May 23, 2013|"We didn't really know where we were heading," Olivier Assayas writes of his generation's amorphousness following the civil unrest of the late-1960s, "but the journey was exciting, charging time with meaning and offering a horizon all the more desired for our having had foretaste in May that had left a nasty feeling of unfulfillment." An anarchist preteen during the general strikes and student occupations that rocked Paris in May of 1968, Assayas came of age in the countercultural afterglow of the early 1970s, as part of a splintered youth culture struggling to realize the intellectual and political work of their predecessors in radically different ways. Surely owing to that belatedness, Assayas's reworkings of this historical moment, both in his memoir A Post-May Adolescence and in his films set during the same formative years (1994's Cold Water and 2010's Carlos), are shot through with ambivalence: They're as interested in that nasty feeling of unfulfillment as they are excited about the freedom of travelling without a map.
More than his other films, Assayas's newest, Après mai (or Something in the Air as it goes by English, after the Thunderclap Newman song) is about that ambivalence. A meditative, deliberately unfocused autobiographical B-side to the more immediate Cold Water, Après mai focuses on the undefined fog of dogmas and aesthetic theories that came after May as navigated by budding painter and filmmaker Gilles (Clément Métayer, standing in for Assayas), Trotskyite organizer and Gilles's sometime girlfriend Christine (Lola Créton), and a roving mass of anarchists, hippies, and artists they befriend and drift away from along the way. I recently spoke with Assayas about the film and his recurring interest in this period--and his role in it--at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Do you have an interest in seasons? Après mai could
be the title of many of your films, which are also post-spring in a
OLIVIER ASSAYAS: Maybe I'm also a little lazy. Après mai was kind of obvious--it was there from the start. I already used it in this small book I published in 2005 called A Post-May Adolescence. Whatever else the film is about, it's mostly about the echo of the student uprising of 1968, of living in the aftermath of an event--in the shockwave, actually. It's about being taken into the turbulence of a historical event you did not actually experience. I was too young for that. For the other movies, yes, I made Late August, Early September, which also involves months, I made Summer Hours, Winter's Child. Winter's Child was the actual title--Summer Hours and Late August are back-up titles. For one reason or another the producers were not happy with the originals. I found something that made everybody happy, which was something vague and hazy and consumer-friendly. (laughs)
Is it important, though, that the film is not set shortly after May but in
its shockwave, out of season?
It's not like I had a choice: those were the years I grew up in. I was 15 in 1970, 16 in '71. 16 is really when you begin to have some kind of grasp on the world and understand what's going on around you. And what was going on around me was major change--this period of extraordinary turmoil. After May 1968, everybody in France was convinced that in the coming years, there would be a major revolution that would turn the world upside-down. It was just a matter of waiting: it was happening. Everybody was sure about that. So it meant that you had no interest in the old world, in studies, in creating a family, in having a career, whatever. The coming revolution was going to change all of that, so it was all about experimenting in new ways of being, experimenting with the counterculture, trying things that would have been unthinkable for previous generations. It was a very difficult time to grow up in, because you had very little to lean on. You don't share the values of the world around you, but the values of your own youth culture are still in chaos. Adolescence is a time of incertitude, where you're looking for your space in the world, your self. It was very difficult to do that in a world that was in chaos.
That makes the film an interesting counterpoint to Summer Hours,
which is focused on inheritance, or what's to become of old world values, art,
and objects--the suggestion that all of it could be terminal, useless bric-a-brac,
as Edith Scob's character puts it when she's discussing where the Paul
Berthier collection should go after she dies. Is there something more
substantial about the example of 1968 as an inheritance for the teens in Après
It's substantial in the sense that it's not objects, but it has to do with the very fabric of society. Is it good or bad? It's not for me to judge. It did change French society, and basically what went on has changed western societies all over the world in very profound ways. I can't really think of other moments of such profound change. Some of it was very destructive: you had to reinvent art, you had to reinvent culture, and ways of being. But it was also about individual freedoms, in plural: about the empowerment of individuals, realizing things that were not possible before. People did not have the burden of society on their shoulders. May 1968 started things that changed in depth the very fabric of western societies, and it's only with the perspective of time that it comes into full light.
