aka APRÈS MAI
(Olivier Assayas, 2012)
I like how Assayas has followed his "International trilogy" - three films intent on our newly digital world, on technology and the way it has altered the very spaces around us - by, amongst other things, reaffirming an interest in the analogue world in his last three films. Something In the Air is set mainly in France, but with a few excursions across Europe and into Asia in the year or so following the student riots in Paris in May 1968. And though it is undeniably interested in the revolutionary politics of that period - there are plenty of scenes here where characters debate Trotskyism and the petit bourgeoisie - it is more of a rambling stroll across a young man's life at a certain specific point.
The element of autobiography is pronounced here; Gilles (Clement Metayer, slightly blank in a pretty way) is a young man from a comfortable background, who wants to be a painter or filmmaker. His father is involved in the production of adaptations of Simenon's Maigret novels (Assayas' father worked in tv) and when he gets sick, Gilles is torn between helping him, his own desire to be an artist, and his friends' political engagement.
Assayas chronicles all of this in ellipses, and what this film captures beautifully is the slow tumble of the events and people that form a life, the way figures disappear and follow their own threads, the way they come back, and the way some attachments are lasting. Assayas observes his young middle class characters as they become impassioned about the "struggle", but none of them ever really risk much through their graffiti and firebombing - they have nice homes and families, they still go to school and university, they travel seemingly casually. And yet the filmmaker avoids the easy satire of the situation.
More dangerous are their romantic relationships - Gilles loves his ex, Laure, throughout the film, even while he is with Christine (Lola Creton, whose neutral beauty matches Metayer's), and his friend Alain falls for an American girl at an Italian commune. Assayas shows us the peaks and dips in these affairs, all casual cruelties and youthful lust, but never ignores the way logistics and choices interfere with emotions - his people criss cross one another as their lives take them away and return them as each tries to decide what they want.
The film is excellent on the details - what it feels like to listen to Syd Barrett on vinyl in a bedroom-cum-studio. What it feels like to lie in the grass with a girlfriend in the hills outside Florence. The books people read, places they stayed, conversations they had; it all feels convincing and lived, and Assayas has always had a gift for atmosphere; Something In the Air is vividly evocative. If the acting is a little uneven, the technique on display is fabulous, and a terrific soundtrack helps enormously.
It is still somewhat unsatisfying. Assayas is telling a story about false starts, missteps and hesitations, and so his film seems purposely formless; for all that some moments are genuinely moving or poetic, the overall effect is odd. Compelling, but distant.