In an early scene from “Something in the Air,” the latest film from the master of sensual cinema Olivier Assayas, a group of young teenagers elude the police after a violent protest by sneaking into an open apartment building and running to the top of the stairs. They collapse on the top floor, finally safe, but Assayas doesn’t cut away. He focuses on their breathing — heavy, adrenaline-fueled, and uncontrollable. This is living, he suggests, and it’s all downhill from here.
The film is something of an autobiography, and not the first from Assayas either: his 1994 film “Cold Water” also followed the exploits of his doppelganger Gilles and his high school crush Christine. But for a director who expresses ideas through emotions, “Something in the Air,” which is loosely based on the director’s own 1971 exploits, is in many ways the spiritual B-side to his 2009 epic “Carlos” about the notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal. If “Carlos” was about revolutionaries as rock stars, “Something in the Air” is about the groupies.
Gilles (newcomer Clement Metayer) and his friends aren’t about to become front page news anytime soon, unless it’s in their own newspaper. The original French title, “Après Mai (After May)” might give the film a better context. The student movement has moved on, but Gilles and his friends still fight for the rights of the oppressed with an idealistic naivete familiar to any teenager. They revel in their spirit as they pass out flyers and defame their school, and act unfazed when they seriously injure one of the school’s security guards.
Combining the spirited camera work of Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” with the highly cynical portrayal of youth in Bresson’s “The Devil, Probably,” Assayas’ film flies through Gilles’s Summer of Marx. He and his friends travel from France to Italy, where they remain more prone to their pheromones, their music, and their art than any real change. The cast of characters they meet fail to inspire any hope as well: a spiritual hippie who spends most of his time naked, a group of filmmakers relegated to showing their films in pop-up screenings in back alleys, and an American redhead more interested in sex than anything else.
What really interests Gilles is his own work as a painter. His paintings are abstract but expressive, ripe with the feelings that his revolutionaries look down on. Only Laure (Carole Combes), his dreamlike and almost hallucinatory girlfriend (always appearing in a white dress) that runs in and out of his life, inspires his artistic temperament. She’s contrasted with Christine (Lola Créton), a more realistic yet naive vision of beauty that somehow feels grounded to the earth. While Assayas is clearly painting a dialectical plane between these two women and the path each will lead him toward, they are not defined by his own longings. When Christine stares at Gilles at one point as he walks away, Créton doesn’t register longing or anger; her face almost describes a fleeting nostalgia that only registers for a moment.
If these kids are more interested in romance and music than revolutions, where are those fighting for justice? That’s the dark irony in Assayas. As “Carlos” already showed us, being a revolutionary isn’t about ideas as much as charisma. Assayas’ five and a half hour mini-series spans twenty years of history and employs ten languages over fifteen continents. Carlos the Jackal talks a big game, but it’s not his ideas that make him a celebrity terrorist. In an early scene, he stares at himself nude in the mirror while New Order plays on the soundtrack — he’s fascinated by his own image.
But like “Something in the Air,” much of “Carlos” is about the details that become almost mundane. In one of the most comical scenes, Carlos and his crew attempt to blow up a plane with a missile launcher, but they miss. And as thrilling as his hijacking of a 1975 OPEC meeting might be, it is still ultimately a failure. Carlos sees himself go from pop icon sensation to a forgotten man, fighting for a reputation as the world changes around him.
Assayas observes Carlos as revolutionary ideologue who is simply a mercenary, carrying out the political games of others. Gilles begins to see his own work as monotonous as well — there’s not much difference between his jobs on a revolutionary film or at Pinewood Studios. Perhaps the promising future for Gilles can be found in Assayas’s stylistic choices. The director doesn’t so much compose for the camera (he never plans shots, in order to allow his filmmaking to feel fresh and original at every moment) than pour his emotions into his images. One could talk about the bold lighting, the dolly shots rising into the air, or the intense tracking shots, but it almost feels more essential to discuss the visuals’ sensuality. His close-ups are intimate, his long shots suggest emptiness. In the film’s most bravura sequence, he tracks a character through a house as Captain Beefheart’s “Abba Zabba” fills the soundtrack. Even before an actual fire appears, the imagery is ready to explode off the screen.
Like “Carlos,” “Something in the Air” ends not with a bang but boredom. The teens’ actions are meaningless and the work they do is minimal. In the final scene, Gilles visits an experimental cinema and sees an image from his past collide with what is shown on screen. A hand reaches out to him as a dream, and toward us in the audience. The dream suggests Gilles’ path, through the art of cinema, toward something beyond politics.
Peter Labuza is the host of The Cinephiliacs, and a contributor to Indiewire, Press Play, The Playlist, among other publications. He is currently pursuing an MA in film history at Columbia University. You can read his blog here. This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Critics Academy at the New York Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.