By Don Simpson | May 1, 2013
Director: Oliver Assayas
Writer: Oliver Assayas
Starring: Clément Métayer, Lola Créton, Felix Armand, Carole Combes, India Salvor Menuez, Hugo Conzelmann, Mathias Renou, Léa Rougeron
Utilizing Gilles (Clément Métayer) as his teenage avatar, writer-director Oliver Assayas injects his own personal history into the post-May ’68 narrative. As the summer of 1971 commences, Gilles and a few of his closest high school comrades find themselves hiding out in Italy following the somewhat accidental injury of a security guard. They team up with other European counterculture types for a life-altering experience that exposes them to radicalism as a lifestyle rather than a high school hobby.
Still coming of age, Gilles and his friends struggle to define themselves as artists and political activists, striving to find fulfilling ways to merge their two interests. This being the age of discourse, Gilles and his friends begin to question the legitimacy of art as a mechanism to express their political voices, pontificating about whether some forms of art are more effective in political activism than others. They also learn to consider their intended audience while debating whether political art should be plain-spoken and conventional or break from conventional modes and forms.
First and foremost is the question of continuance and survival. As Gilles and his friends learn that political activism does not allow them to cover their cost of living, they must either rely on the support of others (thus conforming to the ideals of that group) or find other ways to generate income. Gilles’ girlfriend, Christine (Lola Creton), finds that her warped notions of activism are quickly shattered by the inherent machismo attitude of the male leaders. She is quickly relegated to shopping, cooking and secretarial work, while the men sit around, philosophizing and debating. This is certainly not the life that Gilles or Christine dreamed of while in high school, where everyone was considered equal as long as they were against the status quo. Catapulted into real life, they learn that there are no easy answers, just a lot of compromises. Like Sartrean muses, they juggle the prospects of various career paths with their personal freedoms, wanting to pursue their dreams and convictions but also needing to survive in the capitalist world. They also try to wrap their heads around the notion of love.
Assayas knows this subject matter like the back of his hand, because he lived it. Judging from my personal knowledge of this politically turbulent time, as well as the music and art that it produced, Assayas nails the mood and tone perfectly; the stand-out lead performances by Clément Métayer and Lola Créton certainly help, as does their iconical sense of revolutionary style. Assayas balances a romanticized recollection of the past with an unshakably gritty nowness; but those of you looking for a politically-charged film will have to look elsewhere, as Assayas is much more interested in the roles that art and love play in the moral and intellectual growth of his protagonists.
Something in the Air lends Assayas a soapbox on which to ruminate about the relationship between art, politics and class. The intense discussions about experimentalism versus realism in cinema seem to be mainlined directly from Assayas’ own internal debate, serving as a sly self-reflexive comment on his oeuvre. And for film programmers looking for a double feature, Something in the Air plays as an interesting companion piece to Cold Water (1994), with identically named protagonists existing in moral opposition with each other.