Something in the Air

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Something in the Air
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

In May of 1968, the students of France banded together with the country’s workers to effect drastic changes to the very fabric of French society. In the aftermath of this uprising and its violence, the students continue to try to make their world a radical utopia in “Something in the Air.”

Robin:
This is an autobiographical work by French filmmaker Olivier Assayas in the days, months and years following the 1968 French revolution. Gilles (Clement Metayer) is an aspiring young art student with dreams of becoming a filmmaker. His friends, though, are more interested in the revolution taking place in Paris and in France. “Something in the Air” follows Gilles through this tumultuous time as he is steadily drawn to the art of filmmaking.

While Assayas does a fine job of putting you in the time – depiction of the violence taking place between the united students and workers and the Gestapo-style head busting gendarmerie feels real – he does not elicit convincing performances from his young stars. This may be, in part, due to the lack of acting skill or training by the film’s lead actors. Clement Metayer, as the director’s alter ego Gilles, lacks charisma and does not evoke any sympathy, as do the rest of the main players.

I have been following the comments of others that have viewed this obviously heart-felt (for Assayas) film. They tend to be polarized with some declaring “Something in the Air” to be the filmmaker’s masterpiece. Other opinions fall at the opposite end of the critical spectrum and declare the film a dog. I fall somewhere in the middle. The film looks good and captures the period feel of the time but the characters/actors fall far short of these qualities. I give it a B-.

Laura:
After the general upheaval of student protests and general strikes in May of '68, a spirit of revolution and exploration of political philosophies continued.  Writer/director Olivier Assayas ("Summer Hours," "Carlos") looks back on his own youth, embodied in the character of aspiring artist and filmmaker Gilles (Clément Métayer), when there was still "Something in the Air."

Or "Apres Mai," as the French title of the movie states more directly.  Assayas has gathered a large, mostly inexperienced cast to create a mural of mood, a time when idealism was paramount, at least until the members of a political group begin to drift into their own destinies.  It is striking to contemplate how much young people have changed, from serious citizens trying to make a difference, whether through politics or art, to the materialism which motivates today. "Something in the Air" is thought provoking, encouraging consideration of historical cycles, how the past shaped the present and just where we head today.

Gilles is probably the least radical among his group of friends, content to spend hours advancing his artistic capabilities (we see his work progress, from watercolor renditions of a girlfriend to the more abstract, into drawing and illustration).  The film opens with a brutal clash between students trying to demonstrate for political prisoners and the heavily armed police who quash the attempt with force.  But Gilles is perhaps more wrapped up in the departure of his love and muse Laure (Carole Combes), who is heading to England where she may or may not have another man.

He does partake with his friends in some postering and spray painting after hours at their school, but Jean-Pierre's (Hugo Conzelmann) ID is found in his abandoned backpack.  When the group retaliates, torching the security guards' shed, a man is injured and Jean-Pierre, who wasn't there, is arrested for the crime.  This event, happening at the onset of summer, sends the remainder exploring.  Gilles falls in with Christine (Lola Créton, "Goodbye First Love") until she splits off with an older group of Italian political filmmakers.  Alain (Felix Armand) falls under the influence of American diplomat's daughter Leslie (India Salvor Menuez), who wishes to study mystical dancing in Nepal (they only make it as far as Kabul).  Back home, Gilles resists his father's (André Marcon, "Rapt") attempt to get him into literary publishing, but pays attention when he says he's seen Laure's mother, afraid her daughter is on drugs.  Laure's fallen in with older guy Jean-Serge (Sylvain Jacques, "Son frère"), moneyed and fashionably decadent.  Gilles attends a party at their antique estate, a fever dream of drugs, music and bonfires.

Fire is a constant reference throughout "Something in the Air," beginning with that thrown Molotov cocktail.  Gilles presents a painting to Laure, then burns it, for her eyes only, foreshadowing her own fate.  A car is set on fire.  Leslie's hair is fiery red.  The music of the time is reflected by Assayas's own - Booker T. & the MGs, Captain Beefheart and Nick Drake.  Leslie explains the lyrics to Phil Ochs' 'Ballad of William Worthy,' playing in the background, by way of introduction.  She eventually returns home to study dance.  Christine finds herself shouldering the administrative and domestic chores of her lover's film collective ('They act on their convictions.  Could you do better?' she asks Gilles, perhaps trying to convince herself she's on the right road).  But it is Laure's aimless flitting which sets Gilles on his own true course, 'following' her to London and Pinewood Studios.

"Something in the Air" transports us to a dangerous time, but one where art and thought and experience presented hope.  Several days later, I'm still there.

B+
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