When fighting their various political fights, young people oftentimes lose sight of why exactly they are fighting in the first place, getting swept up in the intrigue of dodging the police or suddenly having a tangible purpose in life. Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air follows a group of these idealistic young people, who think that revolution is in their grasp… until disillusionment sets in.
The film chronicles the lives of high schooler Gilles (Clément Métayer) and his friends’ involvement in this all-consuming revolutionary fight against the establishment in early 1970s France, in the aftermath of the General Strike and student uprising of May 1968. Assayas’s film is interesting and adeptly captures the misguided, yet well-meaning political fervor of this specific youth culture, but it sometimes falls flat in terms of delving deeper into characters and getting to the root of their passion for their various causes.
At the start of the film, handsome artist Gilles is dating the beautiful poetry enthusiast Laure (Carole Combes), a daughter of wealthy, artist-types. She tells Gilles that she will be going to England with her mother, and she doesn’t want him to wait for her. When she leaves, Gilles continues his involvement with his fellow high school revolutionaries, and their brushes with the law become more and more intense. He also strikes up a romance with revolutionary Christine (Lola Créton), as they bond over art films and various forms of propaganda. Things go awry, however, when fleeing from graffitiing a building, Gilles, Christine, and their friend Alain (Félix Armand) cause the serious injury of a security guard chasing them.
To avoid potential prosecution, they go to Italy while things settle at home and meet up with some of their contacts there, some of whom are a group of activist filmmakers. Alain falls in love with Leslie (India Salvor Menuez), a red-haired American daughter of a diplomat. Gilles starts to become disillusioned with the various activism movements that he is involved in and goes back to art school, leaving Christine in Italy. Back in France, he briefly reunites with Laure, who has since spiraled into drug addition. He also makes the “establishment” choice to help his movie producer father. Everyone’s commitment in the various causes starts to wane for different personal reasons as life intervenes and makes them question their motives in following them in the first place.
Coming from an autobiographical standpoint on Assayas’s part, Something in the Air does authentically evoke the early 1970s, strike-minded French youth culture. The unmitigated zeal that the young revolutionaries feel for their various causes is realistically idealistic, for they follow whatever literature they think they are supposed to read and spout whatever political ideologies that are likely the most topical at the time. Assayas makes the interesting choice to align Laure with Gilles’s feelings for the revolutionary causes. At first, like his love for Laure, his love is rapturous, but as time progresses, he realizes that it is not as perfect as it seems.
Assayas is also successful in highlighting the various hypocrisies of these young revolutionaries without being overly obvious about it. One such example is when Christine is working with the filmmaking collective she meets in Italy; while their purpose is to propel their own political ideologies, her male boss subjugates her in the workplace.
The film ultimately comes up somewhat short on providing insight as to why these characters, especially Gilles, give their lives over willingly to these causes. What is their motivation? The audience finds little else about these young adults other than that most of them come from privileged backgrounds and perhaps might want to rebel. While the roles are all well acted, the characters aren’t as fleshed out as would be ideal. Gilles is the main character, for instance, and he seems relatively generic, besides the fact that he is a talented artist. It’s also somewhat hard to swallow that young people just finishing up high school would be gallivanting around Europe to hide from the police with barely a murmur from any of their parents.
On the whole, Assayas’s film is quite successful, personalizing some of the revolutionary ideals brought forth in his recent masterful miniseries, Carlos. He could have gone to deeper places, however. It is difficult to care about the characters because they aren’t overly developed other than in the rise and fall of their devotion to their politics. Even so, there is something exhilarating about this time period in history. Revolution against tyranny was thought to be possible with rioting, a few Molotov cocktails and spray paint – and Assayas’s film accurately evokes this time, complete with its youthful yet misguided intensity.
The Upside: Assayas creates an authentic early-1970s feel, and idealistic mindset of the young revolutionaries.
The Downside: The film falls a bit short in terms of character development and motivation.
On the side: This is a rather impressive film debut for many of the young leads, including Clément Métayer, Félix Armand, and Carole Combes.