Olivier Assayas’s new film Something in the Air works in the same territory as his previous film, the three-part masterwork Carlos. Both films invoke internecine struggles among ideological Marxists in 70s Europe, and both films lash those ideologies to libidinous, misguided chauvinists. However, where Carlos dealt mostly in the ongoing hubris and eventual fall of its title character, Something in the Air documents the struggles of young and emerging revolutionary dogmas — its Marxists are French art students, their ideologies and their aims remain plastic, perpetually developing. Assayas wants to show the attractions and complications revolution thrusts on these decidedly French adolescents in the aftermath of May 1968 (the film is retitled from Après Mai); Assayas was 13 at the time of the student occupations and general strikes that overwhelmed France, and the consequences of that unrest dictate everything for his characters.
The film opens in a French classroom, the teacher reading aloud from the Pensées while Gilles (Clément Métayer) stares off in the way of students worldwide. Later, he stands outside the school gates, distributing communist dailies and conspiring for the afternoon’s protests. Assayas then deftly demonstrates the brutality of police batons alongside the students’ helmets and ramshackle protest weaponry; the choreography of the protest is compelling, the rush and fear that greets the students palpable. Gilles has his heart broken shortly after and spends the next several years oscillating between fealty to his revolutionary principles and the romantic appeal of painting in solitude. A new girl appears, declares her love for him, then joins some Marxist documentarians in Calabria, when Gilles can’t shake himself out of his first love. A screening of another documentary by the same filmmakers prompts Assayas to have the characters engage in a dialectic about the demands of revolutionary storytelling. The students and filmmakers wonder aloud at how they might be comfortable crafting a revolutionary narrative in the language of tradition, of the state. It’s a paradox Assayas himself seems to wonder about throughout the film: whether to tell the story of a wayward youth in the mainstream language of cinema or to drop learned narrative structures in favor of a more atmospheric exploration of Gilles’s emotional development.
In the end, Assayas tries to walk a middle ground. Time in the film seems to move in a spiral, with characters departing and reuniting at set intervals, checking in with one another, learning who’s gone on to New York or London, who’s still toughing it out with the agitprop vandals, who’s in jail, who’s trying cravenly to make a name for themselves. Gilles spends time working with his father on a mainstream television serial. He hopes eventually to be a narrative filmmaker himself, though he doesn’t know it yet (this stretch borrows directly from Assayas’s own bio, he having ghostwritten television episodes for his father, Jacques Rémy). Peripheral characters bullshit about the struggle and wait for punk to happen. As in Carlos, Assayas’s characters turn in up in an endless stream of new locations, the ease and simplicity of traversing Europe made clear. Assayas lets the gentle polyphony of languages infect his characters, all of them necessarily comfortable in English, French, and Italian.
Something in the Air adopts a rhythm, as Assayas drops major characters only to return to them later; Gilles, at first the film’s focus, nearly disappears as the film later refocuses on the different paths each character takes with their ideals and their romances. Characters chide one another, undercutting each others’ projects with snide political remonstrations, content only in their discovery of a truer revolutionary understanding. Assayas captures the frivolity of youth; early, the students tag their whole school with spray paint and posters, and later nearly kill a guard in the service of a dogma they never cease to find shiftless and inconsistent. Whether or not revolution is a lifelong pursuit or merely vogue is something Assayas is interested in seeing his youths discover each in their own way. He is at once telling a story about himself and about a moment that has loomed for decades in the cultural (especially filmic) imagination, and he manages to tell it honestly, if opaquely. Something in the Air asks if its characters are here to change the world or merely drink wine and smoke cigarettes; ultimately, it’s the asking, not their answers, that linger.