Something in the Air is a French film set in Paris in 1971, three years after the uprisings of June 1968; a time when civil unrest was still ongoing but starting to tail off. In France, this film is titled Après Mai, which makes a lot more sense, as it speaks of an aftermath, and I don’t understand why anyone imagined it a good idea to rename it with something quite so nebulous, although I’m guessing there were fears the American market would be too shallow and dumb to get it otherwise, which is always a worry. (Hark at me! When I read recently, ‘Sharon suffers stroke’ I gave no thought to the former Israeli PM and thought instead: ‘Who’d have predicted she’d outlive Ozzy?)
Anyway, the writer and director, Olivier Assayas, was 16 at that time, and this is an autobiographical teen movie, although, unlike most autobiographical teen movies, it is neither sentimentally nostalgic nor overly pumped full of props from that era, which is always a temptation. One tie-dye shirt and that was it, I think. Although whether you will like it any better for any of this, I don’t know.
Our hero is Gilles (Clément Métayer), a high school student with the thickest mop of unkempt hair ever witnessed outside One Direction. (Someone once reported they had witnessed an instance of a thicker mop of hair outside One Direction, but as there was no photographic evidence, it could not be verified.) Gilles, a talented drawer and painter, is immersed in radical politics, and the film opens as he faces down baton-wielding riot cops at some thwarted demonstration. From here on in, the story is — how shall I put this? — rather lax, as loose-limbed and floaty as the girls themselves, and their dresses. Stuff happens. Gilles distributes leaflets. Gilles discovers a book criticising Chairman Mao’s revolution, but is told by comrades it was written by the CIA. Gilles is dumped by one girlfriend then taken up by another. Gilles graffities his school with slogans. Gilles, and his fellow militants, throw a Molotov cocktail at a school security guard and then, in an attempt to put the event behind them, and evade suspicion, escape to Italy for a summer of amorous encounters and agitprop cinema.
So it’s not, I can now see, uneventful, but it does feel as if it is, as Assayas’s style is so free-flowing and the takes are so meanderingly long. This does give it a ring of emotional truth, and makes it feel attuned to the convictions that seize young people (until they know better) but it is also frustrating. At times, I wanted to hold it against a wall, put my hands around its neck, and tell it to get the hell on with it. Things to do. People to see. I never particularly wanted to become bourgeois myself but, now I am, it’s pretty much non-stop.
So it drifts, driftingly, which may be the point. Who doesn’t drift through life? Did you ever have a plan? But to be drifty, you must also be vague, and I wanted to throttle this film for its vagueness too. Why did they burn that car? What does Gilles’ father do exactly? Where is his mother? Did Laure die in that fire? It is occasionally humorous, which helps. During the Italian trip, after the screening of a documentary about Laos, one of the audience asks: ‘Shouldn’t revolutionary cinema use revolutionary syntax?’ — which sends everyone into a spin. One of his girlfriends leaves him for one of the right-on film-makers, for whom she is later seen doing his shopping, cooking and cleaning. But this is a laugh-with scenario, rather than a laugh-at scenario, as the tone is always so affectionately tender. And, in the end, when Gilles appears to lose his fervour for the fight, and ends up working on a film about Nazis and dinosaurs — now, that’s a film I would like to see! — there is no criticism. It depends: are you in the mood for a drifty couple of hours or not? One for you.