So the thing that makes their inheritance so ephemeral--that it is not
rooted in the material the way the art and personal effects in Summer Hours
are--is also what makes it more exportable, through time and across cultures?
Yes: it's ideas. It's also history. Now, we have a feeling that we're not so much a part of history. We don't relate to the past in the same way that people in the 1970s did. The politics of the 1970s were absolutely defined by the social history of the twentieth century: Whatever was going on in those years was unthinkable if not put into the global context--of the Russian Revolution, Spanish Civil War, the history of European Marxism. Those years did not trust the present, did not like consumer society, did not like its material values, so they projected all their hopes into the future. Now, we don't believe either in the past or in some golden future: we grab the present, and we are 100% pragmatic, which might not be a good thing.
Your approach to the 1970s and your adolescence in them is idiosyncratic. I
think we tend to associate the early 1970s, as well as autobiographies of youth, with nostalgia. This film seems to minimize that, in part by focusing on the
process of the radical Left's demonstrations: dealing with small printing
presses, putting up posters, spray-painting walls, and so on. Is that fair?
The thing is that I'm not nostalgic. I think there's zero nostalgia in me. I hate the feeling of it--the melancholy. I think there was a very destructive side to the 1970s. I also can't think of anyone who would be nostalgic for his teenage years. Teenage years are horrible, they are very tough. It's a moment when you hardly know where you're going to end up, what you're going to do with your life, if there's space for you in this world. So it's a moment where you're asking yourself big questions about life and death. It's heavy! Youth is heavy. To me it was really about being impatient to become an adult and have some kind of grasp on things. So no nostalgia for that, and also no nostalgia for the 1970s. I was happy when they were over.
As for those big ideas about revolutionary hopes for a better world: yes, I was a part of that. I still believe in that in some ways. But it all became too alienated from whatever the world was becoming. There was a denial, a growing, absolute denial of reality, during the mid-to-late 1970s. And then came punk rock, which kind of cleaned the slate.
Another tradition that some have tried to fit the film into is the
coming-of-age narrative, or more specifically the kuntslerroman, a novel
about the formation of the artist. But in order to properly fit the film into
that context, you would have to sand off some of its edges. The most obvious
trope that seems frustrated here is the one of throwing off your parents and
coming into the world anew: Here, Gilles ends up coming into his father's
industry to some extent, despite his aesthetic and political reservations.
Yes and no: that's not exactly what the end of the film says. I think the confusion is because the scene in the studio is sort of grand, but the film ends one scene later. It does not end in the studio, which is as alien to Gilles as the screenplays he's writing for his father, or the militant movies he does not recognize himself in. Gilles finally finds what he's looking for in cinema when he sees this experimental film, which somehow brings back to life his lost love. All of a sudden movies mean something personal to him. Movies are able to cut through the alienated images and speak to him straightforwardly. Of course, that's the path: that's how he eventually will become a filmmaker.
But I don't see the film as a coming-of-age story either, most of all in the sense that it's more about some sort of collective history. I'm using the path of Gilles to cinema, which is a very singular, specific path, parallel to mine in many ways. I grew up to be a painter, and I went through the steps of becoming more of a visual artist. I also had to position myself between form and content, style and meaning, to work with the tension between modern and classical art, the tension in relating simultaneously to what's going on in pop art and in complete abstraction or the history of ancient art, of Dutch painting in the seventeenth century, and so on. It all relates to the history of a generation but through the weird story of an individual, which happens to be me. I used the reference points because they were real and it was my own story, but also to try to paint a broader, expansive picture of this whole group of friends through the 1970s, which expresses the contradiction of those years.
