente ans, which actually means ‘Death at thirty,’ in contrast to the designated English-language title. Goupil’s debut is a documentary of his firsthand experiences as a militant Trotskyite in 1960s France as a teenager, along with several of his close friends, during the heyday of French student movements that culminated in some respects with May 1968. Among his close friends and fellow militant activists was Michel Recanati, who committed suicide in 1978. Prompted by his friend’s death, Goupil constructs a work about this period in his life that can be described as a found footage film and an auto/biographical essay, composed of layers upon layers of different audiovisual textures (photographs, home movies, interviews with former militant colleagues). Ultimately, in the course of remembering his dear friend, Goupil draws on Recanati’s rise-and-fall trajectory to represent the implosion of the leftist movement in 1960s/1970s France on the one hand and serve as a metaphor for the difficult transition from adolescent to adult on the other hand. While uneven and rickety, it nevertheless holds a certain allure given the tumultuous historical context.
Prompted by his friend’s death, Goupil constructs a work about this period in his life that can be described as a found footage film and an auto/biographical essay …
The film begins with a voiceover that utters the title and goes through brief histories of the people whose names appear on the screen: Michel, Anne, Sylvie. The voice belongs to Goupil and the people whom he names were his friends from his militant and adolescent past. Goupil then speaks in front of the camera of his past, his younger self, and his exploits with his closest friends, to further illustrate that his perspective and subjectivity will govern the film’s narrative and content. Growing up in the first half of the 1960s, Goupil develops a passion for filmmaking, demonstrated by the abundance of clips of Super-8 movies that he and his friends made, with Goupil’s father as the camera operator, peppered throughout the film. Some of the home movies fall into the adventure genre and were shot during vacations. In this way, Goupil positions his home movies as an untroubled, pre-lapsarian period of late childhood, in short, the time before he entered adolescence and delved into politics. From the mid-1960s on, Goupil and his friends’ world would change, as would France and the international world.
Beginning in 1965-1966, Goupil and his friends begin to channel their energies towards political activities, especially as members of the Jeunesses Communistes Révolutionnaires, or Revolutionary Communist Youth organisation. As they find themselves gaining more of a social consciousness, getting outside of their small world of home moviemaking, becoming part of a larger collective, and learning about Marxism, Goupil in voiceover elaborates that during this time ‘I can no longer imagine cinema without politics.’ Accordingly, the films that he and his friends make henceforth take on a political/politicised colour. Leading up to and during May 1968, Goupil and his friends become leaders among militant high schoolers, especially Recanati: they participate in one demonstration after another, organise meetings among students as a part of Comités d’Action Lycéens (‘student action committees’), and still manage to go to school. For Goupil in particular, he finds a way to navigate between protesting and filming.
While Goupil’s point of view on this historical period guides the film, when he and his friends become politically active, present-day interviews with former colleagues, mentors, and friends contribute to the film’s tapestry of remembering …
While Goupil’s point of view on this historical period guides the film, when he and his friends become politically active, present-day interviews with former colleagues, mentors, and friends contribute to the film’s tapestry of remembering the 1960s in general and Ricanati in particular. It is a convoluted time of struggles for causes and leadership, and Goupil reflects this detail by mixing these present-day interviews and archival footage of street protests and meetings, increasingly centering on Ricanati’s actions in all of them. In the late 1960s, Recanati rose up in the ranks among youth activists, ultimately attaining a leadership role in post-1968. This role entailed a tremendous responsibility from a coordinating point of view, given the seemingly endless line of activities that Goupil in voiceover lists that Recanati organised, managed, and participated in. Goupil manages to avoid making a simple talking head documentary due to the amount of personal and political archival footage at his disposal and a certain degree of critical self-reflexivity. At the same time, he paints a rather romantic portrait of Ricanati that makes his suicide inevitable, which is a problematic point. It is as if Goupil wanted terribly to push Ricanati’s death as the metaphor for what happened to the student movements (in 1968, the Jeunesses Communistes Révolutionnaires was banned, and its subsequent incarnation, the Ligue Communiste [‘Communist League’] was banned in 1973). The romanticisation of Ricanati’s death is at its most insistent when one of the interviewees describes him as un homme coincé, ‘a trapped man.’
Admittedly, Goupil’s romanticisation of the loss of sociopolitical hope, innocence/childhood, through Ricanati is not so forced as to be devoid of feeling. He achieves a level of poignancy regarding Ricanati and the late 1960s (more so regarding the former), which are irrevocably and inextricably linked.
While uneven and rickety, it nevertheless holds a certain allure given the tumultuous historical context.