Gilles (Clement Metayer) begins the movie carving an anarchy symbol into his wooden school desk. He ends it as a much sadder, prematurely old man longing for his lost love on a movie screen.
That encroaching disappointment is the drift of Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air, which was just recently retitled for American audiences. In France, it was called After May, referring to that month in 1968 when Paris was rocked with demonstrations, and politically ravenous students actually rallied and stood up against injustices larger than the changes in terms of service on their Facebook accounts. But as anybody in a big city knows, it takes a little while for all the cool stuff to filter out to the suburbs, so Something in the Air—I really hate calling it that—picks up about three years later, just outside Paris, where a bunch of teenagers don motorcycle helmets for a routine tear gas-ridden skirmish with the local police.
It’s thrilling, the way Assayas films it. He should know. He was there. This is the most blatantly autobiographical movie since David Chase’s Not Fade Away, which similarly dealt with tumultuous times in elliptical fashion. Period pieces too often feel like plastic, but here, you can feel from the first frames that you are watching something that was already lived-in and experienced.
Assayas, who most recently helmed the marvelous Summer Hours and the gobsmacking six-hour terrorist epic Carlos, was quite the wild man in his early career. I didn’t like his older films much, but they were bonkers. As with these last two masterpieces, Something in the Air is more refined, much saner and accessible to everybody.
Not that he doesn’t get cuckoo once in a while. A bonfire party gone mad could be a stand-alone movie of its own and maybe the best of the year. But mostly it is a film about fading out, about how youthful passions dissolve. The day-to-day business of living so often saps us of our resolve, and even the most ardent convictions wither away over time.
Revolutionaries become paper-pushers in an office somewhere, old friends lose touch, and Something in the Air doesn’t so much build to a climax as it simply melts away. Gilles was never a dynamic character to begin with, but he recedes further as the film carries on, drifting into obscurity and often crowded out by supporting players who similarly flare and then vanish.