Interview: Olivier Assayas, ‘Something in the Air’

Olivier Assayas fidgets endlessly. On the finer nuances of 1970s radicalism, the French director swivels around with unflappable urgency and a staccato delivery to his response. Such as the characters in his semi-autobiographical movie, Something in the Air (2012), Assayas exudes this infectious youthful dynamism, coupled with a profound understanding of leftist politics. While not exclusively a sequel to his unruly examination of teenage unrest, Cold Water (1994), Something in the Air assesses the coming-of-age genre during a time of left-leaning apathy. Following the official release of his latest film, Assayas sat down with Tom Watson to discuss music, ‘Situationist International’ theory and the death of storytelling.

Tom Watson: Following on from your last project, Carlos, did you find it almost restricting returning to a more traditional narrative format?

Olivier Assayas: After Carlos, you couldn’t go much further in scope. I knew I had to downsize, which I did quite radically. But I still wanted to deal with something thematically similar. Carlos was about the 70s but more the dark side of it from a contemporary perspective. I was dealing with facts about the geopolitics of that time that were not readily accessible but we can redefine today. So, I think it was interesting, stimulating at least, to make a movie about the 70s from a completely different point of view.

TW: You’ve publicly emphasised that Something in the Air is predominantly based on “autobiographical anecdotes”. Were there elements of situationist theory that helped you connect these anecdotes?

OA: It’s very difficult to say. Movies have this privilege of being almost a documentary art form. To me, there’s two ways about it. One way, situationism is part of the intellectual landscape of the protagonist, Gilles. It’s what somehow helps him survive the 1970s. He reads Debord, which guides him through the situationist landscape. I too was totally in to whatever Debord was writing about on society at the time then as I am now. So it’s also a way of having a bridge of the Gilles of 1971 and myself today.

TW: It’s interesting that Debord chose to bind his first publication in sandpaper so it would destroy anything that surrounded it.

OA: (Laughs) Yes, I have that book. I can say that the way I approached Something in the Air had to do with Debord. But Debord is both simple and complex. He seems to be simultaneously the same individual but also doing things that a radically different. Maybe Something in the Air isn’t influenced by Society of the Spectacle (1973), or the Debord of 1961 who thought that “All art must be suppressed”. But maybe more of the late 50s Debord when he was making movies like Sur le passage, which are concerned with memory, the reminiscing of the fire and beauty of youth, which is patronised in Something in the Air.

TW: At what of production were you during the Occupy movement, that must have had an overriding influence on Something in the Air.

OA: It was just before we started producing it. I was in New York and visited Occupy Wall Street and it almost brought tears to my eyes. It was amazing. Its like all of a sudden there was something that had to do with the radical energy of the 70s. It felt like a collective faith when all of a sudden you opened the door and everybody rushed in. Everybody had something to say. It became almost a forum where all the repressed energies under the surface of society had a way of just blowing up. It seemed to coincide with what I was hoping to relay in Something in the Air.

TW: Did the actors find it hard to understand or portray the politics that you grew up around?

OA: That really was the toughest part. I mean, you really had to be there. If you weren’t there, able to absorb the crazy complexities of it, it’s impossible to understand. The politics of the 70s felt crazy at the time, but only if you understood them. Now, with the perspective of time, they are crazy on a level where you can’t reconnect with them. Its difficult to imagine a French society where you have three different political groups in a single high school. Trotskyists, Maoists, anarchists; all discussing the fine prints of Marxist theology of the early 20th century. How are you to transcribe that and give it to teenagers of today?

TW: Did you ever expect to return to the characters of Gilles and Christine?

OA: I always thought one day I would return to their story. I wanted to make not exactly a sequel but a companion piece to cold water. But it’s interesting mentioning the film set as that isn’t exactly where it ends. It’s where many view the film finale to be. But the film ends with the resurrection of love. He walks off the film set, he turns his back observing the option to work in the industry. He then walks into a cinema where he watches an experimental film, which resurrects something in Gilles. Cinema can bring him back to his most intimate emotions and frustrations.

TW: Finally, James Caan recently said “Today’s movies can’t live up to the 70s in storytelling”. Do you agree?

OA: If we discuss American cinema of today (specifically mainstream, Hollywood cinema), to me, it’s striking how bad the writing is. I don’t mean in terms of imagination. I mean some of it is very ambitious and complex. But I think there’s an inability to tell a story in a solid way. People think that writing functions the same way as technology works; with rules and techniques. But also there is this postmodern ideology that considers the narrative form is passé. I don’t have that relation with postmodernity. I think that we are in a position to start from scratch. Instead of being involved with re-digesting stuff that has been done in the conventional sense, you can take your camera and just film a tree. That would give more interesting to me.

To read our review of Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air, in cinemas now, simply follow this link.

Tom Watson