Young people are lovely in ways they can’t comprehend until years later. Yesterday’s haircut straight out of Scooby-Doo becomes tomorrow’s despondent comb-over. With the advent of varicose veins, the pale, dimpled legs you once hated now seem in memory not so far off from the lily stems of Botticelli’s Venus. To further compound the heartbreak of reflecting on our past selves, each person’s youth is specific to a time and place, a backdrop mosaic of books and magazines read, music played in basements and bedrooms, conversations that covered everything and nothing. Leaving it all behind is necessary; looking back on it can be wrenching.
Olivier Assayas’s gorgeous, freewheeling, semi-autobiographical Something in the Air is an ode to both youth’s universal qualities and the specifics of Assayas’s youth in particular. The picture opens in the suburbs just outside Paris in 1971, among a group of teenage students still energized by the explosive student and worker protests of May 1968. The movie’s better and more descriptive French title is Après mai (“After May”): These kids came along too late for the most exciting part of the revolution but have no way of knowing it. They’re still in the moment, throwing Molotov cocktails in the direction of a better future.
Gilles (Clément Métayer) is a 17-ish kid who’s searching for the right books to read, the right ideas to absorb. He’s also an artist and aspiring filmmaker, though he has no idea how to mesh his art with his political aesthetic. By day he reads and distributes lefty journals; by night he takes to the streets with his equally passionate friends. They become involved in a demonstration that turns violent—the Parisian cops advance with their tear gas and batons, and the kids are ready for them, wielding sticks and wearing scooter helmets. Revolution is still in the air, and danger is, too.
Then there’s love, possibly even more treacherous. Gilles has a sometime girlfriend, Laure (Carole Combes) a bewitching young woman. Our first glimpse of her, tripping down a verdant country road in a gauzy granny dress and flat, delicate sandals, is less like a standard movie shot than a memory that has dissolved over time only to reassemble itself more vivid and beautiful than ever. The whole movie feels that way. Shot by Assayas’s frequent collaborator Eric Gautier, it unfolds in a place and time that’s both real and unreal, corporeal and ghostly.
Gilles is a quiet kid with searching eyes—his character seems to have fewer lines than anyone else in the movie, probably because he’s so busy soaking everything in. Laure is more sophisticated than he is. After the two make love, she assesses his latest sketches and paintings, striding through the room adorned with nothing but white panties, hippie beads, and a cigarette. It could be a stereotype of what we suppose all young French people in the ’70s looked like just after making love, if only it weren’t so hypnotic.
Gilles and Laure drift apart. In fact, Something in the Air is all about drifting—its story doesn’t advance so much as glide from here to there, from Paris to Italy, from green-gray city streets to yellow-green country fields. Gilles takes up with another young woman in his circle, Christine (Lola Créton, grave and appealing), only to lose her to a guy from a group of humorless Italian agitprop filmmakers. Gilles’s friend Alain (Félix Armand) meets Leslie (India Menuez), an American diplomat’s daughter with a deadpan demeanor and an interest in “secret dance”—you know, mystical rituals and the like. It sounds ridiculous, and it is, but with her seashell-toned skin and cascade of golden-orange hair, she may as well be a water nymph.
Assayas is attuned to the convictions that seize young people and the half-articulated dreams that slip out of their grasp, and he tells his story in visuals and music more than in dialogue. He’s also attuned to pop music, digging up songs that, no matter how deep you think your vinyl collection goes, you may not know. One of the treasures is former Soft Machine member Kevin Ayers’s translucent psychedelic tiger roar “Decadence.”
Maybe even more than most filmmakers, Assayas is deeply aware of the passage of time. In his 2008 Summer Hours, the scattering of a family is replicated in the disposal of its matriarch’s possessions; in 1996’s Irma Vep, a filmmaker goes mad before he can complete the movie he’s dreamed of making. Yet Assayas’s pictures never run aground on nostalgia. Time moves forward without erasing the past. In Something in the Air, that past—a version of Assayas’s own—is rendered in visuals so specific and evocative, it’s perpetually alive. In one sequence, Gilles and his friends—including two nerdy guys and two gloriously topless women—zip across the lake in a borrowed speedboat, all bathed in sunlight. It’s like a late-20th-century version of Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass). They’ve got a groovy kind of love.