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Something in the Air

In Something in the Air, French director Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours) tackles a subject that only very rarely makes it into feature films: the often complex relations between art and politics in modern society. More specifically, he’s given us a portrait of the very young man as a budding artist amid an era of intense political disputes, protests, and violent clashes across much of the world. Assayas’s movie isn’t just looking back to the early 1970s; it had a strong autobiographical inspiration. Assayas was there, at the same age as his adolescent protagonist, Gilles, whose life bears significant resemblances to his creator’s.

And what a time it was. In May of 1968, mass street protests and strikes by a temporary coalition of students and workers had stunned French President Charles de Gaulle and threatened to bring down the government of the Fifth Republic. The movie is set three years later, after the severe suppression of those political challenges. But Gilles (Clément Métayer) and his high school comrades are still restive and protesting. One of their slogans is “The fight is still on.”

Something in the Air opens with dynamically exciting scenes of running street battles between young people and a brutally responsive police tactical unit. It follows Gilles and four of his fellows as they confront a crisis and travel to Italy in the summer to escape a police investigation, as they gradually begin to pursue individual interests, passions and ambitions, drifting apart emotionally and geographically. Like Assayas was, Gilles is a precocious painter and graphic artist, and eventually an aspiring filmmaker.

Assayas starts his movie with a strong, urgent sense of social turmoil and danger. And he has convincingly recalled the period’s political milieu, the diminishing, self-marginalizing sects and tendencies, and increasingly pointless internecine quarrels. At first, he’s successful at capturing a feel of the volatile, evolving emotions and concerns of the very young. But the movie slows and fails to effectively dramatize its characters’ situations and problems. Essentially, Assayas winds up privileging art and individuality over political activity, but relates the kids’ inconsistent developments in a spotty, too frequently obscure fashion. Gilles’s interest in motion pictures seems to just materialize.

There’s almost no family or adult influence depicted. Gilles’s TV writer father only shows up, briefly, after the movie’s midway point, to little effect. Neither Assayas nor his film seems aware of the relatively privileged status of its young seekers after identity and meaning.

What Assayas has come up with is a work that’s much more atmospheric than dramatically or socially persuasive.

Watch the trailer for Something in the Air

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