Even in the first few scenes of Something in the Air, the latest film by renowned French director Oliver Assayas, it’s clear that the lead character Gilles (Clement Metayer) is balancing some pretty disparate identities. In the opening shot, we see him as a bored suburban high school student carving an anarchy symbol into his desk while a dull, earnest teacher lectures about Pascal’s Pensées. And then within minutes, Giles is in downtown Paris, dodging police batons and avoiding tear gas cannisters in confrontations with police during a student riot. In addition to taking hard knocks from police batons, Gilles is taking some hard knocks in love: His girlfriend leaves him during these opening scenes, as well. The era doesn’t seem to be one of desperately permanent or lasting attachments, and even the dissolution of the relationship is more of a “see you when I see you” than full closure.
This is Paris, 1971. The more fitting French title of the film is Apres Mai, or “After May,” after the nation-shaking student-worker riots of May 1968. In many ways it is a film about a difficult, complicated inheritance. The story starts to expand to include Gilles’ group of friends and comrades, and it’s the sort of film that seeks to capture an entire world and time in its many narrative threads and references to books, films, art, and music of the period. It’s unsurprising to learn that the Assayas’ youth has much, indeed almost everything, in common with that of Gilles: It’s not so much an autobiographical film, but a reconstruction of youth’s end through the vivid dream world of cinema, using film as time capsule and moving self-portrait.
The final—and seemingly most private—identity amongst all of of Gilles’ roles we’re introduced to causes him the most drama: Gilles is an artist, a painter who has dreams of becoming a filmmaker and may even have a path into the industry through his father, who, like Assayas’s own father, makes slightly hacky detective shows for TV. Though Gilles is committed to his work and maturation as an artist, it’s entirely unclear to him how this aspect of his identity might fit into the all-encompassing world of leftist politics he’s committed to, body and soul: Even a plain-spoken documentary about revolutionaries in Laos that the characters watch at an outdoor screening ends up getting sniffed at by partisans in the audience as adopting a bourgeois, non-revolutionary style. It’s not a world that’s particularly hostile to art or artists, but it is an orthodox world that doesn’t have much time or use for art that doesn’t fit a particular political platform, and everything is scanned carefully for its utility. Gilles is committed to a philosophy, but aesthetic fulfillment and meaning seem to lie elsewhere.
The film smartly delivers the dramatic interplay of love, art, and politics in that decidedly French way, which, I suppose, is both praise and criticism. It’s a film that occasionally teeters dangerously close to some clichéd French-film territory: alpha males, existentialism, cigarettes, and babes. There are no berets, thankfully, but there are ample shots of Gilles gazing wistfully or contemplatively into the distance. Much to its credit, the film is especially insightful in its depiction of Gilles’ friend, sometime girlfriend, Christine (Lola Créton) who falls in with some Italian agitprop filmmakers and, as a woman also devoted to left politics, gets stuck with the drudge work, always asked to show her commitment by answering phones or doing dishes. It’s an observant depiction of Christine, and it rings true in the most depressing way imaginable. Privacy, autonomy and intimacy certainly seem to be in short supply for all of the characters in this world of all-consuming solidarity politics: even love scenes usually take place outdoors or in a hastily stolen pocket of privacy in an otherwise crowded and demanding world. American viewers a little short on the details of French politics of the time period might find the film confusing, but even more unfamiliar might be the idea that the interplay of philosophical ideas and real life is essentially dramatic.
However, like Assayas’ other films, Something in the Air is a stylish, often self-reflexive house of mirrors. Filmmaking and its implications appear often in his work, as they do here. Assayas’ breakout film, the oddly discursive Irma Vep, memorably dealt with a director going mad and unable to complete his latest film project.
A happy (if that’s the right word) ending is suggested by Gilles going to work as an assistant on a drecky film. We know the real end of this story because we know that Assayas became a great filmmaker, but something more complicated and disturbing may be suggested here, too: This is the end of May after all, the end of youth and its possibilities. The realization that convictions and fulfillment are often two very different things and can rarely run as peaceful parallels—if we’re lucky enough to be able to encounter or accommodate them at all.
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