Returning to feature length filmmaking after his brilliantly dynamic 2010 mini-series Carlos, Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air (Après mai, 2012) deals with the coming-of-age story of young French student Gilles (Clement Metayer), who is torn between his political convictions and personal ambitions in the wake of the political turmoil of the Spring of 1968. Part-sentimental education and part-road movie, the film aspires to present a portrait of an era – as broadly as possible.
Gilles, as an artist, is mixing with kids who are emboldened by the new atmosphere and take on the state with graffiti attacks on the school. When a security guard is put in a coma, Gilles and his friends decamp to Italy to lie low. Everywhere they go they meet radicalism; in workers collectives, in the cinema where cooperatives make films about the struggle, at parties where hippies sing protest songs and trippy guys declaim about Buddhism and in the nightclubs which use Gilles agitprop art as a backdrop.
While this is going on, Gilles also has two romances to work through; one with the devoted and politically maturing Christine (Lola Créton), the other with his artistic muse, the more wayward Laure (Carole Combes). The main issue with Something in the Air is that we never truly engage with the characters. It’s not only within the film’s political discourse where Assayas struggles to make some of the trite words spoken sound even reasonably convincing – even the more straight forward dialogue is delivered in a dead-pan manner to characters who same determined not to look interested.
Of course part of this is a problem inherent in depicting May in 1968. Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003) was a similar catastrophe. The sense of time is faithfully created with everyone smoking cigarettes all the time, a soundtrack of some great and not always obvious songs (although coffee shops in the 60s all seem to have had Them playing) and shiny vintage cars. Everyone is far too pretty and beautiful, with real life merely a backdrop. Assayas tries for balance, allowing a feint critique of his characters, but ultimately one is left with the impression that you’re watching an advert for youthful radicalism, rather than a depiction.
The press notes for the film talk of the present generation living in an ‘eternal present’, with no sense of history or purpose. This could well be the case, but on the evidence of his latest effort, it would appear that Assayas’ nostalgia is misplaced – and, more importantly, cinematically uninteresting. Something in the Air is Merchant Ivory for Trotskyites – yet in the wake of the Pussy Riot trial, it may be a little circumspect to write off the younger generation as apathetic clones just yet.
The 69th Venice Film Festival runs from 29 August-8 September. For more of our Venice 2012 coverage, simply follow this link.