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Zack Mosley [Film Festival 10.10.12] France drama

Olivier Assayas is not the most consistent filmmaker in the world. The word schizophrenic comes to mind. But his friends must have sat him down for an intervention after Demonlover and Boarding Gate, because he has been in fine form for three films in a row. Summer Hours and Carlos represent career highs, and Something In The Air (Apres Mai) continues the trend. Assayas' new film marks a refined return to the themes of youth-on-the-cusp-of-adulthood that the French writer/director explored in early-career films like Cold Water, Paris S'eveille, and Late August, Early September (yeah, I know, "youth" is a stretch). Like Cold Water, the story is a loosely autobiographical account of Assayas' late teenage years in Paris and abroad. The result is something immediate and personal, one of his most accessible efforts.

1971, three years after the May 1968 protests that saw 11 million French workers on strike. 17-year old Gilles and his friends are fashionably late to the party. Too young to be counted among the 11 million, too well-off to really represent the "workers", they fancy themselves revolutionary students anyway. They battle riot police, vandalize their school with graffiti, read books like "The Private Life of Chairman Mao", print and distribute left-wing propaganda, and contribute to the art scene through painting, writing and documentary films. But when an attack on a security office ends in Molotov cocktails and injured security officers, the situation in Paris get a tad heatscore. Gilles and his friends take off for a hedonistic trip to Italy, presumably on the bourgeoisie dime of their parents. Left to their own devices, the young revolutionaries soon drift their separate ways, withdrawing into art, love, and apathy. "I live in my fantasies. When the real world knocks, I don't answer", Gilles muses at one point.

I've taken a critical slant with the above plot description, but I think it's true to Assayas' intentions. These revolutionaries have their hearts in the right place, but they're confused and hopelessly naive. They can't agree on a common ideology, or how to go about achieving their political aims. Their individual goals are noble, but they stumble blindly into hypocrisy in their attempts to realize them. On a personal level, they don't know who they are or what they mean to each other. Their relationships burn intensely and then fizzle out. They're so busy curating their own identities that they don't have much time for anything else. (Sounds a bit like my generation, come to think of it.) This is refreshing, considering that most films about the late 60s/early 70s depict a time when people were mostly smiling on their brother, getting together and loving one another (right now). It's possible to view this film in that nostalgic and wistful light, but I imagine only those who lived through that particular moment in history will see it that way.

Gilles is a legitimately talented artist, and as his political passion wanes it appears that art might be his raison d'etre. At one point he burns one of his paintings, so only the girl he is madly in love with has seen it. Only an artist could come up with a notion as romantic as that. But Gilles betrays his own ideology once more. Having earlier called his father a hack for adapting Jules Maigret for a weekly television serial, the young hypocrite ends up working on a schlocky B-movie as the film concludes. The loosely autobiographical aspects of the story allow the viewer to project Gilles into a future as an Assayasesque filmmaker, ie. a celebrated artist, so make of that what you will. These are flawed characters, but anyone who has ever been young and restless can probably empathize. Youthful ideals are built on shifting sands, and there are many tempting reasons to sell out. I think Assayas is taking a hard look at himself and his generation and wondering what the fuck happened.

There's an interesting conversation about filmmaking halfway through the movie, a fundamental conflict in approach that is enriched by the context of Assayas' back catalogue. Gilles argues that revolutionary films require revolutionary syntax, while an older (and possibly wiser) documentarian argues that you can only get through to the proles in simple and direct terms. Assayas has been dabbling in "revolutionary syntax" since Irma Vep, which drew comparisons to Godard in its day. But his other experiments in revolutionary syntax (such as Demonlover and Boarding Gate) are less successful (OK, Demonlover is awful), so perhaps there's something to the argument that it's better to connect with something straightforward than to not connect with something experimental. This prole approves of that argument, at least in the case of this particular artist.

But before someone gets angry at me for misleading them here, let me clarify. Something In The Air is not exactly straightforward in the traditional Hollywood sense, and some viewers might not be on board with its tendency to meander. Narrative has never been Assayas' strong suit, he prefers ideas and themes and milieu. He will take scenic routes and detours on the way to his point, which is great if you're down for the ride. If not, there should still be enough here to justify a viewing on technical merits alone. The film features visceral action setpieces (the opening riot is astonishing), an impeccable attention to historical authenticity (check out that record collection!), an outstanding soundtrack (Thunderclap Newman conspicuously absent), and topless French women. If that's not enough to put your ass in a seat, you may want to take a long hard look at your ideology.

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