A self-portrait of Olivier Assayas’ lost youth, Something In The Air evokes the Paris riots of 1968 with a nostalgic glow.
The Portrait Of The Filmmaker As A Young Man by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
After the epic hyperbole of Carlos, Olivier Assayas has retreated into a more personal kind of filmmaking, with his low-key and nostalgic semi-autobiography Something In The Air. It’s not the first time Assayas has filmed his youth, and we return to the demimonde of Gilles and Christine with its sex, drugs, rock’n’roll and politics, first encountered in L’Eau Froide. Coursing through the veins of Assayas’ alter ego’s political engagement, sexual encounters and dreams of becoming a painter, the film’s French title Après Mai conjures up the gradual release of political vim and youthful vigour following France’s 1968 uprisings better than the Thunderclap Newman inspired listlessness of its English language title. But based on Assayas’ published letter to Guy Debord’s widow Une Adolescence Dans L’Après-Mai, Something In The Air is a return to the director’s roots, Assayas’ political and cinematic mentors Guy Debord and Robert Bresson.
Set in the early Seventies, 17-year-old Gilles (Clément Métayer) is a politically active student, selling the bootleg paper Tout! outside the school gates and demonstrating in Paris for students’ rights and against police brutality. It’s a world of ideology wrangling and escaping police batons by day, and paint-can sloganeering, red press mimeograph printing and Molotov cocktail throwing by night. But from his bedroom-turned-atelier in his bourgeois home in the Parisian suburbs, he harbours dreams of becoming an artist, only revealing his paintings to sometime girlfriend and disdainful critic Laure (Carole Combes). Escaping the heat of a police investigation into the near murder of a school guard, Gilles heads to Italy with Christine (Lola Créton), where he encounters agit-prop filmmakers, drugs and travelling Americans. It’s a final summer of youth before returning to Paris to take his entrance exam in the Beaux Arts, squatting in a borrowed apartment and entering the film world as a firm pair of hands for his Parkinsons-suffering father.
Son of Jacques Rémy, director of the Commissaire Maigret television series, Olivier Assayas’ Something In The Air charts the director’s journey from political activist to burgeoning filmmaker, his youthful dreams scattered on his way from idealism to pragmatic career building. It’s a film about forging one’s own path, with ex-girlriend Laure disappearing to London, into a drug-addled relationship and housefire parties, friend Alain disappearing to Kabul with sacred dance student Leslie to discover generative art, and sometime love interest Christine disappearing to southern Italy to learn political filmmaking. And while Something In The Air nods its hat towards a socialist anti-individualism with its diversity of stories and drawing attention to a new political language of filmmaking, with Assayas’ younger self so firmly at the centre of his film, Something In The Air follows a traditional bourgeois plot, inching away from the politics of common struggle to an individual’s path to success.
Despite dreams of becoming a painter, and the small successes of having his artwork printed in Parapluie and providing the graphic art for the Fille Qui Mousse concert light show, Gilles eventually turns his attention to filmmaking, his desire to walk his own path slowly fading to black. Indeed, Assayas’ film isn’t exactly likely to inspire would-be filmmakers to take up the clapperboard, given his impossibly easy entry into rewriting Simenon dialogue and working as a gofer on a Nazi-dinosaur sci-fi action thriller at Pinewood Studios. Yet as Gilles picks up a copy of Guy Debord’s La véritable scission dans l’internationale on his way to an evening of experimental cinema at London’s Electric Cinema, we are distilled into the crucible of Assayas’ thinking – political commitment and filmmaking housed in a luxuriant honey-hued nostalgia, almost like Brezhnev during a state visit staying in the Palace of Versailles.
If we are to believe Something In The Air is Assayas’ self-portait, semi-fictional or no, still it’s a flattering one. With Clément Métayer as his doe-eyed younger self, migrating effortlessly from picturesque artist’s studio to the London film set, hurt in love but never lost, easing his grip on militant politics from practice into theory, and surrounded by a coterie of likeminded drifters set on the road to fulfilment by a chance encounter, Olivier Assayas’ feature is a nostalgic reverie of youthful promise. Despite Métayer’s nuanced performance and stunning camerawork, the navel-gazing Après Mai remains interminably disengaging. And unfortunately, the most striking ‘something in the air’ is the overpowering whiff of privilege.
Something In The Air is released on 24th May 2013 in the UK