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Toronto: Olivier Assayas Discusses the Personal and Political Dimensions of 'Something in the Air'

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire September 16, 2012 at 1:03PM

Olivier Assayas discusses shifting gears after "Carlos" to direct the semi-autobiographical tale "Something in the Air."
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"Something in the Air"
Sundance Selects "Something in the Air"

Olivier Assayas' "Carlos" was a sprawling five-hour epic about the rise and fall of famed Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal. While the production experience didn't scare off the veteran French director from the challenges of historical fiction, he did feel the need to reduce his scale for his next project. "Something in the Air," Assayas' follow-up to "Carlos," recently won a screenplay award at the Venice film festival and played to similar acclaim in Toronto; it next arrives the New York Film Festival later this month. The movie takes place in 1971 and follows a handful of politically active teenagers dealing with the aftermath of May 1968.

The main character, struggling filmmaker Gilles (Clement Metayer), is an aspiring filmmaker whose eye-opening encounters with revolutionary literature and other radical ideas mirror Assayas' own experiences. While replicating a tumultuous period in French history, the movie also maintains an intimate feel that stays close to Gilles' evolving worldview. At Toronto, Assayas spoke to Indiewire about his decision to take on this personal tale post-"Carlos," why the early seventies stand out in his memories, and what he hopes to do next.

Olivier Assayas' "Carlos" was a sprawling five-hour epic about the rise and fall of famed Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal. While the production experience didn't scare off the veteran French director from the challenges of historical fiction, he did feel the need to reduce his scale for his next project. "Something in the Air," Assayas' follow-up to "Carlos," recently won a screenplay award at the Venice film festival and played to similar acclaim in Toronto; it next arrives the New York Film Festival later this month. The movie takes place in 1971 and follows a handful of politically active teenagers dealing with the aftermath of May 1968.

The main character, struggling filmmaker Gilles (Clement Metayer), is an aspiring filmmaker whose eye-opening encounters with revolutionary literature and other radical ideas mirror Assayas' own experiences. While replicating a tumultuous period in French history, the movie also maintains an intimate feel that stays close to Gilles' evolving worldview. At Toronto, Assayas spoke to Indiewire about his decision to take on this personal tale post-"Carlos," why the early seventies stand out in his memories, and what he hopes to do next.

ERIC KOHN: Initially, you wanted this to be a very small production.

OLIVIER ASSAYAS: Well, to me, it was very small-scale, with no professional actors, an extremely small movie about the social conditions in Paris, a vacation from "Carlos." But in the end it was not. It was very difficult and challenging in ways that I did not expect -- you know, recreating the period, recreating period set pieces, getting it right with extras. Just even formally reconstructing the concert in the university in Paris in 1971, it's very difficult, on every single level, just to get the band. You have to get the band right, you have to get the equipment right. Then you just have to recreate the live show. You know, it's a million details, but I didn't realize that there were so many minimal aspects that had to be fine-tuned. Like when we were recreating a [political] demonstration. There was a lot of research involved in casting each extra.

EK: How much of the movie actually correlates with experiences that you had?

OA: It all comes from an autobiographical place, but it evolved and went somewhere else. You don't do autobiography in films. You can be inspired by autobiography. You can somehow find a way of validating the veracity of what you're saying or what you're showing through your own process of your own memory instead of more basic research. But actually you begin with something that's autobiographical, but then you hand it over to actors, tell a story, so it becomes something else, hopefully broader, hopefully dealing more with your generation.

EK: So when you say you don't make an autobiographical film, you mean you didn't want to specifically retell your experiences. For instance, the character doesn't have your name.

OA: No, it's certainly not that literal. But a lot of the incidents are real, a lot of the characters are inspired by specific individuals. Even the dialogue with my father is pretty much the kind of conversation I could have had with him at the time.

EK: And the transition that the characters go through, I find to be particularly interesting because early on, it's very clear that they're anarchists. They're less excited by philosophical conversation than rallying calls and graffiti outings. By the end it's a much more nuanced investigation. Do you consider that to be a crucial aspect of your ideological evolution?
 

No one really has made a movie about May '68 that, to me, makes sense or really connected with the events.

OA: Well, it was, kind of, I'm not sure if it's the complete answer to your question, but certainly part of the process of writing the film was about also reminding that in the '70s and specifically in the wake of May '68, you had a very powerful anarchist strain in French Leftism, and now it's kind of gone. It's certainly a tiny minority, but I've always identified with that strain because also it always had to do with opposing the totalitarian politics of those years. There was a lot of tension between kids who were anarchist-influenced, and more structured political groups -- Trotskies, Marxists, and so on and so forth.

 EK: And how crucial is it then that these events take place three years after May '68?

