Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air (French title Apres Mai) is a wistful, but wholly unsentimental look back at that high school age when you’re smart enough to know the world is falling apart and still naive enough to think you can do something about it. It’s 1971 near Paris and a teacher is quoting Pascal to his class: “Between us and heaven or hell there is only life, which is the frailest thing in the world.” One of the students, Gilles, scratches an anarchy symbol into his desktop. He has no idea yet how fragile life can be. He’s at the very beginning of it, but he isn’t yet sure what he wants to do with it. Assayas is remembering the fear of that uncertainty, but also embracing the freedom.
The late 60s and early 70s were a time of turmoil and Gilles is caught up in it. Fueled by leftist ideals, he challenges his oppressive government with acts of vandalism that turn to violence. At the same time he simply wants to make art and make girls. He’s literally caught between a beautiful artist and beautiful activist – one of many exhilarating conflicts of potential – and he has his whole life ahead of him to work it out.
Not that it matters, but I’m guessing from what I know of Assayas’ background that Something in the Air is well-rooted in autobiography. Assayas was around the same age as Gilles in 1971 and also helped his ailing father (Jacques Remy) on TV scripts for a detective series based on Georges Simenon’s Maigret character as Gilles does in the film. Tied together with wonderful bits of period music ranging from Syd Barrett and The Incredible String Band to Captain Beefheart and Soft Machine, Something in the Air has both the longing veneer of memory, but also the clear-eyed urgency of the now. That’s ultimately Assayas’ best trick, taking the golden-lit past and making it somehow feel as if its happening in this moment.
Something in the Air is of a piece with Assayas’ wonderful Summer Hours as it grasps at fleeting feelings, but at the same time it’s charged with the revolutionary fervor and energy of Carlos. It’s a strange mix, but it works. Somehow, Assayas weaves his threads together into a narrative that moves, but is open-ended and doesn’t feel forced or artificial. His likable lead Gilles (played by shaggy-haired and open-faced newcomer Clément Métayer) is almost passive, but he never really flounders. He moves from one thing to the next like a guide, leading Assayas (and the audience) back through choices made and unmade, observing the path along which the future transforms into the past.
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