Sex, drugs, riots, and rock 'n' roll are just a few of the cultural elements within Olivier Assayas’ latest film, “Something in the Air.” Following high-school revolutionary Gilles (Clément Métayer) and his various friends, the filmmaker tracks burgeoning French political awakening and a coming-of-age story with a keen eye, basing much of the plot on his own life in the 1970s. Gilles wavers between radical commitment and more personal, artistic aspirations while also grappling with love and loss. We caught the movie at the Venice Film Festival and dug it, complementing the movie on its substance and sharp look.
In support of its screening at the New York Film Festival, Assayas sat down with us to talk about the way music shaped the film, his view on the Occupy movement, and a few movies he kept in the back of his mind during production. IFC will be handling its theatrical release, but in the meantime, check out the international trailer right here.
Music plays a prominent role in ‘Air’ for obvious reasons — what politically charged teenager isn’t obsessing over albums at that age? Featuring songs from progressive '70s psych-rock/psych-folk bands like Amazing Blondel, Tangerine Dream, Soft Machine and The Incredible String Band, Assayas has always been influenced by his favorite tunes but often found himself playing trial and error in the editing room, as the songs he was originally inspired by made their way into the film in other ways — thus including the actual songs felt redundant. His new film, though, was a different story. “Here there's no space between the music and the narrative. It's the music of those times: I wanted to have a Syd Barrett song, same with Nick Drake. That was the music that I actually listened to when I was drawing, so it's like they belonged there,” he said. The choice of tunes also reflected a bigger idea he wanted to put forth, a sort-of “tribute” to the 1970s. “In its own way I wanted it to represent the underground culture in the '70s. I knew I didn't want anything that was mainstream, I wanted to use stuff that people never use in movies.” The film also includes songs by Phil Ochs, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band and The Incredible String Band founder Robin Williamson.
Autobiographical Aspects & Protesting
It’s difficult to talk about the film without noting that it’s likely autobiographical — it’s centered on the exact decade that Assayas grew up in, and the lead character goes from revolutionary sprout to painter to filmmaker along the course of the movie. The filmmaker does admit that it is based off of his own life, but stresses that he eventually allowed ‘Air’ to veer off and become its own creature. “To recreate the mood of those times and to get it right, I used incidents of my youth because at least I was able to work on something solid. I kind of built the film from there, which means I constantly moved away from autobiography because you don't really do a biography on film. It's like fiction. When you write fiction you start from your own experience and you use your own emotions and that's what makes it genuine in a certain way,” he stated. As for whether he was involved with the various riots and protesting, Assayas had one simple answer. “You had to, there was no choice,” he declared.
Similarities To ‘Occupy’
Considering the film’s heavy emphasis on political disillusion and its damn-the-man spirit, its release comes at a rather appropriate time. When asked about the Occupy Movement, Assayas described how surprisingly comparable the protests were to what was going on in the 1970s. “It was so similar in many ways: the internal forms of communication, the suspicion of anything to do with the mainstream media, the completely non-ideological notion of self-regulation,” the director revealed. “But the main difference was that the '70s were utopian. There was a belief that wasn't about changing society, but turning it upside down. The Occupy Wall Street guys are much sounder and reasonable, they have very obvious demands that ultimately are things that any decent politician should be about. They're much more pragmatic in comparison.”
You could probably label Assayas as a film buff — something that could probably be applied to anyone who once worked at Cahiers du Cinéma — and he doesn’t disappoint with his specific influences for ‘Air.’
“I think the best movie made about the 1970s is 'The Devil Probably' by Robert Bresson. In a certain way it was an inspiration. When I look at the film it's really so much about what those years were about. It didn't feel that way at the time but in retrospect he nailed it. It has a poetic, abstract vision — and any movie dealing with the 1970s will have something to do with it.”
The next two aren’t specific movies, but filmmakers that Assayas tried to keep in his mindset while directing this film. “Even if the movie doesn't look like his work, another inspiration was Bo Widerberg ('Adalen 31' and 'Joe Hill,' the latter which there is a short clip of in the movie). He's a great forgotten filmmaker of the 1970s. He made amazing social films in this decade that were all set in very rural, pastoral landscapes and had an impressionistic approach to the filmmaking, very raw. He dealt with both politics and the beauty of nature,” gushed the director. “The other is Robert Altman. I rediscovered the early '70s movies he did and I was really impressed by his work. I'm not a fan of it all, but with stuff like 'Thieves Like Us,' 'California Split,' 'McCabe & Mrs. Miller' there is a certain freedom of cinematic writing and style that is unlike a lot of the international filmmaking in that time.” Everyone is at least a tiny bit of an Altman fan.
"Something in the Air" screens during the ongoing New York Film Festival and will hit North American theaters in regular release in the spring of 2013.