Nostalgic without being self-indulgent, Olivier Assayas’ semi-autobiographical coming-of-age film is a rousing, beautiful ode to the revolutionary zeal of a group of young activists. Set three years after the May ’68 riots in Paris, Something in the Air (its original French title Après Mai makes this political legacy clearer) begins at a demonstration at the Place de Clichy in Paris. Richard Deshayes, a young student protester, loses an eye when one of the brutal police force throws a smoke grenade at his face. His face and fate become a symbol for the post-soixante huitards as they try and carve out different forms of direct political action, as well as forming their own romantic and creative directions.
The film follows Gilles (Clément Métayer), a 17-year-old student, artist and political activist, and his equally radicalised friends Jean-Pierre (Hugo Conzelmann), Alain (Felix Armand) and his later-to-be girlfriend Christine (played by Lola Crèton, the star of Assayas’ partner Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye, First Love). We see them designing protest posters, writing and drawing for left-wing magazines, spray-painting graffiti on the walls of a school, and staging protests. One particular protest ends in injury for a security guard, and Gilles and Christine flee to Italy. For Gilles, this cues a waning of political engagement, as he finds himself unwilling to join a militant filmmaking collective and loses Christine to the group in the process; instead, his painting (and more mainstream filmmaking, such as a stint on the set of a Nazi alien B-movie) takes over – perhaps as an indication of Assayas’ own artistic and political direction?
Clément Métayer and Lola Créton.
Something in the Air works as a sort of companion piece to Assayas’ 1994 feature film L’Eau Froid (Cold Water) where two teenagers (bearing the same names as Gilles and Christine) run away in a much less political statement of revolt. In particular, Something in the Air’s utterly evocative bonfire party scene, enigmatically shot by Eric Gautier, has many traces of his earlier film, with a much darker ending, which suggests the cyclical feel of a filmmaker looking back at his own development, this time with a greater budget and a lusher, more audience-friendly touch. The characters, which some may feel are underdeveloped, seem to function more as types; Gilles’ rich, beautiful girlfriend Laure (Carole Combes) for example, loses herself in an apolitical world of hard drugs and unrelenting bohemian activity. A touching final scene – the only moment that clearly departs from reality, in a sensual almost clichéd hippy dream sequence, brings her fate, and the film suggests, that of so many others, into harsh reality.
In a similar vein to other contemporary looks at the period, like Philippe Garrel’s Regular Lovers (2005), and Bernardo Bertolucci’s infinitely sexier though glossily apolitical The Dreamers (2003), this is clearly a period that keeps drawing filmmakers back. The frustrations of youth, a determined politicized violence, the free-love sexuality and experimental drug-taking of the era, and a strong Situationist notion of art (and notably cinema) being used as a form of social practise: you can understand why this is the case. Something in the Air falls smack in the middle of Garrel and Bertolucci, offering more of the politicised anger of Garrel’s fairly demanding work, and much of Bertolucci’s beautiful characters, kitsch period detail and, in true Assayas form, a scintillating soundtrack featuring Nick Drake, Soft Machine, Syd Barrett and even British folk singer Johnny Flynn singing Phil Och’s classic anti-war anthem “The Ballad of William Worthy”.
Among other things, Something in the Air is also a film about film, with many scenes shot in cinemas around the world, like an outdoor screening in Italy, or a queue for the Electric cinema on Notting Hill’s Portobello Road in the ‘60s. Not only a joy to look at, the film celebrates what happens when young people put their minds to fight for something, and make things happen. And reminds us that cinema could, and still can, shake things up.
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