Something In The Air
French director Olivier Assayas is all about moments. In his best films, he’s not working in the abstract or within the framework of a genre. (When he does - like in, say, "Boarding Gate" - the results can be disastrous.) When he’s on point; he lets his characters breathe; his scenes play out in natural time. His camera movements are brash yet meticulous; his editing simultaneously jarring and elegant. His characters swap allegiances and motivations without the slightest hint; his camera coldly observes, never offering us an internal perspective and never making things easier to comprehend. His best films, pictures like "Carlos" or "Cold Water," are as elusive as they are carnally pleasing, like pop songs you listen to over and over again without ever understanding why. "Something in the Air" is one of those films.
He starts in France, "not far from Paris," sometime in 1971 (the original French title, "After May," gives you a better idea of the moment Assayas is after). His surrogate, Gilles (Clement Matayer) is growing up in the backspin of revolution, watching his culture downslide without ever having experienced the peak. He pines after his on-again-off-again hippie girlfriend/muse Laure; but when he takes to the streets it’s with Christine (Lola Cretton.) She’s an aspiring filmmaker, and she crushes on Gilles almost as much as he does on Laure.
They scream of revolution, but their battles - both physical and ideological - rarely extend past confrontations with the local band of riot police. An early defining scene sees Gilles, Christine and their crew - clad in bike helmets and other thrown-together protective gear - going to war with the bloodthirsty police brigade that bears down on them indiscriminately with tear gas and night sticks. These kids are reactionaries who’ve convinced themselves they are revolutionaries; and precious few of them end up graduating to the latter definition.
The rest of them drift away into the rhythm of their own lives. Assayas follows them, his camera languidly passing along from character to character, and from country to country. "In The Air" presents the moment where the individual trumps the collective - Assayas’ camera sees through to the selfish motivations behind the struggles with the cops. A want for attention; a need to impress a girl; a fuel to art - for most of these kids, revolution is just a means to an end. They’re caught up in the moment: in the dimming hope provided by the events of ’68; and in the music (Assayas’ needle-drops, deep cuts from forgotten bands like Soft Machine or Captain Beefheart, tend to start on a record player, before overpowering the whole film; as it did for his kids, the sounds become soundtrack).
Soon enough, they too start to see through the charades they’ve built for themselves. Christine, perhaps the truest of Assayas’ ideologues, ends up with a group of agit-prop filmmakers, and is hit hardest by reality. She’s getting the mail, cooking the meals, and taking the orders. Why fight for the oppressed when you can’t escape their ranks yourself? The light, dreamy green colors of the early scenes quickly fade; a centerpiece bonfire sequence - set, tellingly, to the Soft Machine’s ’Why Are We Sleeping?’ - sets the film (and its palette) down a much darker road. The crew goes their own way; to dance, to paint, to get married, to make movies. The brightness fades.
Still, Assayas never lets the macro interfere with the micro; never rubs it in our face that mainstream culture’s revolutionary impulses went to sleep at the same times these kids’ did. As in "Carlos," the thrill of action quickly cedes to reveal what one can lose; their car, their freedom, their life. For Gilles, and certainly for Assayas, the needle between art and activism swings heavily towards the former. "Something in the Air" isn’t about selling out; it’s about feelings faded away. It’s about the Occupy Wall Street-er’s who’ll end up working for Bank of America. It’s about a moment that passed.