The rebellious spirit of late 1960s Paris has never really left the output of French and European cinema, with 2003’s The Dreamers followed by Regular Lovers in 2005 keeping the pseudo-sexual air of revolution intact to this day. Now with a decidedly more French feel comes Olivier Assayas’s autobiographical Something in the Air, a film with more to say about itself than this turbulent chapter in modern French history.
Set in 1971 when revolution was still very much in the public consciousness, the film tells the story of Gilles (Clément Métayer), a student activist in Paris spreading the word about any and all things that his permanently irate group of friends find fault in. Seemingly in love with his beautiful girlfriend Laure (Carole Combes), working out of his own art studio, and living an apparently free existence pinching money from coats hanging in his hallway, Gilles appears to have little to bemoan in his current climate. However, still compelled to spread their message, Gilles and his fellow students set about guerilla style activism, dispensing posters in the dead of night and spraying graffiti on his high school’s buildings. When this leads to a violent run in with security guards (and just in time for summer), Gilles decides to leave Paris and head south to continue to spread revolution to Italy, alongside stand-in girlfriend Christine (Lola Créton). Running away from consequence, or the true essence of his revolutionary nature, is a feature that repeats itself throughout Gilles story, and it is one that severely detracts from the true importance of this period.
As Gilles and his band of cohorts move further south, coming into contact with free-thinking spiritualists, experimental filmmakers and a whole host of debauched teenagers, Something In The Air certainly brings into focus a social climate which lives up to this title. However, due to the ludicrously pretentious script and characters, it is a film that invites little in the way of identifying with this revolutionary temperament. Despite the urban, almost gritty opening in Paris, the film (like its characters) departs into a wandering sojourn through Gilles’ life as a teenager, not as an activist. His convictions are rarely questioned despite his clear disregard for the cause when either artistic projects, or women, arrive, and every time the discussion moves into the realm of challenging Gilles, the film moves on and never really tests its own moral compass. Money is never mentioned, but the fact that someone is clearly paying for Gilles to travel around Europe shows that he is not a wandering revolutionary, but simply from a well-off family willing to indulge his predisposition to chasing upheaval (as long as it doesn’t get in the way of his social life). The situation is certainly made worse by Clément Métayer’s unfaltering doe-eyed stare that appears never to change. Whilst this could be seen a symptom of his own teenage angst, it comes across instead as just lazy.
Whilst the script may let the film down in more ways than can be forgiven, Assayas clearly has a very specific style in mind when reliving his teenage years, and thanks to the warmth of cinematographer Eric Gautier’s work, the film is imbued with a lovingly rendered nostalgia. The pretension of its characters aside, Something in the Air is certainly a well-made and pleasing film to watch from a visual standpoint, if nothing else.
Sadly, this is not enough to save it from its own excruciating self-obsession. Each character fits the mold of a present day hippie with a vintage wardrobe rather than a post 68 revolutionary, a fact that is aggravated by the sheer unwillingness of Assasyas to truly get to grips with the time his characters are living in. If it is to be believed, the student movement of early 1970s Paris was made up of barely verbal teens using the time between each drag of their many cigarettes to spout some vague idealism and denouncing this and that. Their lives were not troubled but privileged, thus allowing them the freedom to wander aimlessly through Europe before settling in London to work at Pinewood. The life of a revolutionary sure does sound tough.