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Issue 01, Volume 02

A Conversation on Something in the Air

by Will Noah, Max Nelson, Joseph Pomp, and Nathan Proctor

Warning: Spoilers Throughout

Will Noah: I’m not sure if there’s any filmmaker working today with a better grasp on the relationship between the personal and the political than Olivier Assayas. Each of his last three features--Summer Hours, Carlos, and now Something in the Air--have dealt with the last 50 years of European history in a remarkably expansive fashion. While Carlos boasts a lengthy running time (three or five hours, depending on the cut) and an appropriately sprawling set of characters and locations, Summer Hours confines itself to the affairs of a single family. Yet both films manage to engage with global politics through the lens of aesthetics: Carlos by depicting terrorism as rock and roll fantasy, Summer Hours by examining the way a globalized economy adds and subtracts meaning from objects. Something In The Air feels in some ways like a synthesis of the two, dealing with the same dream of glamorized revolution as Carlos, but continuing Summer Hours’ investigation of the way we assign meaning to the components of our lives. Our protagonist, Gilles (Clément Métayer) not only lives out his youth in search of revolutionary adventure, but also proceeds with a conscious desire to create meaningful memories of youth. Both Summer Hours and Something In the Air have a distant but sad tone, as they’re both equal parts elegy and detached study. Carlos has more of a swaggering tone, which crops up here as well, especially when Assayas’ expert music choices kick in. I don’t know if you guys have seen the other two films, but does this reading of Assayas’ recent output as a loose trilogy seem plausible? And what do you think the political point of view of Something In the Air is?

Joseph Pomp: In response to that first question, it’s tempting to read Something in the Air as a synthesis of Summer Hours’ thesis and Carlos’ antithesis, but if it’s somewhere in between two of his films, it’s half-Cold Water, half-Carlos, in the way that it both paints this incredibly tender and vivid portrait of lovestruck and angst-ridden youth and chronicles broader sociopolitical movements.   

Max Nelson: I haven’t yet seen Carlos or Summer Hours (I know, I know...) so I can’t speak to that point, but I’m not sure that Something in the Air has any political point of view! Even as he’s participating in revolutionary acts or spouting off leftist dogma, Gilles always seems one step removed from the fray - it might be fairer to say that he has a point of view on politics rather than a political point of view. Which really means that we’re seeing these kids’ struggle from two points of remove: Assayas looking back, fondly but critically, on his younger self - who in turn regards his fellow revolutionaries, well, fondly but critically. Everything in this film looks like a memory hazily recalled: an aesthetic choice which in most films couldn’t help but distance us from the action onscreen, but which here actually approximates the way our onscreen hero would take in his present. As you say, Gilles is very aware of the fact that his youth will soon be a memory, and he often seems to see it as if it already is one. The question, then, is how this way of seeing informs or detracts from Gilles’ political convictions, or even simply his interactions with others.

It’s worth noting that Gilles positions himself not only as a revolutionary, but as an artist - he starts the film a painter, and ends it a filmmaker. Is Assayas suggesting that artists need to keep themselves at a certain remove from the social and political world? There’s this great scene in which some revolutionary filmmakers debate the extent to which they ought to aestheticize their work - and in doing so, the extent to which “revolutionary art” can even qualify as such. Does Assayas make us choose between politics and art, as Gilles ends up doing? Is there some way we can have our cake and eat it too?

Nathan Proctor: I think Assayas is pretty clear in saying that politics and art cannot and perhaps should not ever be distinguished. At the same time, however, he pokes fun at and sometimes even criticizes their relationship--and does so through the distance of time, through recalling, as Max puts it. I don’t know if any of you caught this: at the end of the film, while Gilles seems to have separated himself from the political, he devours a book on the Situationists. I don’t pretend to know a great deal about this movement, but I’m not so sure I have to in order understand that, although Gilles might not be illegally poster-ing the town anymore, and though he is working on commercial film, his way of thinking about the world is still very much inspired and informed by the politics of the day – even if it’s in contradistinction to it. Perhaps the question shouldn’t be one of choosing politics or art, but of how mutually enabling the two are and how the history of one is the history of the other. A bit of an aside, although still related: I don’t recall exactly what Assayas said in the brief Q&A after the film, but I did notice how concerned he was that he felt today’s youth aren’t as political as they used to be. So a question or two. How do you place this film politically in the context of the rest of the films at NYFF? Also, how can the many instances in the film of sex and love be located in this aesthetic-political paradigm?

