By Bertille de Lestrade
In 1971, near Paris, young Gilles and his wannabe-revolutionary friends are just about to be done with secondary school. They will attempt to find themselves, somewhere between political, artistic and personal yearnings, throughout a Europe in turmoil.
If you’re fond of the 70’s, Something in the Air’s got the whole paraphernalia : Long hair, long faces, long necklaces falling on bare breasts and bare everything, the forever sweet-looking indolence of hippies. A good soundtrack, beautiful props and locations from France to Italy, angry youngsters chewing on important words, plotting and drinking beer in edgy little cafés, pretty girls posing naked in wild fields, nymphets with braided hair and long white dresses, handbags that look like Mexican doormats, roadtrips in Volkswagen vans and of course, floating in the air with clouds of Gitane smoke, an overdisplay of ceremonial rebellion.
Après Mai (After May), the original title, introduces two ideas within two distinct time frames : one is obvious as the story begins at the end of a school year, right before the summer of 71 when the characters’ trials and tribulations take place ; the other holds a more historical and political meaning as it alludes to May 68, the biggest strike and protest time that ever occurred in France, mostly led by students and workers and known for its violent confrontations with police forces. The impact of May 68 on French economy, society and political landscape was significant and it greatly influenced the following decades. Today, it is still celebrated and refered to by many, especially students who look back at that particular point in history with some kind of romantic nostalgia and take it as an inspiration whenever they protest against « oppression », even using some of the famous mottos and slogans of the period. May 68 is a french landmark, but as the film shows, similar ideas and indignations were widely spread throughout Europe at the time.
It seems that director Olivier Assayas, who was reportedly inspired by some of his own memories, meant to depict the echo of May 68 in the lives of people who were too young to participate in the actual events. What was the story, after May ? Whether he intended it or not, the answer I found is that these young characters, like any angst-filled teenagers then and today, will find reasons to rebel against the world and seize them with a matter-of-life-or-death ardour. The way they desperately cling to May 68 values is quite revealing of that : they need an anthem, a legitimacy, a space to rant and shout. Sure, some of them believe in the cause they defend and display on posters, teeshirts and manifestos, but beyond that, what’s brought to light is the universal, eternal revolt that characterises young adults at one time or another. It is the real topic of the film rather than its context, as such stories could be told with any era, country or political issue for a background. It IS the real topic and always a fascinating one in the sense that anyone can relate to it. Adolescence is a time of emotional intensity, of intimate chaos and wonder, thus a delicate one to depict onscreen. Sadly, Assayas approached his non-story and his characters with a tedious superficiality, indulging in the most annoying worn-out clichés ever spread on what teenagers are all about. I was always furious when seeing students interviewed on TV because I felt that journalists purposely chose to show the ones who didn’t have a clue what they were talking about, hence making a whole generation look like stuttering fools. Something in the Air is a lenghty version of that phenomenon, only appealing for its 70’s vibe that always feels exotic to people who didn’t know that period, and nostalgic to people who did. You just want to slap these guys right in the face everytime they open their mouth : anyone on their side is a comrade, anyone against it is a fascist. TV is « a mass-numbing tool », how original, and Society with a big bad S is the mother of all evils. Boohoo.
With such a clumsy, pompous screenplay, it must have been quite challenging for the cast to give fluent performances. Alas indeed, even when they managed to deliver their lines with a bit of conviction, it only added to the eye-rolling effect of it all. Luckily, our main character Gilles tries to read between the lines of his everything-about-Mao books and find his own path. While his friends are « fully committed » to their mighty Cause, busy with their ridiculous battle of egos, and see him as a bit of a coward, Gilles commits to his art as a painter and an aspiring film-maker, clearly Assayas’ autobiographical take. This makes him the least deserving of a slap, and Clément Métayer a decent young actor. Most of the cast were actually beginners spotted on the streets, except for Lola Creton, here in the female leading role of the sombre Christine, who played a completely identical part in the 2010 Goodbye First Love.
I overheard a journalist’s phone conversation when I came out of the theatre : « I hated the french movie» she said, « it was just about… nothing. » She wasn’t too far from the truth. Disadvantaged by his lack of a real storyline but armed with such a well documented work and display of the 70’s, Assayas might as well have turned his project into one of these entertaining fake documentaries, and throwing in a bit of derision wouldn’t have hurt ayone. I might not be absolutely impartial myself as I recognized too many painfully similar traits to some people I knew back in school and college ; I’m just really sad they’re the ones who, once again, falsely represent what adolescence and rebellion are really about.