The French title of Something in the Air, the first film from director Olivier Assayas since his vast six-hour miniseries Carlos, is Après Mai, “After May.” The May in question is that of 1968, when civil unrest and student protest swept through France, planting germs of rebellion in the loamy psyches of young people across the nation. The action of the film itself, though, takes place nearly three years after the firestorm referenced in the title, and it finds the febrile atmosphere cooling considerably.
Gilles (Clément Métayer) is a downcast high school student who has become involved with a loose-knit group of student activists with varying levels of commitment to the radical re-ordering of society. He accompanies his cohorts to student marches, trips to the underground press, and questionably-intentioned acts of vandalism against his own school. When one of Gilles’s friends acts stupidly and things get a little hot for the young radicals, they flee to Italy until they can be confident things have blown over. Going on the lam provides Gilles with an opportunity to meet like-minded activists from across the western world, as well as some free spirits of other stripes. It also provides him ample opportunity to shack up with Christine (Lola Créton), an earnest young woman with a stubborn commitment to the cause. Together and apart, the two friends bounce around the youthful cultural and political environs of the early 70’s.
There is much to like in Something in the Air. Assayas is admirably even-handed in his treatment of the age, and never trivializes the various flights of fancy that take hold of his principal characters, for good or for ill. As in Carlos, Assayas’s taut set pieces possess an icy, calculating ferocity that cannot help but be gripping, even if the stakes are relatively low. Everything certainly seems to be in its right place period-wise, as well. Radical newsletters and leaflets are lovingly recreated, as are stacks of carefully-curated records and books.
Yet for all his on-screen refinement of the age, Assayas ultimately fails to craft a really engaging film. He never gives us a compelling reason to care about Gilles, Christine, or any of the other enfants terribles featured in the film. They argue, smoke, jet-set, and generally look great on camera, but nothing truly fascinating or of any great substance seems to pass between them. Certainly Assayas is cognizant that much of this can be chalked up to youthful naivety, and, indeed, many of the students start to key in on the many hypocrisies and false tenets of the youth movement itself. But their burgeoning self-actualization cannot help the film, which grows duller and duller as the two main characters’ exploits become less and less consequential.
Something in the Air is reportedly Assayas’s semi-autobiographical paean to his own experiences in post-1968 France, but his successful evocation of the period is not enough to ground the film. One could say it ends up having the same failing as many its protagonists: too often, it seems to have its head fixed firmly in the clouds.