Olivier Assayas (Carlos, Summer Hours) is a master at conveying a sense of time and space within a given mise en scene. There’s no more proof of this than his latest feature, Something in the Air, a freewheeling, somewhat amorphous character study that really shouldn’t work, but thanks to a wealth of feeling and warmth it becomes one of the most interesting films of the year in spite of it’s almost complete lack of concrete structure or any potential “in” for North American audiences to fully understand and appreciate it.
Somewhat autobiographical, Assayas chronicles the life of his on screen surrogate Gilles (Clement Metayer), a budding painter, filmmaker, writer and a voracious reader. Gilles has aligned himself in 1971 – just following the 1968 Parisian student riots that rocked the world – with some like minded left wing revolutionaries that devote their time to chipping away at injustice one spray painted building and independently produced leaflet at a time.
These kids, Gilles included, aren’t necessarily up to the task. They make silly mistakes (leaving your ID behind at a vandalized site being one of the most amusing), they shout and bicker over what they think are just causes, and being young and living in such an acrimonious political climate they seem to think that immortality and potential martyrdom are the exact same thing. Their romantic relationships are ones borne of passion for a shared ideology because it’s become all they’ve know. One all encompassing passion begets another.
Assayas look at youthful idealism is spot on. It’s a deeply personal snapshot of time and place that’s detailed, yet strangely and refreshingly hermetic. It’s almost a verite styled look at disorganization (a nice counterpoint to the static documentaries Gilles ends up shooting in Italy) that follows a timeline even when its own characters give a false sense of truly caring about the subject at hand. Many of these kids (like Gilles) genuinely believe in the cause, but just as many seem to only be there because it feels like the cool thing to do. This is a film about the universal contradictory ideal of young people wanting to change the world on their own terms and be taken seriously as adults, but they clearly aren’t ready for it.. Assayas wisely relegates adult influences to the background with the exception of the few who are there – on both side of the issue – to poke holes in the boats of these kids.
Nothing is ever obfuscated because there’s really nothing to hide. This is a film about emotion more than it is about anything else, and it’s the hardest kind of film to make and remain on point with. It’s so very much of its time and place that viewers should focus on the emotion rather than dwell on the actual meaning of the French cultural landscape. It’s full of the feeling one might have when confronted with the apathetic and cynical, and imbued with all of the pain one feels when they can’t properly rally against it. Assayas has said that he doesn’t see Something in the Air (more appropriately titled Apres Mai in France) as a coming of age story. It most certainly is, but if the film is as autobiographical as it purports to be, it makes sense that even his on screen surrogate wouldn’t see his own life that way. Assayas is the insider, and the viewer the outsider. It’s quite a well done look at growing up from an established filmmaker who matured quite some time ago.