French director and former film critic Olivier Assayas' Something in the Air comes on the heels of his universally acclaimed deconstruction of 1970s terrorist Carlos "the Jackal", 2010's Carlos. His reversion to a more modest, "classical" French mode of filmmaking after that expansive epic (commissioned as a five-hour television film, but existing as well in a163-minute film version) has been welcomed with some dismay and disappointment. Unwarranted ones, I find, since the openly autobiographical Something in the Air is a mirror image of Carlos in its grounding in a specific time period, the early 1970s, in its infatuation with the possibilities of reinvention brought on by the sweeping revolution of youth culture and activist protest.
Just as Edgar Ramírez's Carlos was a narcissist looking for 15 minutes of fame rather than for a cause to devote himself to, the hero of the new film, art student Gilles (Clément Métayer), is someone who is trying clothes on for size, experimenting with possible futures to see what will fit best. We meet him at a 1971 violent demonstration, a high-school activist still riding the coat-tails of the idealism of the May '68 riots, caught up in the edgy thrills of protesting against the bourgeois state of things while going home to create his paintings and drawings in blessed peace at his TV producer dad's country house.
Such is the persistent, gentle irony of Something in the Air, whose original French title - Après mai, "after May" - seems to be more to the point. It's a film about what remained "after May", about the left-overs of the revolution that never quite happened, about those who bought into it and held on to it, out of desperation or lack of alternative, who kept on believing they could truly change the world only to find it was all but a dream. In his entire coterie of high-school friends, Gilles is probably going to be the one kid who, by never fully engaging, truly escapes all traps and creates his own path.
Mr. Assayas' film may meander somewhat aimlessly for most of its length, but it's precisely that aimlessness that gives it heft and gravitas, the push and pull that sees these idealistic art-school kids, drunk on their own smarts, commit to utopias whose impossibilities they can't quite fathom. Like them, it's a film drunk on its own heightened romance, its life-affirming celebration of coming of age in such an interesting time uneasily mixed with a bitter-sweet nostalgia for what never truly happened, cleverly underlined by DP Éric Gautier's roaming steadycam, occasionally Renoirian in its carefree, bucolic compositions, and by Mr. Assayas' own impeccable choice of musical illustration. A minor work Something in the Air may be; but it's an affecting, heartfelt one that touches a chord.
Cast Clément Métayer, Lola Créton, Félix Armand, Carole Combes, India Salvor Menuez, Hugo Conzelmann, Martin Loizillon, André Marcon
Director and screenwriter Olivier Assayas; cinematography Éric Gautier (colour); designer François-Renaud Labarthe; costumes Jürgen Doering; editors Luc Barnier, Mathilde van de Moortel; producers Nathanaël Karmitz and Charles Gillibert, MK2 Production in co-production with France 3 Cinéma and Vortex Sutra
Screened May 7th 2014 (DVD, Lisbon)