Critical Dialogue: Something in the Air
In May 1968, Olivier Assayas was 13, just old enough to watch people a few years older than him take to the streets. When his generation came of age in the early Seventies, it accepted political radicalism as if it were an older sibling’s hand-me-down—which, in some sense, it was. “As early as the fall of ’68,” Assayas tells David Thompson in the March-April issue of FILM COMMENT, “leftists were already trying to restructure things and organize for the next revolution that was obviously coming up very soon . . . May ’68 was a failure, but the next one would come out right!”
Those who arrived later on the scene wore their siblings' convictions proudly, but they didn’t always seem to fit: for all the solemn secret meetings, pamphlets, and tentative stabs at revolutionary action, the ideals themselves, cut off from the point in time that had inspired and nurtured them, were getting murkier. In his new film Après Mai (retitled Something in the Air for its U.S. release), Assayas places us “after May” in more ways than one: we’re looking back at a generation for which May ’68 was already a vague memory, something to be re-created, though no one quite knew how.
That might be why Something in the Air, as Richard Brody put it in his New Yorker blog The Front Row, “has as much revolutionary substance and form as a gala dinner.” For Brody, Assayas’s lack of attention to the particular ideologies that shaped his youth is symptomatic of the director’s broader complacency regarding his own personal history:
[Assayas] films as if he has easy and untroubled access to the past, to history, to experience—there’s nothing wrenched about the film, no jagged edges, no sense of struggle with his own memory, with his conscience, with the changing times—which is precisely what gives the movie its vague, nonspecific air. It advances in the habitual, providing illustrations of the sorts of things that he and his friends did, without ever conveying the existential pressure of something that actually happened, in a single moment, in a specific and physical way, with a distinctive and unshakeable emotion.
Andrew Tracy admits in Cinema Scope that “Assayas’ clipped, elliptical briskness keeps his young devils (probably) at a remove that, this time, is more pictorial than dramatic; they’re objects to be regarded rather than scattered, imperfect, overflowing beings.” And yet for Tracy, Assayas’s deliberate, meticulous shallowness is as much a virtue as a flaw: it mitigates the “almost inescapably teleological imperative of all autobiographical fiction,” placing the emphasis instead on a series of “curious yet disinterested observation[s] of people in the moment.”
Those people include Assayas’s alter ego Gilles (Clément Métayer) and his two love interests: bohemian, self-destructive Laure (Carole Combes) and committed Marxist Christine (Lola Créton, the star of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye First Love)—the latter perhaps the young radical with the firmest foundation for her revolutionary ideals. Gilles himself participates in his share of rioting, vandalism, and property destruction, but he’s just as interested in representing the moment as he is in changing it: he starts the film an aspiring painter, ends it as an aspiring filmmaker, and spends the time between in a state of semi-detached flux. “Even [as] he’s churning out posters and leaflets,” Adam Nayman writes on Reverse Shot, “his painter’s eye is as much on the eye-catching graphics as the ideas they’re supposed to visually declaim, because Gilles is less an artist-revolutionary than an artist who is also a revolutionary.” He frets about letting his youth slip by, and at times it seems as if the film’s hazy, glowing, nostalgia-soaked visual style is not only a function of Assayas’s current distance from his past but also a representation of how Gilles sees his present.
If Something in the Air never conveys, in Brody’s words, “the existential pressure of something that actually happened, in a single moment, in a specific and physical way,” perhaps that’s because it is, at least in part, a reflection on what it means to live in a mode of “curious yet disinterested observation”—to live a life free of existential pressure, a life in which one is always just a little bit detached from the moment. A pictorial life, a vague life, an impersonal life, a life in which the world appears as something intensely beautiful but distinctly smoothed out, with few of Brody’s longed-for jagged edges. A life that goes by like a movie, viewed rather than lived, in which any moment of past time can be called back up and replayed with ease, but is never acted upon and never changed.
Something in the Air is often suffused with this sense of nostalgia for the present, but it just as often consists of what David Ehrlich at Film.com calls “flashbulb moments,” images that could only have been captured from a distance: “A white summer dress, a girl fitting into the crook of [Gilles’s] arm just so as she slept, another telling him not to watch as she walks out of his life, Assayas then allowing Gilles to do so via a crane shot that makes the memory relevant again by seeing it from an impossible remove.” Ehrlich equates Gilles’s detachment from his own present with a more universal feature of adolescence: the distance between the self and the world, and the search on the part of the self to find some corner of the world in which to act:
Through Gilles, Assayas personifies the sublime embarrassment of self-discovery, pitting the “me-ness” of the human experience against the independence of our infatuations, how much we wanted them to be ours forever, and how comfortable they seemed to be with the idea of existing on their own—how it all inevitably lead to that moment when you began to participate in your own life rather than just glomming on to the most beautiful ideas you could reach.
If Something in the Air is a complacent film, then Assayas’s is an especially restless sort of complacency: that of a detached observer wavering on the edge of action, or of a young man wavering on the edge of the world. Which might, more often than not, be the same thing.