Something in the Air has Olivier Assayas back in autobiographical mode again, mirroring his 1994 film Cold Water in not only form but in the name of the protagonist used to represent Assayas, called Gilles in both. Retitled rather than translated from the French Apres Mai (After May,) Something in the Air is perhaps the more fitting title when its content is considered. The French title refers to the period in which the film takes place, after May 1968. The English one to a Thunderclap Newman song from roughly the same time. More than this though, it speaks of the films wandering quality. There is something is the air, but Assayas makes no great attempt to grasp at exactly what it is.
Assayas seems more uninterested in specifics in this film than ever before, making mood his focus throughout this wandering, nostalgic film. As much an evocation of a specific time and place as a story in itself, Assayas limberly follows his stand-in Gilles through Paris, Italy and London, as he meanders through his youth, accompanied by floating camera and carefully selected pop tinged soundtrack, as he tries to find his place within the world as Assayas saw it in the early 1970s.
His searchings see him involved in a graffiti and molotov cocktail attack upon his school, in attendance at leftist cinema screenings in Italy, and ducking in and out of youth liberation front parties and meetings, as he moves gradually away from these acts of collective outcry and navigates towards individual expression through the arts, particularly painting and filmmaking. Little is explained about Gilles, as the combination of a closed, quiet performance from first time actor Clement Metayer and deliberately vague writing from Assayas make for a purposefully shallow representative of character. Gilles, as avatar for Assayas, is fairly useless in learning much about the directors own past, his screen girlfriends struggling to read him as much as the audience. As a character in his own right though, he suffices.
This is the mode Something in the Air operates in. Vague and universal rather than directly insightful. Assayas offers fragments of his memory as his avatar and guide moves from place to place throughout the early seventies, scenes that are evocative of a remembered past. In a self-referential moment during one of the stronger scenes, a filmmaker at one of the leftist film club meetings replies “isn’t revolutionary syntax a petit-bourgeous affectation?” when asked by an audience member why his film is presented in such a simplistic format. Assayas seems almost to be anticipating derision of his films choice of aesthetics over depth. Recognition doesn’t exactly equate to address however. Most scenes, though vividly constructed, Assaya’s command over mise-en-scene characteristically great and the sense of place and time always razor sharp, lack anything as memorable as this one line.
Assayas starts in incendiary fashion with the firebombing of the school, but Something in the Air loses something of its impact as Gilles wanders on and on, Gilles’ growing detachment from activism means less of the more explosive material Assayas dealt with in previous film Carlos, though his gravitation towards art does produce some pleasing, more gentle moments. The final scene, as Gilles takes up his first cinematic work placement on a b-movie monster flick in London, sees a return to clarity, proving a fitting means of showing Assayas realisation of his comfort within the artistic world, as well as a hugely entertaining, well-staged scene. Gilles walking past amusingly campy animatronic dragons and golden bikini clad vixens, looking content and at home for the first time.
Comparable to Assaya’s previous Carlos in its 1970s setting and lapsed-revolutionary characters, and to Summer Hours which came before, in its floating camera, and nostalgic, sentimental mood, Something in the Air, by its finish feels less satisfying and complete than either. The haziness of Summer Hours worked because all that mood, all that sentiment, was set against a discourse of conflicting familial values, modernity vs. traditionalism. The subtext in Something in the Air is less tangible, and the superficiality more apparent. In Carlos, the commentary on the loss ideals feels more decisive. As an amalgamation of the two, Something in the Air shows smidgeons of what these previous films offered, but only matches their greatest moments in passing, before Assaya’s camera floats on or fades out before anything too climatic or incisive is allowed to occur.
This is intentional, Something in the Air is accomplished, but unassuming. It is entirely watchable, but difficult to get too excited about, though perhaps heightened by some personal experience of the place or period. For some it may be an emotive, searching evocation of a particular time, for others it might seem all a bit lifeless and in need of a greater degree of clarity of purpose. Others something in between.