by Angelo Muredda Those who see Olivier Assayas's new film stateside will be met with an ambivalent gesture right from the title card, which juxtaposes the Godardian red and blue of the French title, "APRES MAI" ("After May"), with the mousy English translation, "Something in the Air." The French is the more precise, referring to the dispirited state of radicals following the events of May, 1968, while Thunderclap Newman's yearning anthem about armed insurrection evokes only a roughly simpatico version of late-'60s American idealism falling into '70s cynicism. Vague as the English title reads by comparison, though, it turns out to be the more fitting of the two. Indeed, for all of Assayas's personal attachment to this material, Something in the Air isn't significantly more illuminating about the period than something like Almost Famous, which uses the titular song to roughly the same effect, evincing the same impossible nostalgia for a time when everyone was supposedly moving together on one big bus, so to speak.
A semi-autobiographical portrait of leftist high-school seniors "not far from Paris" circa 1971, Assayas's current film recalls his Cold Water down to the recycled names of that 1994 film's protagonists. Like Assayas as a teen, Gilles 2.0 (Clement Metayer) is a painter and aspiring director, a Marxist in spirit but an aesthete in practice, while girlfriend Christine 2.0 (Lola Créton) is all-in, eventually taking up with a Trotskyite Italian film collective that produces banal documentaries about workers' rights. (Avant-garde filmmaking, one ideologue cautions a skeptical Gilles, is the true expression of bourgeois privilege.) With Gilles and Christine as pivot points, Assayas lets the movie splinter off wherever the rest of the cast of characters fall politically and intellectually. The most attention is reserved for a pair of free-loving idealists done in by an unwanted pregnancy (an odd, borderline moralizing digression), and Gilles's wispy ex, a doped-up bohemian who throws lavish country-house parties--those being one of Assayas's favourite things to shoot, as Summer Hours' beautiful closing moments showed.
By design, there isn't a clear ideological program in this rearview glance at the past, with the long exchanges between Gilles and whoever is sitting across from him at any moment--about the utilitarian function of art and so on--feeling more like the characters' arrogant undergraduate insights than Assayas's own ideas. (Note the deathly earnest roundtable in the library, where a dissident writer for the student paper--who's probably a banker these days--tells his comrades to "use summer vacation to lie low.") It's refreshing to be allowed to think about what came after May as a shambling, many-headed beast directed by soapboxing youngsters rather than a coherent revolutionary platform designed and steered by adults. Yet beyond a certain point, Assayas's detached reportage of this uneasy collective begins to feel rudderless instead of complex, as youth factions are increasingly defined through visual shorthand: the books they tote around; the style of their paintings; the cut of their jeans. That recreation of the texture of the period is more nuanced than the comparable efforts of Forrest Gump, to be sure, but it's ultimately the same method in the hands of a less sentimental filmmaker. Programme: Masters