Interview: Oliver Assayas on Something in the Air and Hating the '70s

You'd be forgiven for thinking that Olivier Assayas has a thing for the '70s. Following Carlos (2010), his six-hour, Golden Globe-winning miniseries about the decade's most notorious terrorist, the director again breaks out the brown leather jackets and unkempt hairdos for Something in the Air(opening Friday), a fictionalized recounting of his own passage from teen revolutionary to emergent filmmaker in Pompidou's France. You'd be forgiven, but you'd be wrong.

"I hated the '70s. I hated everything that had to do with the '70s," the director says in an interview at the Regency Hotel in Manhattan. "It's only gradually, through the passing of time, that I kind of reconciled with it." When artists revisit their youth, they're usually waxing nostalgic or exorcising demons. But Assayas is doing neither with his 14th feature. Instead he puzzles anew over the events that formed him, along with an entire generation of fledgling European radicals born too late for the leftist uprising of May 1968, but not for the movement's painful sputtering and splintering. As he writes in A Post-May Adolescence, a slim but potent memoir published in English last year, his younger self had been "full of doubt in a time that was no less uncertain." Rather than sentimentality, it's the irresolution of the era that keeps pulling Assayas back.

The title of his first feature, Disorder, could fairly be applied to nearly all of his films, from the ultramodern amorality of the borderless thrillers demonlover and Boarding Gate, to the subtler but no less disorienting culture shifts of Summer Hours and Les Destinées, to tales of restless youth such as Late August, Early September and Cold Weather—the last of which covered some of the same countercultural ground as Something in the Air. As with the '70s, the eternally youthful Assayas—he's now an improbable 58—hasn't any sepia-toned notions about adolescence. But therein lies the fascination.

"Youth is a fantasy. It is something that always escapes from your fingers. You try to grasp it and it escapes," Assayas says—and the very form of his film bears that out. With the camera constantly in motion and scenes tumbling one after another, events seem less like fully formed experiences than moments missed or just glimpsed. "You never know if you're in the right place, you don't know what's the right move," he says. "Sometimes you make choices that put you at absurd risk. It's a scary time of life." The film opens with a student-led clash with the police, but these young people are as uncertain of themselves as teens of any era, changing life-courses as often as their clothes, and making fools of themselves as often as they make a political difference. Yet Assayas never mocks them, instead taking them seriously as people and thinkers in the making. Which is as it should be, not least because one of them—the gangly, Ramones-coiffed painter Gilles (Clément Métayer)—would grow up to be Olivier Assayas. "I'm afraid to miss out on my youth," Gilles says at one point, and even in retrospect it remains elusive.

One reason for revisiting the days of his youth, according to Assayas, was to articulate them for his partner and fellow filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve, who at 26 years his junior explored her adolescence from a much closer remove in last year's Goodbye First Love. He makes the past tangible through the objects and sounds of the era, lingering over them much as he did as a teen. From records to poetry, poster art to the Free Press, "all the artifacts of the counterculture were fetishized because they carried something that connected you to the vast network of like-minded kids," Assayas says. "It was some parallel world that existed on the margin, on the other side of the mirror of the society of that time." In particular, the film gives loving attention to the music of the moment, particularly the psychedelic folk bands that Assayas discovered during student-exchange trips to England. Gilles sorts through a rack of LPs as a Catholic might light candles before an icon, carefully flipping past Blind Faith, Jethro Tull, The Byrds, MC5, and Kevin Ayers before reverently dropping the needle on Syd Barrett's "Terrapin," which then serves as the soundtrack to an exquisitely doomed love affair.

"The music of the '70s constantly sent you a message that it was exactly on the same wavelength of your dreams," Assayas says. "It was radical, a 'we're not selling singles for the pop market. We make albums, and they are long.' And some of them," he admits with a smile, "are extremely boring. But whatever the music was worth, the values of those guys were exactly those of the kids who were buying the records." Idiosyncratic esoterica by Captain Beefheart and The Incredible String Band, among others, has long defined Assayas's avant-pop aesthetic, but the current folk revival has him rethinking his approach. "The kind of music they play on Air France is basically the stuff I used to listen to, stuff that was completely arcane to everybody else." For someone whose artistic and ethical sensibilities were formed in the underground, in the shadow of cult antagonists like Guy Debord and the Sex Pistols, a drift into the mainstream can inspire abandonment. "If rock and roll has become that," he says, "maybe it's time to move away."

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