*The film’s original title is Apres Mai which translates to After May. I only mention this because the version I saw had this title still.
Writer/Director Olivier Assayas’ newest and semi-autobiographical film is a time capsule examination of the allure of politics, art, and youth. Set outside Paris in 1971, the story follows Gilles (newcomer Clement Metayer) as he experiences the tumult of the times while struggling to find his path through them. Gilles is involved in the Youth Liberation Movement. He hands out propaganda, partakes in meetings and demonstrations all while still in High School. Gilles is also an aspiring painter with an interest in filmmaking. He’s a lover not a fighter, but nobody bothered to tell him. He’s at odds with himself as much as the movement he belongs to.
No film about a young man would be complete without focusing on the girls he’s obsessed with. At the start Gilles is not artistic enough for Laure, and later he’s not political enough for Christine (Lola Creton). After a protest lands a guard in the hospital, Gilles and his friends spend the summer laying low in Italy. With every new encounter and fleeting moment, Gilles is slowly maturing and advancing beyond his ideals. The film eschews normal arcs and techniques in favor of aesthetics and emotion to capture its subject. The first half is almost passive. The camera doesn’t dictate the action. The events unfurl like preserved memories. Character development is less important to this film than showing the surroundings and the situations the characters find themselves in. It’s not esoteric but the style isn’t something everyone will be used to. Very few scenes play out traditionally, but it’s all in service of what the film is trying to say.
Which is to say, the questions asked are far more interesting than your average 2-shot. Should the syntax match the message? Is art tied to politics or vice versa? The movie is about angry young men, but some aren’t sure what they’re angry about. The causes, the actual politics, aren’t the easiest thing to follow, but they’re not essential to understanding the film. The character’s lives aren’t really that bad. They’re young, they’re attractive. Why can’t they have it all? These ideologues can be annoyingly naïve but that doesn’t make their first experiences unimportant. These are the things that will inform the future. This is where that spark, that drive, that urge for expression begins and this movie’s greatest success is reproducing it. Only some of it is self-indulgent posturing about how Assayas’ began his career. It’s a factor but the honesty prevents anything from being too nostalgic.
Like his masterpiece, Carlos, the recreation of the past is astonishingly lived-in. From the casual costumes to the spot-on but not overused musical cues, everything is authentic. It’s a specific time and place but a universal story. Assayas doesn’t stuff the film with plot so it does wander at times, but it’s a calculated approach. Youth will always hold an appeal, a sexiness, and Something In The Air exploits the folly and the grace deftly.