He’s been something of a critical favorite for a while now, but after making the hugely acclaimed “Summer Hours” and the TV miniseries/theatrical marathon “Carlos” within a few years of each other, French filmmaker Olivier Assayas has firmly cemented himself as one of the more exciting directors in world cinema. And to celebrate the success, Assayas has decided to look back, returning to the autobiographical milieu of his international breakout “Cold Water.” But while that film, a teen romance set in the early 1970s, was a rather intimate, small-scale film, Assayas has come up with something much grander with “Something In The Air” (or “Apres Mai”).
On the outskirts of Paris in 1971, the spirit of May 1968 still lingers in the air, not least for high-school student and aspiring artist Gilles (Clément Métayer) and his friends Alain (Félix Armand), Jean-Pierre (Hugo Conzelmann) and Christine (Lola Créton, who starred in this year’s “Goodbye First Love,” directed by Assayas’ partner Mia Hansen-Love), who spend their time (at least when Gilles isn’t hanging out with his girlfriend, Carole Combes’ Laure) volunteering for leftist papers, protesting and generally planning the revolution.
But when Laure breaks up with Gilles to leave for London, and a protest prank goes horribly wrong, Gilles and Christine (who’ve just become a couple themselves, and not coincidentally share their names with the protagonists of “Cold Water”) head to Italy, Gilles gradually falling out of love with painting and in love with filmmaking, while Alain, who joins them, falls for an artistic American dancer, Leslie (India Salvor Menuez).
Assayas has been upfront about the autobiographical nature of the project – he, like Gilles, was involved in leftist politics as a teen, and like Gilles, was the son of a TV screenwriter father, who after initially rejecting the idea of moving into film, ended up going into the family business. It’s these aspects of the film that work the best, as we see Gilles become increasingly disenchanted with painting, then drawing, then politics, and falling under the spell of the silver screen, initially believing that traditional filmmaking is bourgeois, before ending up as a PA on the set of a science-fiction film involving cavemen and Nazis.
It’s the proverbial Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and it’s the most enjoyable and convincing stuff in the film – watching Assayas’ surrogate evolving into the germ of a filmmaker serves us a reminder of the director’s other strong behind-the-scenes moviemaking portrait on “Irma Vep.” It helps that first-timer Métayer warms up the more the film goes on – initially somewhat blank, he engages more with the smaller, domestic aspect of the film.
Which isn’t to say that the political side of things is a loss. In places (and in part thanks to the immaculate, but possibly a little overladen production design by Francois-Renaud Labarthe, and the general attractiveness of the cast) the film can sometimes feel like an Urban Outfitters photo shoot paying tribute to the revolutionary spirit of the early '70s. But it’s more of a tale of someone turning away from this kind of politics, rather than embracing it, and Assayas is detailed both in his depiction of the issues (workers’ rights, for instance), and in the way that the left of the 1970s became increasingly disillusioned with communism, some leaving entirely, some growing more militant (hence the somewhat gratuitous car bomb at the film’s end, although being gratuitous is sort of the point…).
Content aside, the film’s something of a triumph for Assayas as director, which won’t come as a huge surprise to fans of his work. Reteaming with regular DoP Eric Gautier (“Into The Wild”), who skipped “Carlos,” virtually every frame of the film is gorgeous in a sun-dappled kinda way, a seemingly light-as-a-feather handheld camera telling the story with immense clarity, without ever becoming showy. Structurally, it’s also wonderfully loose, effortlessly shifting away from Gilles to side-characters without ever making them feel extraneous.
The major problem however, is that most of the characters aren’t terribly interesting. Of the young leads, only one, Armand, is older than 20, and most are in their first acting roles. Assayas seems to have cast as much for look, and for an evocation of the period, as anything else, but sadly most of the actors (bar Métayer and the more experienced Créton) struggle to make much of an impression, falling into a kind of bland prettiness.
Not that they’ve got much to latch onto, with the female characters in particular being severely underwritten, serving only as tools with which to define Gilles or Alain. The storyline involving Laure, who’s seemingly meant to be Gilles’ One True Love, is particularly malnourished, and when it pays off with the film’s final shot it’s hard to care all that much.
It’s a shame, because there’s so much to like about the film, and it’s a mark of Assayas’ skill that it's a hugely engaging watch despite the blankness of the characters. It looks great, it sounds great (the film’s full of tracks from the era by Syd Barrett, Nick Drake, Soft Machine, Kevin Ayers and cameo-ing modern day British folk musician Johnny Flynn), it’ll inspire a hundred magazine photo-shoots, and it’s got plenty of substance. But we had our fingers crossed for the picture to be Assayas’ crowning achievement, but it seems we’ll have to wait a little longer. [B]