Something In the Air – Olivier Assayas remembers what was never grasped. (Film Review)

If books, film and art were not dangerous, they wouldn’t need to be burned, banned or derided, but it is possible that the destruction of powerful art isn’t as prevalent as necessary, because there is no doubt it is one of the signposts that informs our choice of reading material.  In the 1933 riots in Berlin, students thew copies of Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism, literally using it as a weapon against the police, then the words scrawled on the walls of the Sorbonne “Read Reich and act accordingly” during the 1968 May riots threatened to revive the practise. Literature, music, art and film were made and used passionately, vigorously political, potent and relevant during the revolutionary period in the late 60’s in France, (and around the world).  Sartre’s plea at the end of the essay Why Write? seemed answered in the response to works of art, moving against his point that “The day comes when the pen is forced to stop, and the writer must then take up arms.” In these times of revolution, the pen really did seem mightier than the sword.

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Something in the Air, the original title being Après mai (After May – the second title carries more meaning in context) is a semi-autobiographical account by Olivier Assayas ( surely one of the best directors working today) of the years after the great socialist uprising, that saw the French nation brought to its knees by the simple power of the unified voice of the people. Assayas was thirteen when the riots took place, but our protagonist Gilles (Assayas alter ego played by Clement Metayer) is a little older than Assayas.  He is protesting and living out the aftermath of the activities in the subsequent years, the film opens in 1971, and in many ways these students are the revolutionaries that crucial time forgot. They’re the younger sibling of the ’68 rioters, they perpetually come in contact with older or more experienced socialists and communists who have done it all before them. After an organised attack on their school goes wrong and a young man is injured, the group is forced to blow to Italy until the heat is off. In Italy, during a series of encounters that force certain questions, the young people begin to examine their places in the revolution.

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Assayas laces his reminiscing with a gentle non-judgemental focus that is remarkably free of nostalgia, and yet hints constantly at memory. Many sequences happen in a dream like state, and many conversations hold the poignancy that condensed retrospection creates. For example, as Assayas examines his role as an artist and arts role in revolution, his dichotomy is symbolised by his two great loves, the free-thinking live-for-the-moment Laure (Carole Combes) who leaves him for an older man and a life of poetry, drugs and art, and the focussed, committed Christine (Lola Créton) for whom nothing is more important than the revolution. The relationships are not fetishised as hippie culture-esque films so often do to relationships of that era, but rather occur outside of linear description so that the film never pauses on an image or idea long enough for the viewer to attach a cliché. This, despite the excellent attention to detail of each image grounded in its time period. Likewise, Assayas use of fire in Something In the Air.  Fire, a symbol of the explosive and short-lived nature of youthful vehemence is the focus of each scene where its symbol becomes meaningful, not to ridiculously labour a point, but to slightly lift the viewer out of the action and its immediate consequences. This isn’t a film that judges the actions of its protagonists, but rather examines what signposts we remember as having significantly shaped us. The period of a couple of years is crucial for Gilles, because he chooses art.  An important conversation takes place between Gilles and a fellow revolutionary who says: “You’re outside the real struggle.” Gilles says “I have convictions.  Painting. Revolution. ” His friends reply,  “Art is solitude. It’s a choice.  Not mine.”

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Does the artists who is remembering these days of his crucial choice regret what he chose? Does France regret what it chose? Has capitalism sent its thinkers into a desperate spiral of introspection so that art sits on the skin now, repeating each beat of the heart, but not looking outside itself to inspire action? There is no doubt that Assayas, a committed socialist all his life (and his films radically reflect that) is remembering this crucial part of his life with warmth, but he doesn’t give a hint at the answers to these questions. Just as there is no hint of nostalgia, there is also no hint of regret. But there is a wistfulness that borders on a lament for the speed with which such crucial choices were made and the chaotic chance that formed the context for them. Laure says to Gilles, “You’re very lucky, you know what you will be. A painter.” and Gilles says later “I’m afraid to miss out on everything. I’m afraid to miss out on my youth.” Something in the Air tells us that youth is as intangible as all aspects of life.  In the end the only place it can be held is in memory.

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Something in the Air is an important film and one of the best to be released in 2013. It would be easy to talk about it for many more words, however I’ll stop here.  If you want more,  there is an excellent essay by Jonathan Romney at the BFI website that speaks more about the film’s construct and design that is worth reading.  Something in the Air is currently showing in Sydney, and I urge any cinema lover to get to see it. Oh – it also should be mentioned that it has a remarkable soundtrack, again, free of nostalgia, but energetically evocative of the era.

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