NYFF: Something in the Air and the Poetry of Past Radicalism


Today from NYFF, Nick Pinkerton goes long with Oliver Assayas’s

Something in the Air
Written and directed by Oliver Assayas
Screens Friday, October 12th at 6:30 p.m.

Writing about Jean Eustache’s second feature, 1974’s Mes petites amoureuses, Luc Moullet recollected a conversation with the director:

“Four years before he actually shot the film, he told me he wanted to reconstruct his childhood: every wall section, every tree, every electric pole. According to Eustache, this was the only way to precisely render childhood impressions on film.”

Olivier Assayas has taken much the same approach to rendering the experience of his mid-teenaged years on-screen in his counterculture epic Something in the Air, which will open in the francophone world as Après mai (After May). That title has something of a twofold meaning, for Assayas has borrowed before from Yasujiro Ozu’s evocative, seasonal title-language. As Assayas’ 1998 Late August, Early September dealt with the first sighting of approaching middle-age, so the end of May can be interpreted to mean the end of springtime and callow adolescence.

This universal May is, however, also a specifically French mai–that of 1968, of student strikes in the Quartier Latin and of de Gaulle’s government pushed to the precipice. It’s an epochal moment which Assayas, born 1955, was only just too young to directly participate in, though the consequent period of reckoning defined his youth–as documented in Assayas’ 2002 A Post-May Adolescence, an autobiographical open letter addressed to Alice Debord, widow of Situationist International co-founder Guy, recently published in English by the Austrian Filmmuseum.

Something in the Air begins at a lycée (high school) “Not Far from Paris”–again, there is this teasing Après mai proximity to the heart of things–in 1971, when Assayas was 16 years old, as is his protagonist, Gilles (Lanky Clement Metayer, top-heavy with a mushroom-cap of hair), who is introduced scratching the anarchist Circle-A into his desktop as his instructor recites Pascal. A child of upper-middle-class comfort, Gilles returns to a book-lined home where he filches centimes from his father’s pocket. His mother is gone or invisible; his father, we later learn, works in television, adapting Georges Simenon’s Maigret stories–as did Assayas’ own father, Jacques Rémy. (And it is in depicting the filial dynamic that Assayas is most merciless towards his sullen younger self.)

Between the duties of school and home, Gilles ensconces himself in the radical politics and countercultural trappings of the era. As soon as the bell rings he’s at the lycée gates distributing radical literature to classmates, attending the shouting-match meetings (shades of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point) of the student body’s Young Anarchists cell, leading nighttime sloganeering attacks on the school with posters and spray-cans. Gilles is also an aspirant painter–again, like a young Assayas–and clutters the floor of his bedroom with action painting juvenilia, which he brings for critique to girlfriend Laure (Carole Combes), slightly older, husky-voiced and dolorous in a way that is both terribly chic and obviously rooted in real confusion. (Her step-dad does the light show for Soft Machine, so the chances of parental guidance are not great.)

The film is a loosely-bound collection of anecdotes, mostly but not exclusively following Gilles’ perambulations. Laure splits for London, leaving behind little hope for their dalliance to continue. A school security guard is hurt as one of the Anarchist’s thrillingly-filmed fence-jumping raids ends with a thud–and, happy at the chance to play real-life freedom fighters on the lam, Gilles and comrades decide to “use summer vacation to lay low.”

For Gilles, this means a consciousness-raising screening tour through Italy with a leftist filmmaking collective who quickly quash his hopes of borrowing their equipment (“We do agit-prop. Usually we don’t lend for fiction”) and a budding romance with peer Christine (Lola Créton), whom he eventually parts company with and take on gopher work on a schlock movie shooting in London’s Pinewood Studios. (“A science-fiction film… with prehistoric animals and Nazis,” he’ll explain to Christine, shamefaced.)

Through all of this, there is more of a feel for the things, the people, and the landscapes around Gilles than for Gilles himself. Like Peter Strickland’s ’70s-set Berberian Sound Studio (playing 1:00 p.m. Tuesday), Assayas’ film fetishizes period objects, building a sort of shrine from the accumulated tactile accoutrements of a bygone counterculture, objects which served the double function of signposts by which the hipped-in participants knew one another, like the worn copy of Gregory Corso’s Gasoline, ready for its close-up.

“I hate old poetry,” declaims Corso–but Something in the Air positively loves these old things: The radical French periodicals (J’Accuse, Parapluie, Rouge) and London “free press”; the handbills cranked out on mimeograph; the album sleeve art (egregiously thumbed-through); the first breath of Situtationism in paperback; the psychedelic light shows with looped 16mm projectors and bowls of dye and real transparencies; the music of Syd Barrett and Nick Drake and Incredible String Band and Amazing Blondel; Bo Widerberg’s labor-leader hagiography Joe Hill; Mr. Natural and Charlie Hebdo and copying Edward Gorey’s cross-hatch; tossing the I Ching; a chance hostel encounter with a redheaded American girl (India Salvor Menuez) drifting East to Tibet, who pulls Gilles’ friend, Alain (Felix Armand–his raw knees after they hook up are a nice touch) in her wake; dawn over the Arno; a beetle’s progress up the bark of a tree where young lovers used to meet… “I’m afraid to miss out on my youth,” says Gilles–but Assayas need have no such fear, for he has transcribed it here in living detail, the camera devouring everything around, never succumbing to the stiffness of blinkered street views that often mar the period film. Again and again while watching Assayas’ film, the evocative title of a work by the American experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas jumped into my head: As I was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty.

The relative opacity of Gilles as a character may be taken as a dramatic shortcoming, but I regard it as a quite natural way of subjectively recreating that table raza period during which the human impressions and textual influences that one decides to let in, and those that one blocks out, determine to a large degree the sort of person that one will become.

In his obsessive cataloging of the people, places, and things that comprise his autobiography, Assayas exhibits Eustache’s same impulse to get everything down–“every wall section, every tree, every electric pole”–and to spread it all out before the viewer, in all of its complexity and contradiction. For, far from a straightforward celebration of youthful radicalism, Something in the Air exhibits a mature understanding that systems aren’t only made of walls to be smashed through, but of flesh-and-blood people, and Assayas’ dogged authority figures are quite sympathetically drawn: “I won’t encourage you to tell on others,” sighs Gilles’ principal after a graffiti bombing, “I regret having to waste my budget to have to pay for your stupidity.” (You can, meanwhile, see the first stages of Gilles/ Assayas’ disillusion as he’s chastened for reading Chairman Mao’s New Clothes, Pierre Ryckmans’ critique of the cultural revolution.)

Assayas also slyly intimates that much of the average young person’s attraction to political radicalism came from a carnal impulse, a chance to be where the action is: “Your text shows what’s really at stake,” says the editor of a leftist paper–just before a hard cut to a nude woman, standing before a life drawing class.

In a film where lovely digressions pile upon lovely digressions, one of the most captivating parenthesis involves a vacationing Gilles and friends visiting the wreckage of Pompeii, looking upon the bared teeth of a millennia-dead Roman, the mosaics on the villa walls. And here, in short, is what Assayas invites us to do–to walk the ruins of a lost civilization.(Nick Pinkerton)

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