In the spring of 1968, Gilles and his high school friends become increasingly caught up in the demonstrations that are turning ugly on the streets of Paris. After defacing their school with political slogans, they injure a security guard and are advised to lay low for the summer. While his rich girlfriend departs for England with her family, Gilles and his friends follow a group of radical filmmakers south.
Something in the Air, the new film from Olivier Assayas, has been retitled for international audiences from its original French name, Apres Mai. While no less enigmatic, the film’s new moniker steers our attention away from the political upheaval of the opening reel and towards Gilles and his friends’ character-defining escapades over the ensuing summer. Sex, Drugs, Activism and Adulthood await the adolescent protagonists, and it is difficult to shake the suspicion that Assayas is less interested in the politics of the time so much as how it lit a fire beneath those who experienced it.
Some reviews have claimed the film isn’t nostalgic, and it is true that while Assayas was certainly aware of these events, at the age of 13 he was probably too young to have been actively involved. But the reverence and enthusiasm with which he resurrects this epoch of radicalized art, free love and casual hedonism is nothing if not portrayed through misty eyes (although that might just be the pot and tear gas).
Assayas appears to dismiss this period of revolution and political activism as a phase of adolescence, no more meaningful than indulging in recreational drug use, rampant promiscuity or backpacking round Europe. It is merely a rite of passage, at least for wannabe painter, Gilles. By the film’s conclusion, the balance has been readdressed, the party is essentially over, as Gilles acknowledges the futility of this lifestyle. He doesn’t fail the cause or turn his back on his political ideals, but rather embraces the inevitability of adulthood.
After a filmography that repeatedly assesses and reappraises The Arts, Assayas shifted into a more immediate, documentarian approach for his last film, the epic Carlos. In large part, Something in the Air continues this aesthetic, albeit shooting frequent sideways glances at the radicalized and politically charged art scene that was emerging. He continues to extract fine performances from young, largely inexperienced actors, with Clement Metayer as Gilles doing particularly strong work, creating an engaging character from a mostly passive, bemused onlooker.
The central failing of Something in the Air is its simplicity and lack of depth. Taken as a wistful “How I spent the Summer of ‘68” indulgence, it works, parading a keen understanding of time and place, not to mention a fantastic range of music from the period. However, this is a slice of modern history many of us either remember firsthand or have seen recreated countless times before, to the degree that the numerous lengthy sequences of pretty young things spouting naïve political rhetoric through the thick fog of pot smoke can’t help but feel clichéd and trite. To the film’s credit, its last-gasp conclusion asks that what has come before be reassessed from another, more forgiving perspective. Which as I’ve always understood it, is the very definition of nostalgia.