Inspired partly by his own youthful idealism, Oliver Assayas’s new film is a poignant meditation on protest and disillusion
Something In The Air (15)
Directed by: olivIer assayas
Starring: Clément Métayer, Lola Créton, Felix Armand, India Menuez
Star rating: * * * *
HAVING touched on the political turmoil of Europe in the 1970s with his previous film Carlos, French filmmaker Olivier Assayas provides a much more meditative, autobiographical and self-reflective account of the era with his latest. Set in France in 1971, Something in the Air homes in on a group of high-school students enchanted by the revolutionary fervour of May 1968, but too young and idealistic to realise that this brief moment of radical unrest has already passed them by .
Where that energy goes in the absence of a coherent cause becomes the focal point of the film, which begins in grand style with a bunch of teens – all of whom possess the quick-to-fade glamour and beauty of youth – charging through city streets, dodging flying canisters of tear gas and trying to avoid the overzealous, jackbooted riot control officers serving in France’s CRS.
The kids are part of the high school branch of the student liberation front, and when they’re not being lectured in school about Marx, Engels and historical materialism, they’re flyposting slogans on buildings, debating who they’re trying to help and what they’re trying to change, and running up against resistance not just from their surprisingly understanding teachers, but from older members of the movement who don’t take kindly to some of their more juvenile antics.
Assayas presents it all with fluid camera moves through busy scenes that – true to the title (which has been changed from the more specific French one of Aprés Mai “After May”) – give us a sense of the many disparate ideas floating around just waiting to be seized upon by the film’s hungry-for-life for protagonists. Chief among these protagonists is Gilles (Clément Métayer), an aspiring artist who has designs on becoming a filmmaker. Though clearly Gilles is a proxy for Assayas in his youth, the film spares us an idealised, nostalgic trawl through his own coming of age.
Instead, Assayas does something much more interesting: he puts us in the moment with Gilles and his friends, but imbues their endeavours with just enough historical perspective to say something deeper about time’s passage and cinema’s ability to capture it. This begins to happen after Gilles, his sometime girlfriend Christine (Lola Créton) and their friend Alain (Félix Armand) flee to Italy for the summer after a Molotov cocktail attack on their school’s security guards leaves one of the men seriously injured. The morality of their actions will be smartly touched upon at a later point so as to better highlight the irony of them frequently talking in abstract terms about siding with the proletariat only to attack a working guy for doing his job. In Italy, though, there’s already a creeping sense of disillusionment setting in as this trio meet up with other bourgeois radicals enjoying the blissful freedoms of youth. Gilles’ interest wanes the fastest; his desire to be an artist, to say something, indeed anything, has awoken him to the fact that those around him are kind of full of it.
When he falls in with a group of older, radical filmmakers, for instance, he’s disheartened that none of them has the imagination or the will to challenge the conventions of the form to get their own message out. In fact, they’re content to use the same techniques he berates his father for using to make television. Other friends from his past, meanwhile, are losing themselves in a haze of drugs that seems equally meaningless.
In some respects, such narrative trajectories makes Something in the Air itself seem somewhat conventional – another baby boomer meditation on the counterculture perhaps. But the rambling nature of the plot does feels true to the characters, particularly as their initial radicalism dissipates and they find themselves drifting towards a future that’s uncertain in a different way from the one they imagined.
Assayas and his young cast are good too at picking up on the melancholy that undercuts this realisation, and the film is awash with lived-in period details and off-kilter counterculture signifiers that further prevents the film from feeling like a theme-park ride through the early 1970s. But it is the remarkable final sequence that really sets the film apart in this respect, reinforcing how quickly the past can be cannibalised by cinema for the purposes of entertainment, but also illustrating how brilliantly it can sometimes be used it to evoke the memory of a moment while it’s still being inhabited by a character.