OA: Well, I did not live through 1968, I was a kid, I was 13 years old. I mean, I was aware of what was going on, but it was very abstract. And then I was also living in the countryside, I wasn't in Paris. I mean, I visited Paris during that period, but I wasn't immersed in it. I don't think I could have managed to represent it in the ways that I managed to represent the '70s, which are still a very vivid memory for me. No one really has made a movie about May '68 that, to me, makes sense or really connected with the events. There are a few movies that deal with it in oblique ways, and fair enough, but it's a like all political events, it functions on a very complex tapestry of contradictions.

So you can't really represent it fairly from one specific angle. There are a lot of different angles. I mean, every single person that was involved in May '68 had a different story, had experienced something else. So, I think that May '68 in many ways was an actual revolution. What happened was extremely serious on a grand scale. The '70s, the aftermath, the ripples of May '68 were easier to grasp because it was about chaos, it was about this society where everything had to be questioned, where there were no values you could actually lean on or rely on. So, I'm looking at it through a very specific angle of high-school kids who are like half-adults and half-children. I mean, I chose specifically someone like Clement Metayer to play the part of Gilles because he has a sense of his childhood still, the child is still in him. And there is this naivete about high school politics.

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EK: Could your teen actors find any parallels in modern French politics?

OA: They don't trust politics. That's the difference. So they don't really understand. They are interested, they are curious, they want to learn, but they don't really relate to any serious politics because they are a generation that doesn't really believe in politics. But it's natural that they don't. How can you believe in politics in a world where politicians keep telling you that they can't do anything about anything? They can't do a thing about global warming, they can't do anything about the [financial] crisis, they can't do anything about the housing bubble -- I mean, you have that on TV all day a long. When you're a teenager, you listen to that. Well, how are you going to trust politics when those guys don't do a thing? How are you going to be able to do something yourself?

EK: Have you ever wanted to make a film that deals specifically with that juxtaposition between then and now?

OA: Well, I think that what I can share is my experience with the '70s because today, the few kids who have any kind of political hope tend to idealize the '70s, so this film is just intended to share my experience, to remind them that the '70s were great, but they were also very conflicted, they were complex, they were full of contradictions and they were certainly as dangerous or as difficult a time as any period since.
 
EK: The film ends with you -- or rather this character, your avatar - walking off the set of a B-movie and finding solace in experimental film. How did experimental film impact your view of cinema?

OA: As opposed to the global film industry, experimental film was in touch with the times. It was what young artists who were connected to whatever forces that were changing society at the time would be producing. So it was impossible at the time -- for good and bad reasons -- to identify with mainstream filmmaking in the same way that it was impossible to identify with mainstream TV or even newspapers. You know, you believe the values of the counterculture, you despise anything that was even remotely commercial, anything that had to do with exploitation, anything that had to do with profit, with evil. So the beauty of experimental film was that it was made with complete freedom, outside of the industry, by kids, by young men like yourself who had similar hopes and who somehow had a higher ideal.

As opposed to the global film industry, experimental film was in touch with the times.
EK: Then what made you return to narrative cinema for your own career?

OA: What brought me back to narrative cinema was my belief in representation. When so many would-be filmmakers of my generation went into narrative with these post-Godardian collages, for some reason it was difficult to express what it has to do with the moralities of the story. I believe in filming real life, filming real people, filming human textures with cinema. In the film, Gilles does not have his epiphany only watching an experimental film. He has an epiphany watching that cinema can create the resurrection of the woman he had loved and in that sense it's basic, it's not abstract, it's an emotion that has to do with the human side of the cinema, and with the presence of love on the screen. So I think my form of narration has only been to try to bring back the ghosts of love, instead of just to play with images.

EK: How do you feel about the comparisons that are being made between this film and "Cold Water," your 1994 film that takes place during the same period?

OA: "Cold Water" obviously deals with specific actors and specific times, but it's more abstract and more poetic about the period, whereas this film is more realistic, it has more historical sweep, but it's also more specific when, again, "Cold Water" was more like poetry.

EK: Based on the things I had read before going into it, it almost sounded like you had planned it as a companion piece.

OA: The way it started for me, it was like a companion piece, it was more or less the way I filmed it for myself. It gradually became something else. The process took me elsewhere.

EK: Do you feel like you've made enough political films for the time being?

OA: All movies are political in a way. I would love to do a movie about modern politics, instead of '70s politics, but at this stage, I don't know if I can do that. I don't have the open door or the key to get there, so the next film won't be political. Or maybe it will be, but in a very marginal way.

EK: So what's next?

OA: It's too early to really discuss it, but it's a movie I wrote with Juliette Binoche. We haven't worked together since we made "Summer Hours," and we wanted to somehow expand on what we did.

This article is related to: Toronto International Film Festival, Venice Film Festival, Olivier Assayas, Something In the Air