Directed by Olivier Assayas
Written by Olivier Assayas
No matter what era during which we grow up, it is through a nostalgic haze that we view our youth. There’s something of a dreamlike quality to any look back on those days when we were young, when we could make a headlong dive into the unknown without being worried of the consequences. Such a quality is ever-present in Olivier Assaysas’ new film Something in the Air (titled Apres Mai in France), set in the early 1970s and centered around some college-age rebels who try to make a difference in the world, to assert their personal significance on a larger scale.
Set in early 1971, with tensions still very high after the civil unrest of May 1968, Something in the Air focuses on a few young activists who want to keep their revolutionary tactics fresh in the mind of the collective establishment, while indulging in the heady rush of romance most magical. There’s Gilles (Clement Metayer), an artist who’s sore after his girlfriend Laure abandons him without any warning; Christine (Lola Creton), the fellow freedom fighter who wins his heart; and Alain (Felix Armand), who ends up falling for an American dancer (India Salvor Menuez). All come together in spirit as they separate in body, attempting to lay low after one of their more explosive techniques backfires, as an innocent security guard gets injured in the fracas.
Something in the Air has to cover a vast amount of ground in only two hours, in that it wants to paint us a clear picture of the fractious French society of the late 1960s and early 1970s as well as illustrate the humane responses from those within the student factions. The lives of these would-be heroes are documented with love and care by Assayas; it’s easy to imagine and spot the various autobiographical moments within the story, not just in Gilles’ story, even though as the consummate artist and hopeful filmmaker, we could associate him with the author first. Even if Something in the Air is rooted in a more specific reality than that of world events, it’s a keenly realized, poignant look back at a time of self-righteous rage and romance.
Metayer, especially, is unique in that he looks modern enough to have stepped straight from 2013 into the past; still, his physical and verbal performance are never so mannered that it’s distracting. The same goes for Armand and Creton, as well as the rest of the ensemble. They all look appropriate to the early 1970s, but not so much that you forget these are present-day actors. In a way, Assayas is staging a filmed version of his fond, youthful memories with a group of performers who represent models of the idealistic past. As such, none of the performers—except Meneuz, partly because she speaks English where all of the other characters speak their native French—are so memorable to stand out, but each of them is poised and perfectly chosen all the same.
Where Something in the Air truly excels is in its ability to capture the timelessness of youth. We may not have lived through the strife that the student protesters in France, circa 1971, had to fight, but we can recognize their sometimes-foolhardy willingness to try and do the right thing. Writer-director Olivier Assayas may or may not be mining the specifics of his own past for drama; what matters more is not the personal truth that may have inspired this story, but how universal the emotions roiling amongst characters in the story feel. There could be a social barrier in place for audience members watching Something in the Air who aren’t intimately familiar with the historical details and context of why these student agitators were so up in arms in the early 1970s, thus breeding a lack of sympathy for their questionable choices. Instead, the film unfolds naturalistically, with little, if any, confusion. The specifics are less important than how these college-age kids act on a small-scale, personal level. Something in the Air is a movie full of recognition, a story that will strike just about anyone who went through the college experience, in the 1970s, the 1990s, or during this decade, as being striking for its accuracy and precision.
— Josh Spiegel