Something in the Air (Après Mai)
Directed by Olivier Assayas
MK2, France 3 Cinema and Vortex Sutra, 2012
"Between us and heaven, hell or nothingness, there is only life, the most fragile thing in the world.” A philosophy teacher reads out this quote by the French thinker Blaise Pascal to a classroom of inert teenagers draped over their chairs. A few seconds later, you see the same youngsters running for their lives, pursued by riot police with clubs in the cobble-stoned streets of 1970s Paris. Something In the Air (Après Mai) is director Olivier Assayas’ ode to that period, and to his own coming of age in the immediate aftermath of the May 1968 uprisings, as the French title suggests.
Against the backdrop of the ‘70s, the director paints a flowing portrait of youth in all its incredible frailty and perseverance. Gilles, the lanky hero of the film, bears some resemblance to Assayas himself: raised in an affluent household in a Paris suburb with a father in the film industry and an ephemeral flirtation with violent left-wing groups.
This may explain why the movie errs on the side of being a whimsical retrospective rather than a feature film with a semi-coherent plot and a set of characters: Assayas is brilliant at recreating the atmosphere of the time, but he leaves his scantily-clad and loosely-sketched characters whimsically drifting around with a very meager sense of narrative.
As a great conjurer of context, Assayas has packed the film tight with cultural and historical references, ranging from the wonderful “Ballad of William Worthy” and tracks by The Soft Machine to the posters Gilles and his friends plaster the school with overnight and the authors they read. In fact, you can follow Gilles’ intellectual coming of age through the books scattered like clues throughout the movie: we see him buying Jean-Paul Sartre’s Maoist paper J’Accuse with change stolen from his father’s coat pocket; then, as he is driving down to Italy in a Volkswagen bus with a staunch band of Marxist filmmakers, one of them chides him for reading a critique of the Chinese cultural revolution (Les Habits Neufs du President Mao by Simon Leys). As Gilles’ skepticism with the humorless crew grows and he slips into a life of sun-drenched, naked hedonism, we glimpse a George Orwell book on his desk. Finally, in London where he works a day job on the set for a ridiculous blockbuster about Nazis and dinosaurs and soaks up experimental cinema at night, the last book we see him reading is on the Situationniste Internationale, the radical artist collective whose founder, Guy Debord, championed nihilistic individualism. Not entirely surprising: Assayas based this film on an earlier letter he had written to Alice Debord, the founder’s wife.
Gilles’ struggle to balance political engagement with art is reflected in his flirtations: while the sophisticated Laure leaves him, he is not sure about his feelings for the beautiful Christine, a relentless fighter for the working class. Laure ends up dead, Christine in the kitchen while her revolutionary filmmaker boyfriend discusses work on the patio and confuses feminists with lesbians. There are no easy answers.
It is difficult then not to laugh at the gravity with which Gilles, Christine, Laure and their friends take their search for political and creative outlets: spirit dancing, drip painting, petty disputes between militant fractions and casting rune dice for where to go next. To his credit, Assayas manages to follow their amblings with tenderness and respect, occasionally bringing the scenes to the point of simmering irony but never with too much of a bite.
This period and its dreamy generation has been rehashed a number of times in French cinema — occasionally steeped in nostalgia like Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, or pepped up with humor like Cédric Klapisch’s Le Péril Jeune. But rarely has the unrest and engagement of the time been taken up with such dedicated seriousness as by Assayas.
Despite its earnestness, the film suffers from poor character development, which is a serious shortcoming for a feature primarily centered on the development of its characters. Gilles and his friends remain remarkably understated and listless whenever they are not running from the police, their voices deadpan even when discussing their passions. They may be meandering, but they never believe themselves to be lost — this is where the film’s ode to youth reveals its limits: growing up involves growth pains, but there is no real discomfort and therefore no real tension in the film. The youngsters remain poised, even when jumping into the void.
One of the young radicals’ illicit posters shows a mummy with a safety pin through its mouth. It reads: “Youth that worries too often about the future.” This rings truer than ever today. With the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring at the back of their minds, today’s audience is left with the sense that any collective struggle is also first and foremost an individual one, and the same concerns return time and again, in varying forms, as time goes by.
Something in the Air (Après Mai) is currently playing the IFC Center. For more, see www.ifccenter.com.