Blaise Pascal's “Pensées” no doubt offer great wisdom to a 17 year old kid about to dive headfirst into adulthood. But since the teacher (aka The Man) is reading them, young Gilles (Clément Métayer) is completely tuned out in class. It's not that he's not literate – indeed, the minute class ends he's out front hawking copies of an extreme leftist newsletter. He has a natural, healthy disdain for all established institutions, and this being 1971 (making him just a little too young to have been involved in Frances's May '68 demonstrations) he is jumping out of his skin to go DO SOMETHING.
“Tous!” he shouts, citing the name of the rag he's selling. “Tous” translates as “All” and Gilles may very well believe the mimeographed collection of angry articles and artwork has all the answers. Or, maybe he doesn't. Gilles is an interesting character, because for the first two-thirds of this film he's mainly eyes and ears. But what he's seeing ought to interest anyone who has a soft spot for 60s/70s radicals, the French, rock n' roll, sex, long hair, dancing, painting, Pompeii and saying ridiculous things like “shouldn't revolutionary cinema employ revolutionary syntax?”
Something In The Air (which has the much cooler French title Apres Mai) is Olivier Assayas' plot-light look at his own youth, and it's one of the best of these types of films since Woody Allen's Radio Days or John Boorman's Hope and Glory. Assayas has made some great movies (Irma Vep, Carlos, Summer Hours) and some bad ones, too (Clean, Boarding Gate, Demonlover,) and this one might just be his best. On paper, it is just meandering – it's “what I did on my summer vacation” as we watch a guy hang out with friends, paint, screw around, get in debates but pretty much keep his cool. He's a cool guy! It's a cool life! Who wouldn't want to watch?
Gilles and his band of likeminded students (seniors on the verge of graduation? it's vague) spend their time screaming about workers' rights and faction splitters and look very beautiful doing it. They move on to direct action, which involves pasting up posters and spray painting slogans on the school. A chase from some jock-like “student guards” leads to some bad blood, so after watching the film Joe Hill they decide to come back with molotov cocktails.
One of the guards gets seriously hurt and when it looks like he'll press charges they all decide to split for Italy. If you are asking “where are the parents?” the film will not answer. Revolutionary syntax perhaps?
While we stay mostly with Gilles, characters ebb and flow – much like in life at that age. He's got a painting buddy, but when he meets an American dancer he jets off with her on a trek through the Middle East. Gilles had a girlfriend who went to London (her father is part of the entourage for the group Soft Machine) but he quickly hooks up with another gal (Lola Creton) who is equally quiet, but ready to get more involved with embracing a life of idealism. (It doesn't hurt that she falls in with an older man.) There's also a scene involving someone jumping from a burning building that in a “normal” movie would become a major storyline. It's never mentioned again and considering the film's opium and Syd Barrett haze, that couldn't be more appropriate.
Gilles falls in with a group of agit-prop documentary filmmakers who work with unions. What's interesting is that it's darn near impossible to figure out where exactly these varying groups align on the political spectrum. What's fun about this place and time is that there was enough of a movement that you could safely call the mainstream Communists sell-outs and not get laughed at. Some members are hardcore Maoists, so when Gilles is caught reading an expose of the Cultural Revolution's human rights violations, he is told “you are young, you should watch what you read!”
Gilles' life of parties, hangouts and quiet time painting is all on somebody's dime, of course, and there are overheard phrases about benefactors or rich parents. When Gilles eventually makes it back to Paris we finally meet his father, a television producer. Gilles has a great interest in cinema (he even helps run film strips over a psychedelic band!) but he snorts at his father's bourgeois productions. Eventually, however, he finds himself working on the set of a ridiculous B-picture and smiling. Maybe this is the first chink in the armor of Gilles' radical youth, but it surely represents Olivier Assays' first step to becoming a filmmaker.
1971 was a wild time. Just imagine what these kids could have accomplished with access to the Internet. (All the sexting would include quotes from John Ashbery, I suppose.) Something in the Air is, to some degree, just slice of life filmmaking, but it's impossible not to pick up on signals of an older, wiser man talking to his less sophisticated younger self. It isn't tsk-tsking, however – it is encouraging, for the most part, and that lack of cynicism is inspiring.