Will: Just because Something In the Air isn’t polemical doesn’t make it lacks a political point of view. In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that there is no film without a political point of view (the question of whether most films’ political views are worth discussing is another matter). It’s possible that Max and I differ in our definitions of “the political,” but for me turning on a camera constitutes a political act (see: This Is Not a Film). Art acts in part as a feedback loop that reflects and alters the culture it arises from, and is therefore inseparable from its own social causes and effects. So I tend to be very skeptical of any attempts to read films that deal with political events as “apolitical.” Filmmakers can de-emphasize the political elements of the work in favor of other considerations, but can never completely eradicate them (in Hollywood, this often results in really dull films, including any number of recent historical biopics).

I posed the question in the first place because I think Assayas is fairly cagey about the way he deals with politics, often seeming to romanticize and undermine his characters’ revolutionary lifestyle at the same time. The first telltale marker of the film’s political landscape is the original French title, Apres Mai, which translates to “After May.” Someone must have decided to change the title in America due to its cultural specificity*, but the original French completely reframes the action of the film: everything we’re watching takes place after the revolution. The seemingly epic confrontation between students and police that takes place near the beginning of the film is not a historically important insurgency, but a generation’s imitation of the efforts of their older siblings. Nostalgia isn’t just present in the late portions of the film; it’s apparent from the start. When Gilles says that he’s afraid of letting his youth slip by, it’s an indication that he already feels he was born too late. Before the spring of ‘68, the revolution might have seemed like an achievable dream, a new way of life that could extend beyond adolescence. In 1971, a subset of youth culture carries on that dream, but deep down each of them knows that it won’t last forever.

I’m with Nathan here in that I think Assayas doesn’t believe art and politics can really be separated. I do think Gilles ultimately does choose art, mainly because that’s what Assayas did, but I don’t think the film ever suggests that he’ll leave his politics completely behind. I think the film sees the aesthetic-political paradigm, as Nathan put it, as both a dangerous system and as a primary source of meaning and self-definition. And to answer the sex/love question, I think sex often acts as a scrambler in the film, jumbling aesthetics and politics together. In the final shot however, it seems to align itself more with aesthetics, as a woman emerges from what we thought was a film-within-the-film.

*The American title is great as well, echoing another portrait of leftism detached from its ostensible objects of concern, Chris Marker’s Grin Without a Cat

Nathan: Will, I like how you distinguish between the “political” and the “polemic.” To say that a film is political is not necessarily to say that the film takes a political stand and subsequently and consciously embodies and argues for a political ideology. That said, I don’t think Gilles “gives up” or “chooses” politics for art. I think he realizes by the end of the film that there are different ways and different modes in which to be political, some perhaps more effective than others. I think you can read most of Something in the Air as a political coming-of-age story, a sort of revolutionary Bildungsroman. Gilles begins the story working in a very particular and at times anarchistic political mode, but, as he grows older and experiences and pays witness to the failures of that particular approach, he ultimately decides to make his art a political act. What I find interesting is the way in which this political act is very much wrapped up in the personal. Take for instance the last shot, which Will references above. In seeing Laure (his dead ex-girlfriend) in the film, Gilles projects a very personal part of his own story onto the screen that merges the personal (Laure) with the aesthetic (a film) and the political (the Avant-Garde film).

Will: Is the avant-garde necessarily political? I think the film leaves that as an open question. There is that scene Max mentioned earlier where Gilles and the filmmakers debate whether art’s revolutionary potential lies in form or content.

Max: I’ll grant that every film has some sort of political point of view, but I’m going to push back against this idea that Gilles “decides to make his art a political act.” I think there’s a reason Assayas has Gilles’ girlfriend Christine start making agitprop docs, while Gilles himself is plopped down on the set of a Z-grade sci-fi film. Gilles might not have abandoned his convictions, and they’ll certainly continue to, as Nathan said a little earlier, inspire and inform his way of thinking, seeing and creating – but he has in a very real way withdrawn from the arena. Ditto for Assayas, who I get the sense regards these kids’ convictions with alternating bemusement and respect, even envy. He might not be apolitical, but, like Gilles at film’s end, he no longer has a stake in these kids’ fight. I think that’s evident not only in the film’s narrative trajectory, but in the way it looks and moves scene-by-scene – this is a film that lingers, dawdles, soaks in the moment.

Granted, not every political film has to be polemical, or didactic – but a political film would, I think, have to have some goal or end in mind, some change it hopes to effect in the collective outlook of its viewers, and ultimately in the world beyond the theater. I don’t think Something in the Air is interested in that sort of thing. Assayas seems infinitely more concerned with the way the sunlight glances of Lola Creton’s face than with any of the political platforms or theories we hear tossed around over the course of the film’s runtime. It’s not that Assayas doesn’t care about changing the world – it’s just that he can’t change the world of Something in the Air. It’s his past. He had a stake in it all, handed out his flyers, blew up his cars – now all he can do is get lost in the moment-to-moment details, appreciate at length everything he barreled past on his first time through.

