“Vive la révolution!” No single culture betters leftist subculture than the aged liberals of France. Many would refer to it all as misguided historic romanticism. But there are those like Olivier Assayas where their movies echo an intrinsic disconnection with conservative oppression. Assayas’ semi-autobiographical opus, Cold Water (1994), delved blind into the heady instability of teenage rebellion. The freedom Assayas shot encapsulated a period of sexual and political discovery unmatched by mainstream standards. Now, Assayas latest feature, Something in the Air (Après mai, 2012), elaborates on the thematic self-rule of Cold Water.
Set in the clamorous heat of the early 1970s, Assayas, again, seeks to capture the belligerency of Parisian youth in revolt. A group of depressingly attractive students allow their enviable desires and aggressive nature to guide them through a world of bourgeois dictated dissonance. After waging war with the local authorities, the sprightly free thinkers flee their desensitised Paris to Italy where they mingle with like-minded anarchist beauties. Drenched in hormones, they paint, experiment, discuss, innovate, make love, and, ultimately try to find their place in a society that suits their needs.
What Assayas (perhaps best known for TV miniseries Carlos the Jackal) seeks to achieve more than anything here is the disillusionment of youth in a post-WWII Europe. The film’s less-cryptic original title, Après mai, literally means ‘After May’ – referring to the events of May 1968 where the crux of the student uprising came to a bloody head. Assayas’ multitude of characters strive to find a sense of purpose during a time of social discomfort, but what they lack here is believability. They all seem too busy looking beautiful and young to care for any kind of coup d’etat. Meandering from city to city they discuss radical reform with the same expressionless disdain as any other temper-tantrum-teen.
Something in the Air wobbles endlessly; not only around disposable panning shots of well-spotted locations, but whether the students’ actions are justifiable or just plain childish folly. Much like other left-leaning cinema, such as Godard’s late 1960s/ 70s productions or even movies like The Dreamers (2003) and The Edukators (2004), Something in the Air plays with topical honey pots made to incite thought and discussion. Where Assayas falls flat is losing control of what he intends to portray. In one instance we have another autobiographical flowering of Assayas’ past and his transition from confused teen to career-focused man.
In another instance, we have a punked-up, psychedelic free-for-all where meaningless characters appear and disappear faster than the explosive spray from a petrol bomb. Again, no one depicts revolution like the French. But Something in the Air’s diluted acting standard and disconcerted narrative structure makes it almost too afraid to refresh revolutionary action, and too keen on appealing to sex-starved teens claiming their salad days are numbered.