In the opening minutes of Something in the Air, the protagonist carves an "A" (for anarchy) into his school desk, and participates in a street demonstration that ends in a punishing flurry of police billy clubs. "The revolution's near," apparently — to quote the 1969 Thunderclap Newman hit that provides the film's title.
But this smart, clear-eyed movie's original title is Apres Mai, meaning "after May" — specifically the May 1968 student-worker uprising that shook France. Writer-director Olivier Assayas has set his semi-autobiographical film in 1971, when leftist politics are still de rigueur for French students, yet are beginning to lose their urgency.
The director's surrogate, Gilles (Clement Metayer), is a high school senior in the Paris suburbs. He sells radical newspapers on the street and engages in risky political actions. But he's equally compelled by art, filmmaking and, of course, love.
Much of the story transpires during the summer after Gilles' graduation; school's out, but that's not the only reason the teenager is rootless. His hippie-goddess girlfriend (Carole Combes) has just dumped him for an older man and the possibilities of London, or perhaps New York. And a raid on his school's hated security guards has left one of them seriously injured. Gilles and his conspirators, Christine (Lola Creton) and Alain (Felix Armand), decide to lay low in Italy.
In Florence, Gilles and Alain, also an aspiring painter, study classical art while debating bourgeois vs. revolutionary styles of filmmaking. Gilles and Christine become a couple, but she soon decamps with a leftist filmmakers co-op. Alain takes up with Leslie (India Salvor Menuez), a would-be mystical dancer and the New Jersey-bred daughter of an American diplomat.
Back in Paris, Gilles signs up for a leftist operation — likely his last — while working as an assistant to his father, who adapts Georges Simenon mysteries for French TV. (Gilles' dad is the movie's only on-screen parent.) Then he takes a job at Britain's Pinewood Studios, a gig Assayas uses to playfully mock both himself and his chosen craft: Gilles abandons reforming the social order to work on what looks like the stupidest flick since Plan 9 from Outer Space.
Gilles and Christine, let's note, are the names of the teenage protagonists of Cold Water, Assayas' 1994 breakthrough film, and that's not the director's only reference to his previous work. Something in the Air offers an alternate perspective on the 1970s leftist mayhem depicted in Carlos, while simultaneously recalling the easygoing vibe of Summer Hours.
Fire is one of the movie's motifs. In a scene that explicitly echoes Cold Water, kids dance around a bonfire, and Gilles torches one of his drawings so that no one but the woman who inspired it will ever see it. But flames aren't always manageable, and like adolescent passions they sometimes burn out of control.
Longtime Assayas collaborator Eric Gautier follows the action with a handheld camera, but the style is less agitated than in many of the director's films. Stately, sun-dappled visual compositions are complemented by gentle period music, mostly British art-rock or acid folk. The songs of Soft Machine, Syd Barrett and Nick Drake; the poems of Gregory Corso and John Ashbery; clips from Joe Hill and other political films — these are Assayas' 1971.
Viewers who didn't live through the period may not find them evocative. But this movie is about the choices that turn children into adults, and the attempt to balance conflicting enthusiasms. Something in the Air illuminates all of Assayas' work by introducing the boy who struggled between art and pop, ideology and vocation. (Recommended)