Félix Armand, India Menuez, and Johnny Flynn in Something in the Air
You could argue that you've already painted a version of this picture. The
film opens with an explicit gesture to Cold Water, nearly the same
caption--"1971, not far from Paris"--over a desk in a literature
classroom. Do you see them as companion pieces?
Initially I did, but now I don't so much. That's where I began. I think the most distant trace of this movie is right when I had finished making Cold Water, which took me by surprise: I did it so fast I hardly thought about it. Then I realized that I had revisited something about the 1970s. I reconciled myself with the teenager I had been, from whom I had felt extremely cut off--I didn't want to hear from him--and all of a sudden he was alive on screen. And maybe, I thought, there was something important there to look at again.
What I knew was that it could be captured on film. I had captured part of it, but so much was missing: the politics, the art, the counterculture, its obsession with the Orient. It triggered the idea that there should be a companion piece, but it then grew on its own, even if that initial similarity shows in different ways, one of which you mentioned. When I started writing I used the same characters' names thinking it would help me. But then it took a life of its own, and became much more focused on the mood of the period, on the times. I did what I could not do when I was making Cold Water, functioning with so little money--no money at all, really, for the sets, the props. Here it was the opposite: I could get the details of the time. Now the way I think about them is that Cold Water is the poetic version, whereas Something in the Air is the more novelistic version.
Parties are a recurring motif for you. In Cold Water you were
commissioned to use one, but they've become a fixture in your films since.
It was part of the deal in Cold Water, yes. When I was making it I thought I was being extremely literal. They asked if I wanted to make a film about my teenage years and the music I was listening to and I said, fine. "And it has to involve a party!" "No problem! I will do it," I said--part of my Protestant upbringing. (laughs) But I realized what I liked about shooting the expanding party scene there was the fact that it was mostly silent. Ultimately there was something about the collective energies that it channelled as a set-piece that I liked: it's about dancing, moving, the physical presence of a group in a space, how it sprawls or gathers.
It's interesting that you see the film as a novelistic alternative to Cold
Water. The way you gather your characters in those set-pieces reminds me of
Virginia Woolf--the dinner at the Ramsay summer home in To the Lighthouse, or Clarissa's party in Mrs. Dalloway.
Yes. It's like you accumulate energies and let them go in parties, and what's released somehow ends up being the truth of the characters.
The film is about characters who are interested in aesthetics: At a
screening in Italy, Gilles hears and then engages in a conversation about
whether revolutionary syntax is bourgeois or more effective than the more
pedestrian syntax of the Trotskyite collective he doesn't think much of, for
example. How do you find a form for a film about burgeoning formalists?
The answer is on two levels. One level is that cinema is in one way or another documentary. You're always filming some sort of reality, so it can be witness to other arts, whether it is an art of its own or not. Who knows. It still has the capacity of looking at other arts and absorbing the questioning that is going on in them. I am a witness to a lot of the discourse on art in this film. And then, the other level is the way I shoot the film. Earlier we were discussing the differences between Cold Water and this film. Cold Water is the punk rock version of the 1970s: it has the edge of punk rock, and I was looking at the time through its prism. In Something in the Air, I wanted to find the specific pace of the 1970s, which is more disjointed, impressionistic, floating around, attracted to nature, moving away from cities, on the side of spirituality versus materialism and so on. And so I had to find a way to depict this abstraction, this melting into nature, and simultaneously refocus on the actual energies that were around at the time. There is something kaleidoscopic about it.
Many of your films focus on some sort of generational handoff, often towards
young adults. What draws you to this age instead of, say, early adolescence?
I think it's fascinating because it's such a profound moment of change. What has always fascinated me about cinema is capturing moments of transformation in individuals, and I don't think they change any more than they do at that specific age. Plus, in one way or another, you are always defined by the years you grew up in. I've always been attracted to the sense of time passing, but more than that, to the path of an individual searching for him or herself. It's cinematic.
Something in the Air opens today at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.