[5 June 2013]
In one of many pulse-racing scenes in Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air (Après mai), a cadre of radical-minded teenagers infiltrate their high school at night. Armed with agitprop posters and cans of spray paint, they cover the walls with dire portents of fear and action. Assayas leaves music out of it, but the camera almost sings as it follows their set, purposeful faces. What they’re doing with the slashing black paint and angry imagery is not quite art and not just politics.
The setting is France, 1971, and these kids are still breathing the fumes of the country’s great countercultural tumult in May 1968. In a few years, teenagers will be focusing on hedonism for its own sake, but for now, all of their rebellion and drugs and sexual exploration still seem to have a purpose.
Or at least, Gilles (Clément Métayer) finds one. Quiet and mop-haired, he spends half of his time churning out paintings and sketches and the other half selling underground magazines and trying to help the broad-based struggle. Like any teenager, he’s brimming over with romance and can’t decide what to do with it all. He has one girlfriend, the enigmatic Laure (Carole Combes), who gives him thoughtful critiques of his work and also her own poetry chapbooks. After she heads off to London with her family, he is drawn toward the more serious-minded Christine (Lola Créton), who takes a different view of the arts, that they should exist to further the revolution. All else is just bourgeois nonsense.
This division between politics and art, symbolized by the two equally beautiful actresses, is one of the more simplistic elements of Assayas’ film, which seems more interested in exploring each of those viewpoints than in trying to bring them together. After the graffiti raid on the school, the teens are chased by a gang of security guards. Later, Christine is casually damning: “They’re SAC fascists,” she spits, referring to the far-right Gaullist militias. That’s all it takes for those men to be damned in the eyes of these self-styled revolutionaries. Next thing we see, they’re attacking the guards with Molotov cocktails. Afterward, Gilles and Christine need to clear out of town for a while, and their wandering comprises much of the film’s storyline.
Easygoing Gilles never comes off as the instigator in these actions, but he’s far from passive, sharing with his classmates an impulse towards change and revolt. Assayas doesn’t waste time trying to indoctrinate the audience regarding the issues. Specifics hardly matter; it’s the spirit of the thing that counts, the churning of the blood. The film is filled with scenes where the kids exchange talk, cigarettes, and bottles of wine while also printing fliers, debating tactics, and damning the ruling powers of government and corporatism. Everyone is pointed in the same direction of liberation, but there is little consensus about how to get there, or even what there is.
As in Assayas’ more sprawling and staccato rebel crime epic Carlos, we aren’t taken from point A to B to C, but rather tossed down a tumbling chute of frequently random-seeming events. As Gilles searches for some kind of meaningful activity in the summer after school, he tags along with a revolutionary film collective, then goes off to Italy. The counterculture being what it was at the time, he and his new friends find a seemingly endless supply of grand old houses where they hang out, drink wine and sketch nudes in the garden.
While not always purposeful, these scenes are some of Assayas’ most entrancing, constructed as seamless little dreams of mood and music. And so they suggest why Gilles’ mood bends more toward the sketching than the revolution. He doesn’t seem made for the role of fanatic, being too much the explorer. At one point he is criticized by a comrade for reading a book about the human toll of Mao’s Cultural Revolution: Doesn’t he know the book is just baseless accusations from a CIA stooge? Gilles’ casual curiosity infects much of the film itself, which has a tendency to wander far afield from any sense of story.
Assayas’ characters are wandering in much the same way. The further they get from the burning rage of May 1968, the harder it becomes for them to articulate what the revolution is supposed to mean. Infighting and schisms take over. Meanwhile, as the film’s enigmatic, oddly comic conclusion suggests, the rest of the population—at work and distracted—has been moving right along without them.