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Something in the Air

Posted by martinteller on May 20, 2013

It’s 1971, and Gilles (Clément Métayer) is a young anarchist, and also an artist finding his voice.  Revolution is messy, with clashing ideologies and lack of organization, and Gilles and his friends participate in unsuccessful, almost random acts of rebellion… jumping into a riot of hazy origin, defacing the high school with vague slogans.  After one of their shenanigans results in serious trouble, Gilles and his friend Alain (Felix Armand) take off for Italy… leaving the innocent Jean-Pierre (Hugo Conzelmann) to handle the mess.  With Gilles’s artistic girlfriend Laure (Carole Combes) off on her own thing and out of the picture, Gilles strikes up a loose relationship with the more political-minded Christine (Lola Créton), while Alain hooks up with the American Leslie (India Salvor Menuez).  As they float around discussing politics, their young hearts start wandering towards matters of love, art and identity… and Gilles develops an interest in filmmaking.

This semi-autobiographical film by Olivier Assayas is apparently a companion/follow-up/counterpoint to his earlier Cold Water.  Unfortunately I have yet to see that one, so comparisons and context will not be forthcoming in this review.

I found the film most effective in its portrayal of the French youth revolution.  The French title translates as “After May”, in reference to the May 1968 unrest in that country, a period of intense protest, rebellion, strikes and occupations.  It was a chaotic time of student uprising, and one that fizzled out due to disorganization and lack of a clear, consistent message.  A little Maoism here, some anarchy there, Trotskyism, Communism, Situationism, you name it.  It was a splintered and confusing mess, and the film eloquently articulates how scattershot it all was.  These kids are rebelling, and perhaps with good purpose, but they don’t know what they’re doing and there is no sense of consistent leadership.  It’s no wonder that they all eventually become disillusioned and disinterested.

But it’s not at heart a film about politics.  It’s more a coming-of-age tale, and Gilles learns to focus his energies and talents onto his art, examining and discarding different ideas, filtering out what has meaning to him.  It’s a pretty good performance by first-timer Métayer, a character with some sense of self in need of some direction.  There are also compelling turns by Créton and Menuez.  And I quite enjoyed the soundtrack, featuring some of my favorites, including Syd Barrett, Nick Drake, Tangerine Dream, and Booker T and the MG’s.  The movie has a bright, warm look to it, similar to the sunlight that bathes Summer Hours.

Although the rambling nature of the narrative suits the material — both the slipperiness of the politics and the looseness of the characters’ youthful wanderings — it does eventually get a bit tiring.  I was with the film for a good 90 minutes or so, but around that point I started getting a bit restless.  As the kids start to go their separate ways, the fragmentation and disconnect between the scenes becomes more bothersome.  I found myself wishing for a bit more focus, which does eventually come, but there is a section where I was ready for it to be over.

It’s not of one of Assayas’s best… in fact, among the few I’ve seen, I’d rank it as his least impressive.  But mainly because it lacks a certain distinction… it doesn’t feel especially fresh.  But there is some electricity to it (“something in the air”, you might say) and overall is a worthwhile experience, and solid filmmaking.  Rating: Good (74)


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