It’s no simple feat pegging down Olivier Assayas because the French director works between genres, and rarely makes the same sort of film twice. Look at his oeuvre of the last decade: 2004’s Clean, in which a woman haunted by her drug-addled past attempts to put the pieces of her life back together; 2007’s Boarding Gate, a sprawling (and unfortunately sloppy) “globalist thriller”; 2008′s beautifully nuanced Summer Hours about the dissolution of family and the inevitable procession of time; and the 2010 miniseries Carlos, a brilliant, if overly-polished portrayal of real-life revolutionary terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez. But with Something in the Air, almost two decades after directing 1994’s coming-of-age tale Cold Water, Assayas circles back to a subject he’s already tackled: the trials of teenagehood.
Something in the Air, set in Paris, 1971, was originally titled Après Mai (in reference to May, 1968) and for good reason. It’s hard to overestimate what that month meant and continues to mean in France: It signaled the height of the ’60s student movement—the country convulsed under a series of protests and demonstrations. That month, 11 million people went on strike, the president fled the country, and civil war, or at least revolution, seemed imminent. Imagine the impact of the U.S. Civil Rights movement combined with the militant power of the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, etc. condensed into four weeks—it was that big. But when the movement dissolved as quickly as it had emerged, the political left found itself adrift and searching for a new identity.
Against this backdrop we meet Gilles (played by Clément Métayer) a scrawny and mopey sort of teen in search of his own identity. Gilles is the type of teen you still run across in today’s high schools: wearing an army jacket and carrying a sketch book, and sporting a large and unruly mop of hair that threatens to consume the rest of his head at any moment. For Gilles and his friends, the downfall of the capitalist regime is just around the corner (or as their ’68 forbearers put it: “Under the pavement, the beach!”). In classic feverish teenage logic, tagging their school with anarchist symbols and throwing a Molotov cocktail at a security guard shack can only hasten the revolution’s arrival. When they’re not busy climbing fences or running from the cops, Gilles and his comrades Alain, Jean-Pierre, and Christine squat bars and crowded classrooms, peering through clouds of cigarette smoke and arguing over the minutia of radicalism. The gravity and earnestness with which these teens discuss politics would put a grown congressman to shame.
But unlike his friends, we quickly realize that Gilles is just going through the motions—his heart rests in the more ethereal world of art. Gilles wants Hans Hoffman, not Abbie Hoffman. He wants to draw. Or paint. Or work in film—anything, really. His dedication to the cause is fickle at best. “Reality knock on my door, and I don’t open,” Gilles declares. Mao would not approve.
That doesn’t stop Gilles from doing what teens do best: following his friends into trouble. When a revolutionary outing leaves someone in the hospital, Gilles and his friends pile into a VW minibus and head to Italy, where they spend the summer drinking beer, playing guitars, visiting the sites, and coming to the kind of earnest conclusions about life only teens can make (“Art is solitude”). When Gilles’ girlfriend asks him to travel south with a gang of activist film makers, our half-hearted radical has a choice to make: follow the revolutionary road south or head back up north to Paris where art school exams await. It’s a decision Gilles makes easily, as if it were reversible. But like all choices so early in life, it bumps his trajectory ever so slightly, ultimately altering his final destination.
What makes Something in the Air so particularly enjoyable is that Assayas handles Gilles and the rest of the film coolly—he lets the story develop organically, like he did so well in Summer Hours. The camera wanders through the scenes naturally and doesn’t mind lingering for an extra beat. The film simmers, gathering potency over its 122 minutes.
Maybe Something in the Air feels so easy because the subject matter is so close to the director. Assayas was born in 1955, which would have made him 13 years old in May 1968—too early to take part in the upheaval, but old enough to be conscious of it, and about the same age as Gilles. Assayas admits that the film is at least in part autobiographical—the transition from politics, to art, to film, is one that the director and the protagonist share. But to brand the film as autobiography would be inaccurate. Neither should we look at it as a crystal-clear vision of France during the era—the film is too heavily glazed with a coat of nostalgia for that. Instead, Something in the Air is a tender testament to teenagehood: the few years in one’s life when one is encouraged to shed identities like snakes shed skin; when you learn to stop pretending who you’d like to be and start becoming who you are. In an interview last year, Assayas reminisced about a particular scene in Cold Water: “The fire, the teenagers, the joints. I had a feeling that I had, in a moment of haste, caught the sense of poetry of those days, of my teenage years—the early 70s.” With Something in the Air Assayas has captured that fleeting moment and expanded it to envelope an entire film.