In Something in the Air, Olivier Assayas offers an earnest recollection of the events taking place in and around Paris in the aftermath of May ’68 (the title’s literal translation is “After May”). In 1971, when the film starts, the student movement has lost its momentum. Gilles (played by first-time actor Clément Métayer), a high school student from the bourgeois suburbs of Paris, gets swept up in the political fever of the time. He is torn between political activism and his dreams to paint and to make films. Although he remains influenced by his friends and family, he gradually grows away from them to find his own place in the world he once wanted to change.
In the beginning, Olivier Assayas’ film seems to be yet another iteration of the tropes we associate with films about the late ‘60s. The first half conflates free love, hippies, and political revolt, a topic that has been used and abused by French cinema in the past few years. The first two sequences include a violent yet common scene of students getting beaten up by the CRS followed by a shot of Gilles looking through a long series of 70’s vinyl records. Other scenes show him distributing tracts and radical newspapers as well as covering his school with graffiti in a midnight raid. However, it quickly becomes evident that his revolutionary acts are fundamentally hollow rather than the expression of political beliefs.
Assayas does capture something about the air of France in the early seventies—the revolutionary fervor of ’68 has died out, leaving a spirit of rebellion devoid of tangible convictions—an empty yet raging activism. At a left-wing group meeting towards the beginning of the film, students congregate in a classroom to fight about what they should fight for or against. The issues they want to tackle seem far away from their suburban comfort and their families’ bourgeois apartments. On their way to Italy, where Gilles and his friends Christine and Alain go to “lay low” for the summer and stay away from trouble, the three kids sit in on a reunion of workers. It is clear by the look on their faces, as the three of them sit on a low couch at the side of the room, that they know nothing of this fight, that it is completely outside of their world, informed only by philosophy and vacant discourses.
Something in the Air is not only about youth in the post-revolutionary seventies, but also about youth in general, about the struggle between the idealism of wanting to change the world and the realism of knowing you have to find a place in it. It is about making decisions, the specific decisions that made Assayas the filmmaker he has come to be. Two years after the defining success of Carlos, Something in the Air provides us with a look into Assayas’ own youth and influences. The film is a journey towards and away from his caring but somewhat oppressive father, in and out of painting, music and politics, as well as film. The choice between art and politics is made real by Gilles’ two girlfriends: Laure, an artist’s muse, and Christine, a committed activist. As Gilles, Clément Métayer offers a moving first performance in which, perhaps because he grows into an actor during the lapse of the film. He seems to literally transform from a boy into a man. It is in the cinema that Métayer, like his character Gilles, and like his director Assayas, becomes.