Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves (that’s the title) won Best Canadian Feature Award at TIFF in 2016. Directors Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie imagined a follow up to 2012 real life massive student protests in the Canadian province of Quebec by focusing on a radical group of four tempted by terrorist activities in the aftermath of their bitter experience. The three-hour work has been described by some critics as ambitious and radical.
Note: The 2012 Quebec students protest was purely a workout exercise in basic democracy with added confrontations with the police and issuing abuse. Some people in Quebec compared it to the real thing, the Middle East and Ukrainian (countries who have an epic mythology) deadly uprisings of the period, but let’s be honest, at times this comparison is a bit embarrassing.
An American director you probably heard of (he’s called Martin Scorsese) once said film openings are about setting the mood. And it is precisely what Denis & Lavoie do, right from the beginning, by displaying their artistic ambitions (thus setting the standards high) by starting the show with an opening music, rather good on its own terms, to accompany a blank screen for several minutes in a salute to the days of epic features of the 1950’s, the Scope era. There is also, like in these films, an intermission at the halfway mark. Their story eventually begins with the circumstantial scope ratio (Widescreen). So, let’s keep in mind our filmmaker duo made this aesthetic choice to introduce the spectator, to what is coming next, with undeniable heroic intent, sustained by equally Homeric sounding music. Offering large scope, to what is fundamentally devoid of concrete epic magnitude, is merely a very pretentious choice that has to live up to the aspiration.
For historical (and rhetorical) comparison, one could argue that, halfway into writing the score to Ronald Reagan’s vehicle King’s Row (1942), later used as one source music for the infamous Star Wars theme, the great Wolfgang Korngold, suddenly realizing he was writing for a down-to-earth drama (instead of the imperious proportions the title suggested), carried on with grandiose material because those who make a soundtrack halfway only dig their own graves… Since Denis & Lavoie (two directors’ brains are better than one) followed the same principle, it seems the inner feelings spreading on screen are of monumental ambition and we get exposed to mainly believable characters which simply stopped being down-to-earth. Maybe it is the reason we have this relentless change over (back and forth) in the onscreen ratio from wide (epic) to near 4:3 (old TV) aspect (drama) during the whole process. Futile.
The gang of four is fairly played by the young actors. However, through its protagonists, the film equally displays the general culture of its makers, with countless citations going from Césaire, Camus to Rosa Luxembourg and an inclination for theater and contemporary art. They spread it like jam on a piece of bread. We get the full jar. This goes on only to unmask the disappointing caricature, of authority figures and bourgeois parents against their leftist offspring, they ultimately came up with. This leaves the portion of the cast playing the said parents and authorities (it is uniformly poorly acted), with terrible lines right out of first draft notes written on a napkin.
In form and content, there are numerous parts revealed as essays and propaganda in Those Who Make Revolution Halfway. They betray the leaning, of two cinephiles/directors, for Godard, the film La Chinoise notably. Let’s not call them Jean-Luc yet. The length, pace and ellipses also make us think of late director and film critic Jacques Rivette. We get the odd feeling it was designed to please the reviewers from Les Cahiers du Cinéma. With its misplaced over dramatic epic tenure, sometimes near accidental parody, relying on endless clichés as shortcuts, it gets to a point where their self indulgence is beyond annoyance since absolutely nothing justifies that the outcome is three hours in length. Ambition is neat if the result is good and Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves doesn’t even meet us halfway to its own grave.