Olivier Assayas was 16 years old in 1971. That’s the first clue that Something In The Air is not a fabricated fantasy of adolescence—as it’ll probably look to anyone who spent their own salad days coping with boredom and curfews—but an evocative snapshot of the French director’s youth. The film is set in, yes, 1971, and it centers on the shifting priorities of a handsomely unkempt high-schooler (Clément Métayer) swept up in the nascent radicalism of the era. Early scenes depict this suburban teen attending student rallies and facing down baton-swinging riot cops during a thwarted demonstration. But is the boy’s heart really in the fight? Or is activism just the catalyst for a final summer of excitement—the last hurrah before the duties of adulthood take precedence?
Because of its autobiographical slant, Something In The Air has been compared to Assayas’ 1994 breakthrough, Cold Water, which gazed upon roughly the same period of the director’s life. (In both films, the teenage surrogate is dubbed “Gilles,” his sweetheart “Christine.”) Yet, in less obvious ways, Something In The Air also shares a kinship with Carlos, the lengthy mini-series Assayas made about ’70s militant icon Carlos the Jackal. That sprawling epic chronicled a gradual abandonment of ideals, as Édgar Ramírez’s freedom fighter/terrorist lost touch with his values over five and a half hours of screen time and several decades of story.
Here, the timeframe has been condensed and the stakes lowered, but the character arc is comparable: Bounding from Paris to Italy and back again, while falling in and out of different counter-cultural collectives, Métayer finds his revolutionary spirit eclipsed by his growing passion for painting, drawing, and cinema. “They are acting on their convictions,” says Lola Créton, one of Métayer’s on-again, off-again squeezes, when he criticizes the primitive techniques of a polemical filmmaking group. Where she sees only the agitprop ends, he gets hung up on the “boring” means. For this former firebrand, aesthetics trump politics.
That’s likely true of the real Assayas, too, whose greatest films—Irma Vep, Summer Hours—are driven more by raw sentiment than ideology. Something In The Air is a bit too shapeless to join the esteemed company of those earlier triumphs; the film often plays like a nostalgic doodle, gliding aimlessly from one classic-rock-scored encounter to another. But then, that meandering quality is part of the appeal: Never is the movie more thrilling than when Assayas, working with the great cinematographer Eric Gautier, simply trains his lens on young bodies in motion. (See: a fantastically kinetic scene in which free-spirited beauty Carole Combes wanders a house party, searching for an old flame, but encountering a new, literal one instead.)
As in Chris Marker’s sweeping 1977 essay-film A Grin Without A Cat—still the definitive chronicle of France’s New Left revolution—there’s a strong sense that an entire movement is slowly coming apart at the seams. (Marker’s original title translated to “The essence of the air is red,” which bears more than a passing resemblance to what Assayas has called his picture.) In that sense, Métayer is as much symbol as character—the fickle revolutionary whose interest in the cause was never more than a passing fad. Then again, Assayas rarely judges his cipher stand-in so harshly, regarding him instead with the affectionate curiosity someone might feel while attempting to recognize himself in an old photo. Having lost touch with his more socially conscious companions, Métayer ends up working on the London set of a tacky science-fiction film. A bemused smile creeps across his face, hinting that he’s finally found a sense of place, and maybe a calling, too. There’s hope in that grin: The kids will be all right, even if their interests turn from collective action to calling “Action!”