With its multiple aspect ratios, on-screen block quotes, and cutaways to news broadcasts and documentary footage — not to mention a musical overture and interlude — the three-hour Quebecois political epic “Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves” unfurls with a bravado as outsized as its title. Inspired by the student demonstrations that sparked the Maple Spring in 2012, writer-directors Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie apply the language of radical cinema to a tense, mournful, and profoundly ambivalent portrait of radicalism. Following four far-left activists as they commit acts of vandalism and terror to foment an uprising against the capitalist system, the film channels their passion while insistently questioning their methods and perspective. The forbidding length and provincial specifics suggest a hard sell outside Canada, but “Those Who Make Revolution Halfway” is so tapped into the political moment that it should provoke lively conversations worldwide.
At its peak, the Maple Spring movement brought 200,000 demonstrators to the streets of Montreal, protesting a five-year incremental increase in student tuition fees at Quebec universities. During a volatile spring and summer, students also participated in a strike that kept them out of classes, but the movement fizzled in early September, when the government agreed to a freeze tuition hikes, and most student organizations voted to return to class. “Those Who Make Revolution” mainly takes place in the aftermath, following a radical splinter cell that’s unwilling to let the flame die out. To them, the student groups have sold out to a system that’s pervasively corrupt and more extreme measures are required to produce meaningful change.
In the opening sequence, four twentysomethings, under cover of darkness, deface a row of commercial billboards to read, “People do not see yet that they are miserable. We will show them.” Working under the aliases Klas Batalo (Gabrielle Tremblay), Ordinne Nuovo (Emmanuelle Lussier-Martinez), Tumulto (Laurent Belanger), and Guitizia (Charlotte Aubin), they form their own underground commune to do just that, all while maintaining a brutally austere lifestyle in line with their values. Living collectively off the cash Batalo earns as a transgender prostitute, they barely have enough money for food, much less a political operation, but their anger and desperation breeds a surprising resourcefulness.
Some acts are just raw displays of hostility, like Tumulto urinating on the window of an upscale restaurant. But other operations are more strategic, as when Nuovo releases a gas canister in a subway tunnel or when the group perpetuates an anthrax hoax by mailing letters filled with white powder to various public officials. As their efforts continue to prove ineffectual, they resort to more violent schemes to get attention, but fierce in-fighting and serious financial hardships threaten to collapse the group from within.
Films about student radicals, such as Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” or Olivier Assayas’ “Something in the Air,” tend to have an air of nostalgia about a time of political and sexual liberation, but Denis and Lavoie reject those sentiments as firmly as their characters do. Though frequently nude, the quartet deny each other sex (“We’re at war,” rebuffs one), and they view nostalgia as a form of vanity: When Tumulto is caught looking at a YouTube clip of a past protest, he risks getting kicked out of the apartment. They’re determined to live wholly in the present, and “Those Who Make Revolution” thrives off the sincere and sometimes reckless urgency that propels them toward acts of terrorism and a kind of moral abyss.
For all of Denis and Lavoie’s Godardian impulses, the film is most resonant when it addresses its themes head on, without revolutionary texts or other avant-garde feints. Denis and Lavoie — along with their four exceptional lead actors — articulate the motives and methods of radicalism beautifully, but the film has enough of a distance from its characters to suggest the dangerous folly of their actions, too, as well as their roots in suburban privilege. They may see their parents as squares or sellouts, but Denis and Lavoie don’t accept the caricature, which brings a tragic dimension to their conflict that defines the tone of the film overall.
“Those Who Make Revolution” may be about a historical flare-up in Quebec that’s since been extinguished, but the dynamics at its heart — of youthful rebellion and uprisings, of societal injustice, of generational resentment — are common to political movements past and present. Denis and Lavoie break down this explosive chemistry element by element, but they’re not clinical about it in the least. Their film pulses with the vitality of four young people who, however flawed or foolhardy, sincerely want to change the world.