Confession time: the only Olivier Assayas movie I’d seen prior to Something in the Air was Irma Vep starring Maggie Cheung, which I really enjoyed. Summer Hours, Clean, and Carlos have been on my to-see list for a while, and I hope to get to them soon whenever some free time opens up.
With Something in the Air, Assayas gets semi-autobiographic for his coming-of-age story. It’s the France of May 1968. A massive student and worker revolt is taking place and it seems like the start of genuine cultural revolution and economic change. Demonstrations turn to riots, general strikes occur, the French government fears the power of the people.
But it’s a moment of naive hope that lasts only so long, sort of like summer vacation.
Something in the Air (Apres Mai)
Director: Olivier Assayas
Release Date: May 3, 2013 (limited)
Assayas’s analog in the film is Gilles (Clément Métayer), who’s just about to graduate from high school. He’s got it pretty good, all things considered, especially for someone who’s really still a kid. His beautiful semi-girlfriend Laure (Carole Combes) is really into his artwork. She’s the embodiment of his young ideals of free-spirited Bohemia, and her live-for-today attitude serves as a strange sort of complement to Gilles’s own political consciousness that’s being awakened in this month of strikes and tumult. For all the lovey-dovey peace and art of 1960s counterculture, there were also explosions and beat downs.
Something in the Air follows Gilles and his friends as the spend their summer revolting, resisting, traveling, loving, and then slowly succumbing to the reality of this situations: after the month of May, the world will mostly go back to being what it was like before May. The revolt was just an explosion, no matter how legitimate its causes, but it was not a lasting conflagration, or at least not in the way that was hoped. This winds up being the same in everyone’s young lives. While vandalizing his school and lobbing Molotov cocktails, Gilles falls for a pretty young comrade named Christine (Lola Créton), but whatever they have might be fleeting, just like whatever Gilles had with Laure.
What’s remarkable about Something in the Air is how it meanders without losing its hold. I’m not quite sure how it was done. Every now and then I became conscious that I was compelled not by a rousing plot or by major scenes with emotional kick. Instead what captivated me was a kind of clean and astute act of observation. Assayas and cinematographer Eric Gautier let the camera meander with control, which results in some long takes that pan through crowds or past shadows of bramble and ivy to arrive at some gorgeous tableaux. The scope of the film is similar in a way — wander, linger, then arrive unexpectedly.
I think a big part of the allure in Something in the Air had to do with Assayas’s closeness to the material. It’s as if he’s lifting memories right out of his own youth to insert into this film as needed. This gives Something in the Air a lived-in, memoiristic quality rather than a novelistic one. The grand arc of Gilles’s coming-of-age comes in small spurts as the promise of May fades off, not necessarily in grand decisions or major plot points. By the end he’s a slightly different person in the way he sees himself in the world. Even his hair looks less goofy somehow, as if he’s either grown into it or grown out of it.
Assayas probably filtered these memories and made Gilles a better version of his young self — that’s what most people do with characters as analogs anyway. It makes me wonder if there were actual Laures and Christines, or if Assayas had proudly attempted to harm campus security guards. There’s a sort of fond way that the film looks back on these days, like going through an old shoe box full of photos and saying wistfully but affirmatively, “Yeah, that was me.”
Since I’m not sure of France’s social climate in the late 60s and how that’s viewed in France today, I can’t comment on the authenticity of the recreated era. It seems spot on, though, at least in terms of clothes and attitude, like the in-fights between anarchists and revolutionaries over who is more anarchic or revolutionary. I’m forced to think of the late 1960s in France in terms of the late 1960s in the US, I suppose. But even then, that spirit of the late 1960s is a sort of late-adolescent idea of what the future ought to be like, as if everything was so simple, and in those terms, it makes perfect sense to set a coming-of-age story at that time.
Adolescence and the late teens are probably the best ages to get swept up in the romance of revolution. You’re still too young to know any better, but you’re just old enough to start creating adult certainties about life despite limited experience. It’s the brashness of youth at the cusp of maturity, eager to define itself too early. This all may be summed up in Gilles’s first on-screen act of rebellion: carving an anarchy symbol into his desk. It’s adorable how small the act is, how timid the rebellion, how unsophisticated it seems, but to Gilles, it probably means the world to him.
But this is 1968, after all, and those little actions matter; especially when you’re young, especially when there’s a sense that something big is about to happen. The French title of the film is Apres Mai (“after May”), which likely has more resonance in France, but Something in the Air seems fitting as well. Thinking in stateside terms, Woodstock was still a year away from the events at the beginning of this film, and those days of peace and music would be the decade’s mighty crescendo. The good vibes would crash and burn about five months later with the ugliness of Altamont. Funny the difference that a few months can make.
That thing in the air may be a lot of things, but I think in Assayas’s film it’s mostly revolution that turns into adulthood and healthy disillusion. At the end of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test there’s the famous refrain for the era: “We blew it!” For all the hope and promise of the 1960s, the sea change never came. If there’s a refrain for Something in the Air, it might be, “We blew it, and we grew up.”