Sometimes the use of a song makes a movie or provides the perfect capper that resonates throughout the work. For Something In the Air it’s the aptly titled slow burn by Kevin Ayers: “Decadence” (Listen to it here). In fact, the entire soundtrack for this film is sheer brilliance, culled together by the director himself, Olivier Assayas. This was his soundtrack; it’s the alternative rock of his generation coming of age in a tumultuous France, and it goes deep beyond the usual culprits you would expect on a soundtrack for a film set in the early 1970s. OK, there’s Syd Barrett and Nick Drake, but for each of those selections there’s Dr. Strangely Strange and Soft Machine, Ayers’ band with Robert Wyatt. It’s not just about suiting the era so that the majority can relate. It’s about intimacy. Most of all, and especially in the case of “Decadence,” it’s about echoing the tragic themes of idealistic dreams turned hollow in the face of decadence.
With Something in the Air, Assayas has pulled together a film that floats on an indulgent air of nostalgia but also has the hindsight of decades worth of growth. As he has matured as a more subtle filmmaker, he has also matured as a man. He tackles a mighty subject that exists beyond the idealistic youth of his former self presented as Gilles (a brooding Clément Métayer). The film’s French title Après mai (changed to Something in the Air for English-language consumption) means “After May.” It’s a pity to lose the original title in translation, as it alludes to the May 1968 Marxist-inspired riots in Paris that nearly dismantled the economy and government. Set up with the title card “1971, not far from Paris,” the film shimmers with a relevance to the universal age between high school and adulthood while offering an impactful testament to a generation searching for purpose.
Assayas’ talent for amping up the scenes of conflict in his masterful miniseries Carlos is on full-display during an early demonstration where protestors show up in helmets and armed with bats. They hardly state a single phrase when police rush them, firing tear gas canisters and swinging batons from the backs of motorcycles. After the violent dispersal of the protest, the first resonantly powerful moment key to appreciating Something in the Air arrives during a reading of Gregory Corso’s “I am 25.” Below the incandescent leaves of trees on a brilliant afternoon in a forest, the protagonist’s fair-weather girlfriend Laure (an ethereal Carole Combes, making her feature debut) gives Gilles a copy of Gasoline. Gilles reads from one of several pages she has bookmarked for him (I remove the author’s original emphasis on the first line here, as he does not read it as it’s written):
“I hate old poetmen.
Especially old poetmen who retract
who consult other old poetmen
who speak their youth in whispers,
saying:—I did those then
but that was then
that was then—”
This may well be foreshadowing of by the director, looking back at the vessel of his youth gone by: Gilles, who is about to live these tumultuous events as both frustrated cog in an unstable France but also a young man seeking his path. At first, his drive seems to fall in line with the progressive, if privileged, youth embracing Marxism to fight for workers’ rights and denounce capitalism. He passes the slow minutes in a high school class carving the anarchist A into his desk while the professor pontificates on Pascal. After dismissal he runs outside the school’s front gate to sell subversive newspapers to classmates. Occasionally, the film offers passing, wry moments that reveal angry disagreements between Maoists and Trotskyites.
Lest you think this is some stale nostalgia piece stuck in the past, the film does offer a resonance beyond time. This about a universal state of growing up that could apply to anyone entering adulthood with a conscience. A meeting of these young revolutionaries recalls fissures between the young idealists who recently fronted the anti-Capitalist Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S. With nary a manifesto, the movement soon imploded on itself, as business for stock brokers, big banks and corporations ultimately and mockingly boomed during the so-called recovery of the Great Recession of 2008. Unemployment still remains high and workers’ rights continue to be whittled away.
By the time this film picks up, the May 1968 riots are three years in the past. When do idealist good intentions turn to flagrant, empty violence? Something In the Air soon makes it clear, as a tense scene of mob vandalism at the school ends up having very real consequences for Gilles and his accomplices, and they find themselves on the run. If the troubling times and their relevance have not begun to echo with irrelevance, enter the ladies in Gilles’ life and his indulgence in painting. His real struggles lie with two desirable women, Laure and the earthy, doe-eyed Christine (Lola Créton), and his aspirations of making it as an artist. Conflicting with his activism, his personal bourgeois troubles soon start to overshadow any political consciousness.
The film is suffused with vibrant scenes steeped in both melancholy and urgency. It doesn’t waste a minute of runtime, as it not only considers Gilles, but the fates of those he loves. There’s a disconnection with his father that feels bitter-sweet. When Laure makes her dramatic exit from the movie it echoes with an unresolved air of life pitching forward, as the weight of the world waits for its inevitable turn to mash us all to dust. Nothing is easily tied up in life, and Something In the Air makes no pretense to try to do so. It’s a beautiful patchwork of cinema, from lighting to costumes to music and set pieces that are far from aimless, as its thesis of life struggling to define itself resonates during each scene and the connections between them.
Assayas offers this film not only as a chronicle of his memories growing up in a key era but as a cautionary tale that transcends any specific generation. Though Gilles ultimately comes to terms with his art in a brilliant closing scene that ends with the swelling synth and the calmly plucked electric guitar draped in decadent reverb by Ayers, we all know how our hero turned out. Ayers sings it best as a wall of dreamy guitars swell and shimmer alongside his morose baritone: “To live I have to die.”
Something in the Air is in French with English subtitles, runs 122 minutes and is unrated. It opens this Friday, May 31, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, where I was invited to a preview screening for the purpose of this review. The film also opens in South Florida at the Cosford Cinema, in the University of Miami Coral Gables campus, and in Fort Lauderdale at the Cinema Paradiso. The film is also playing nationwide and on demand.