Something In The Air (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Artificial Eye) Running time: 122 minutes approx.
May 1968 and a protest by disenfranchised students of Nanterre University in Paris, sparks the infamous nationwide revolt. Three years later Gilles (Clément Métayer) is a young artist who is also heavily involved in a political student movement that still believes revolution is necessary. After a security guard is seriously injured during a retaliatory strike Gilles and his girlfriend Christine (Lola Creton) are forced to flee to Italy to lay low, where Gilles finds his political ideals challenged by the differing attitudes of his fellow European rebels.
The original French title of this latest offering from writer/director Olivier Assayas is Après mai or After May, a direct reference to the aforementioned student riots of May ’68. No doubt the significance of this title would have been lost on us Johnny foreigners hence the more topical alternative Something In the Air (the title of the 1969 classic by one hit wonders Thunderclap Newman). A semi-autobiographical tale, Assayas takes us back to this pivotal period in recent French history with an authentic period piece that is resplendent in its lovingly recreated set pieces, fashions and trippy soundtrack of late 60’s psychedelic rock, taking in such luminaries as Syd Barrett, Soft Machine, Captain Beefheart and Incredible String Band. Groovy!
Offering a heady mix of self discovery films such as The Dreamers and agitprop biopics like The Baader Meinhoff Complex, we open pretty much on fire with a brutal confrontation pitting the teen protestors against the might of the local police who indiscriminately open fire with the tear gas and batter anyone in the vicinity with their batons. The picture of one such battered victim with his face a bloody mess becomes a symbol for the protesters, while showing the rest of us that not many lessons were learned from the ’68 riots. Naturally this provokes the kids to retaliate, which is where the journey for Gilles really begins.
His girlfriend Laure (Carole Combes) isn’t a revolutionary like Gilles and breaks his heart by announcing her departure for London. Not to worry as his partner in crime Christine is interested and they bond on many a protest mission. The group is forced to split when one member Jean-Pierre (Hugo Conzelmann) is charged with the injury to the security guard despite being innocent. Gilles and Christine head for Italy where they meet some radical filmmakers who espouse the virtues of using film to tell the truth to the people to counter the media’s lies. As an artist Gilles disagrees with using art to send political messages, marking the start of separation between him and Christine.
As Gilles travels around Europe he finds that not everyone is so politically motivated and simple pleasures like music, drugs and sex are higher up on the agenda of the youth than fighting the system. So, he goes home and gets a job with his father (André Marcon), a TV director, which doesn’t end too well. By the time he reconnects with his old friends it seems the revolution is pretty much over. At least he’s got his painting.
It would appear that Assayas has a lot of memories he wants to share with us but in some ways it feels like it should have been told across two films. This is because it opens with a distinctly aggressive political slant as it recaps the continuing unrest between the youth and the adult establishment but this soon gives way to an elegiac travelogue of 1960’s Europe with Gilles suffering blows to both his love life and his political ideals along the way. Both make for interesting viewing and while they are intertwined the key factors of the first half that begat the fleeing to Italy are subsequently forgotten until late in the final act, as though they never mattered in the first place. It’s not necessarily an incongruous adjunct as it sounds but it certainly gives the impression of two wildly opposing universes that are never destined to meet.
One are where the film is lacking is in drama. Outside of the first forty five minutes everything suddenly becomes a series of incidents that just roll along one after another. We get some hope when a country house catches fire during a party while the partygoers are all spaced out on heroin, but this – pardon the pun – is quickly extinguished, along with the initial political fire that galvanised our protagonist in the first place.
As mentioned above the film’s aesthetic is to be marvelled at. The attention to detail and the faithful recreations of early 70’s Europe on every front helps immerse the viewer fully into the world of yesteryear. The use of soft focus lenses and muted colour pallets help illustrate the dreamy sense of fondness Assayas has of this period and no doubt others of his age have too. The beauty is in the minutiae and one can feel Assayas has committed himself more in this film than many of his others while creating a story that he hopes others can relate to.
In choosing his cast, Assays has ensured that they are equally as credible blending in with the sights and sounds of 1971, and not modern looking types who stick out like a sore thumb. That said Clément Métayer’s floppy fringed mop could easily be a modern hairstyle. Thankfully he equips himself well as the main lead, switching neatly between angry young political upstart to sensitive artist receive a rude awakening in life. Lola Creton as Christine is a great sparring partner for Gilles as is Hugo Conzelmann as Jean-Pierre, but it has to be said, Carole Combes as Laure could have been replaced with a plank of wood which would have been more effective.
It is not unfair to suggest that Assayas sails very close to the self–indulgent winds with Something In The Air but he remains just enough on the right side to create an inclusive, evocative and authentic cinematic memoir.
5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
2.0 Stereo LPCM
Interview with Director Olivier Assayas
Rating – *** ½
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