Joseph: I agree with most of that, except for the idea that Assayas, like Gilles, has largely withdrawn from the political engagement that shaped his youth.  That scene of Gilles working on a Z-grade sci-fi film set struck me as one of the most political moments in all of Something in the Air, with its Nazi officers, monsters, and damsels in distress. Sure, it’s packed with great little observational details, as is every scene in every Assayas film, but Assayas is closer to making a political statement here--about capitalism and imperialism and culture and history--than he is just “lingering” or “soaking in the moment.”     

Is Something in the Air polemical? Yes! More than anything else.  It may be a sort of technical, historiographical polemic, but it’s still central to the reason Assayas made the film.  In interviews, he’s noted that people (presumably in France) tend to look back in the 70’s disparagingly.  He wanted to revive that generation, to take their concerns seriously, and re-explore what it looked, felt, and sounded like.  I’ve listened to Kevin Ayer’s “Decadence” at least ten times since seeing the film.

Nathan: I like how Joseph interprets the film’s politics. To take the concerns of 1970s French politics “seriously” does not mean to wholly accept them or even to believe in them at all. It means something much more critical. This is how Assayas can, at the same time, poke fun at and respect the agitprop cinéastes. By the end of the film, it’s not what the different characters specifically believe and have specifically done that matters, but that they did something at all.  And isn’t that the essence of the political? Action. One might be tempted to ask why Gilles chooses to work in B-grade commercial film instead of helping make film propaganda, but to answer this question is (among other things) to differentiate between them. Perhaps we should instead ask what makes these two actions similar.

Will: I’d like to shift gears for a second and ask what you guys thought about Assayas’ stylistic approach to the material. He’s a really flexible director when it comes to tone, but there’s a curious distance between him and his characters whether the mood is elegiac or triumphant. Assayas’ style strikes me as incredibly novelistic; the camera functions as a narrator with a strong point of view that often isn’t pegged to the characters’ subjectivity. His use of music is impressive as well, often going far beyond mere tonal modulation in actually changing the meaning of scenes. What particular scenes, shots, or song choices stood out to you guys in the film?

Nathan: The first scenes that come to my mind are the ones leading up to Lola’s death. It’s true that music has never been something that has stuck with me other than saying, “The music struck me in these scenes as tonally important and utterly affectual.” I suppose the same could be said with specific shots. What I am instead left with is an impression of collected moments, much like memory itself I suppose. Lola’s long skirt, for instance, which she constantly gathers at her side as she walks from room to room searching for Gilles, hoping he’s still there to save her. I also remember fire. Of course there’s the fire that engulfs the house. (Was that real? Did the house really go up in flames? Or was she imagining that? Was it an extreme moment of subjectivity, perhaps even reflecting her psychologically confused and drug-enhanced mental state?) But I also remember when Gilles sets his painting on fire. After Lola chooses her favorite piece of his, Gilles sets it on fire, and in destroying it says something about it being for her and only her--a part romantic and, I believe, part political statement on love and art. Perhaps this pyrotechnical moment of self-terrorism is, like Max implies, Gilles’ last political act in a way that mirrors Lola’s death. Perhaps not. Whatever the case, I don’t think one can deny that the scene is an important turning point in the movie and is stylistically treated as such.

Max: Will, “novelistic” wouldn’t have been the first word I’d have used to define the film while I was watching it, but I think the distinction you’re drawing is great. Something in the Air might not be an emotionally detached film, but it’s certainly one that shrinks from inhabiting the subjective perceptions of any one character. At the same time, it seems also to resist imposing any strict narrative order on the proceedings: I think Nathan’s entirely right to read the film as a succession of moments long since past, resurrected and re-lived. The music plays a big part in this, sectioning off each scene into the space of a song, or a section thereof - not a repeated theme or a motif, but a single musical event, never to be repeated. Nathan cites the house fire scene; I’ll add Leslie (India Menuez)’s museum ramble and some of those really breathtaking nature walks/rides. We have, then, this really interesting dynamic where each moment is trying to draw our attention away from whatever narrative exists in the film as a whole, drawing us into itself and trying to block out everything around it - while Assayas keeps ushering us gently along. Maybe we ought to read Something in the Air itself less as a single, continuous memory and more like an attempt to recreate an objective image of the past out of the raw material of memory - and maybe this is why, though we never really latch onto the subjective viewpoint of any one character, the entire film seems bathed in this hazy, impressionistic glow. Maybe that’s also why Something in the Air feels so often like a series of remembered moments spliced together into something resembling a linear account, and why we have this tension between each moment as an autonomous event and as a link in a chain. That tension shouldn’t come as a surprise, though – if there’s one thing we keep noticing about this film, it’s that it delights in wriggling out of all the easy dichotomies we might want to impose on it: it’s novelistic, but also poetic, personal and political, polemical and tolerant, cutting and kind.


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