French director Olivier Assayas is one of the most interesting and versatile talents working in world cinema today. Formerly a film critic for landmark publication Cahiers du Cinéma, his subsequent filmmaking career has taken in everything from intimately observed dramas (Cold Water, Late August, Early September), technological thrillers (Demonlover) and even epic crime biopics (Carlos).
Assayas’ latest, Something In The Air (French title: Apres Mai), is a subtle, stirring, and semi-autobiographical look at a group of friends in a suburb outside Paris in the early 1970s. As they struggle to keep the revolutionary fire burning after the explosive student and worker riots of May 1968, friendships fall apart and a host of tough lessons are learned.
We sat down with Assayas recently to chat about music, the importance of avoiding nostalgia, and the complexities of the protest movement.
GFW: Let’s start with the title. The French title, Apres Mai, is a lot more descriptive but also sounds a little more like a lament. Something In The Air sounds like something is stirring.
Olivier Assayas: The title relates to a short book I wrote, a memoir in that period which is called ‘A Post-May Adolescence: Letter To Alice Debord’. But there was a concern that it wouldn’t translate outside out of France, where people are very familiar with that period ... I suggested Something In The Air because it had to do with something that was less focused on France. It gave a broader notion of something that all youths all over the world shared.
The film shares its title with the famous Thunderclap Newman song, and music’s clearly very important in the film. How did you go about choosing it?
The choice of music is the most autobiographical element. Usually it takes me a while to get the music choices right in my films. In this choice it was very easy for me because it was the stuff that I was listening to at that age. I’m still a fan of that music.
What do you feel about the role of music in protest?
I have remained influenced by an idea of music where the songs had some kind of political meaning, in the sense that whatever a band was about was also a statement; it didn’t have to be sloganeering. In the 1970s, it only made sense if it was connected to the transformation of society. All those underground British bands, they decided to break with the single format which is where the money was! They said, “We don’t want to have hits! We don’t want anything to do with the marketing of music!” It’s a form of economic protest, and in that sense it was political. Music has always been a vector of politics.
Syd Barrett, Nick Drake, for me, are the great poets of those years, geniuses. I never dared to use their music in my films before, because I felt I didn’t deserve it! Here, it came into the film seamlessly because when I tried to recall the emotions I had as a kid, when I was playing around with painting, the soundtrack was Syd Barrett and Drake, non-stop. When Gilles [the lead character, based on Assayas] is painting, that’s what he’s listening to.
Smells Like Teen Spirit (of '68): Lola Créton and Clément Métayer.
When approaching this film, how important was it for you to not be nostalgic?
Very, because nostalgia is horrible! To me, it’s like when you open old boxes and you have old photos of 10, 15, 20 years ago and you get absorbed by it. It makes me want to vomit. I believe in the present - the past is gone! However, there is a lesson in the past; there are things to understand, you can’t just erase it. Today, people have become cut off from the past. They are not interested in history; I’m talking about kids, because they are the audience of cinema. They somehow don’t relate so much to history, the same way as they don’t relate much to the future as opposed to the 1970s when I was growing up. It was the other way around. We weren’t interested in the present because we hated society, we hated its values, the materialism. What we were interested in was the history of revolution in the twentieth century. We were interested in failed or successful revolutions.
You pack in a lot of references in the film to different movements...
Yes! We were high school kids and we had this absurd knowledge. You could get into the fine print of the Russian Revolution with kids that were 16, 17, because they had read the books and it was a matter of survival because you were in high school, you had seven political groups there! You had different brands of Maoism, Trotskyism, and whatever defined them was down to a specific anecdote in the history of the Russian Revolution or the Spanish Civil War.
Some films look back on this period with a rosy glow, but you show how fractured the movement became.
Reality is complex. Reality is about layers, and common wisdom in cinema is that you have to simplify reality. For me it’s exactly the opposite. You have to echo the complexity of the world otherwise you’re cheating; you’re projecting a fake image. Specifically in a movie when I’m dealing with the ‘70s and trying to treat it in the most honest way that I can without idealising or ridiculing them. I want to be accurate.
How did you go about casting, essentially, yourself?
You have to forget about yourself. You have to cast an individual who is going to be the centre of this story. There is no autobiographical process in cinema. You start with something. Memory is autobiographical, but fiction is also autobiographical. You write the craziest fiction, it’s factual in terms of what your fantasy world is. It says as much about you as anecdotes of your life. The moment you use your memories to recreate a period, you know that turning that into a film will be a process of moving away from it. The main step is choosing someone who is not you to embody something you maybe were at some point. To me, from the day I started working with Clément Métayer [the actor who plays Gilles], it was pretty clear I was telling the story of Clément Métayer. I projected Clément Métayer in the ‘70s and... see what happens!
Gilles paints and experiments with other art-forms. Did you come to film through visual arts?
I come from visual arts, and at a certain point I realised that what I wanted to do most powerfully were movies. I had to turn my back on visual arts, which makes me question what exactly movies are about. There is no clear continuity between my experience as a painter and my films. Maybe there is, but it’s fairly difficult to make sense of. For me, the path to making movies was to stop painting and learn how to write, because you need a screenplay to make a film. But I don’t have a deep belief in narrative. A screenplay has a lot to do with poetry. It’s a minimalist art-form. It’s more like a trampoline on which you have to jump to reach something!
You were a critic in a former life, how do you bring that experience to filmmaking?
I’m not sure where I stand in terms of my being a film writer in another lifetime. The automatic answer would be “That’s gone”. I stopped writing about movies in the fall of 1985, so if I try to bring myself back to that time it’s pretty acrobatic. Then again, I’m the same person. That’s where I come from. I come from an approach to cinema which questions its aesthetics, its ethics. So hopefully I’m going to assess these things more seriously than other filmmakers.
The one continuity there is is that you ask yourself questions about cinema. When I wrote about films, I was asking myself questions to make sense of the process of becoming a filmmaker. I remember when I made my first feature; the way I lived, experienced it was about asking myself these questions 20 times a day, the same when I was writing. It’s like the famous Carl von Clausewitz quote: “War is the continuation of politics by other means”. So maybe making movies is the continuation of film criticism by other means.
'Something in the Air' is out in UK cinemas on Friday, and is out in Canadian cinemas now (limited).