AFI Fest: Something in the Air, by Scott Nye
At the end of his 2008 masterpiece, Summer Hours, Olivier Assayas made the surprisingly bold suggestion that kids who seem, on the surface of things, to be trampling over past traditions were in fact honoring those traditions in a way that made sense to them. Not walled off in a museum or simply performed ritualistically, but alive and vibrant; celebratory. Those new modes may appear threatening to the establishment, but so too is any even modest transition. With Something in the Air, Assayas celebrates the passion of youth, while also revealing how terribly fragile it all is, how easily it burns out or quickly transfers to something else.
In Gilles (newcomer Clément Métayer), Assayas crafts a surrogate, a young man whose interest in the budding revolution is fueled mainly by social connections – and, more honestly, girls – but whose chief dream is to become a filmmaker. He drifts, as so many wanderers in young adulthood do, from situation to situation, exhibiting enthusiasm even as he seems to be keeping an eye out for others to notice it. Gilles does have some of the problems of similar characters loosely based on their directors – a certain passiveness, a lack of strong definition – but Métayer is such an interesting screen presence that it’s easy to let those faults pass by in the haze of smoke, tunes, and everything else that defined the era.
It’s one thing to convincingly recreate the past, but quite another to make it feel like it was created some fifteen years prior, and then simply left to its own devices in the intervening years. Nothing feels false about Assayas’ vision of this time, nor terribly romantic beyond the quality its characters bring to it. The production design is so spot-on, so lived-in, and so informative to the characters, it’s one of those instances in which that department’s contribution is inseparable to the film as a whole. Also much obliged is the soundtrack, which pulls music from the period, but not the 70s standards that have littered so many films obsessed with the superficiality of the decade and seemingly express this by being superficial themselves. These are deep cuts, yes, but some of them are also kind of outwardly lame, and Assayas’ presentation of them is not some Tarantino-esque effort to reclaim the cheese; it’s just another way to embed us with these characters.
That major reason this never makes the film feel dated (though I think that’s kind of a specious complaint to begin with) is that the characters’ journeys are timeless. Sure, there attitudes are very much of the time – one is introduced when she gives a spirited, but upbeat monologue about how Cuban-American relations nearly left journalist William Worthy stranded in the Caribbean, which soon devolves into a conversation about acid – but there is nothing particularly centric about the awakenings the kids are undergoing. They’re falling in love for the first time, defining, and then redefining their priorities, and seeing how a few bad choices wreck the lives of the people to whom they were once the closest. In one scene, Gilles visits an ex-girlfriend only to find her strung out on drugs at one of those parties where you’re not really sure how many of the guests were actually invited. Métayer captures this moment beautifully, with Assayas ably conveying the unspoken, that Gilles still longs for this girl, even as the woman he’d constructed her to be is crumbling with each second.
If all this sounds especially airy and minor, well, I’ve barely mentioned the whole anarchy element at the center of the film, resulting in several breathless run-ins with authority, and no small amount of underlying tension. But the trappings of the film are not what’s important in the film. It’s not some lamentation for a cause that never quite coalesced, and it doesn’t hold these kids up as deities for their political engagement (an easy trap to fall into, given the malaise and cynicism of the modern youth). The revolution is the background; the revolutionaries are the subject, and even they are, to varying extents, affecting their passion. Sometimes this is used to ironic effect, as when one minor character, who by all reasoning advocates for economic equality, mocks a young woman for attending a feminist rally by saying, “you going to see those lesbians?” But Assayas takes his politics as seriously as his characters do. For many, it’s a fashion choice. For a few, it will become their lives, and it’s little wonder that it is to they so many are drawn.
And so it is. Assayas never forces the drama, gently prodding it to the center when necessary, but largely content to simply observe. Many of the story’s biggest conflicts go unseen, or scarcely depicted, as characters try to cover up their intense attachment to one another with the affected cool they’re desperately clinging to from their fading youth. Gilles will never admit how his heart soared when he glanced another former flame across the room, nor will he try to make his many abandoning sweethearts stay. His best friend will similarly put up little resistance when the love of his own life suddenly announces she’ll be leaving the country, and on the heels of a rather trying event for the both of them at that. They’ll never discuss that event beyond some practical considerations, or what the life they almost fell into could have been; how close they each were to a radical departure from what they knew. Assayas recognizes that at a certain age, many people are capable of anything and accepting of everything. They have no grand designs, only a few wistful hopes, and are looking for a sign, somewhere across the room, telling them where to go, what to do, who to love, how to live.