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Film review: 'Something in the Air'

The latest from director Olivier Assayas ("Carlos") is a semi-autobiographical account of his misspent youth as an artist-turned-political radical.

Lola Creton (with Clement Metayer in the background) stars in Olivier Assayas' '70s youth saga "Something in the Air" Credit: MK2 Lola Creton (with Clement Metayer in the background) stars in Olivier Assayas' '70s youth saga "Something in the Air"
Credit: MK2

'Something in the Air'
Director: Olivier Assayas
Stars: Clement Metayer, Lola Creton
Rating: R
5 (out of 5) Globes

The films of French director Olivier Assayas capture the spark of life lived in the moment. In “Carlos,” his epic, three-part account of the terrorist Carlos the Jackal, history seemed to become present. His roaming camera trailed energized people looking not past or forward but caught up recklessly in the now. No one lives recklessly in the now better than youth, which is why Assayas’ best work is 1994’s “Cold Water,” where teens embrace self-destruction, or simply throw one of the best parties in film history.

“Something in the Air,” his latest, is a kind of spiritual sequel to “Cold Water,” insofar as it focuses on the next stage in life. The characters in the film, chiefly floppy-haired young artist Gilles (Clement Metayer), are college-aged and precocious, animated and hungry but as driven as they are misdirected. Fresh off a dumping by his muse, young Gilles falls in with Christine (Lola Creton, on loan from Assayas’ girlfriend Mia Hansen-Love, who directed her in “Goodbye First Love”). Christine is politically-minded and embroils the pouty, self-serious Gilles in radicalism. This only briefly energizes him, though, but not before a caper winds up nearly killing a policeman.

In its native France, “Something in the Air” is called “Apres Mai,” or “After May.” That’s a reference to the storied events of May 1968, when workers' strikes swept across France, nearly collapsing the country. Students were among those who joined in solidarity, leading to violent clashes with the police. These events loom large in the left's memory, not only for those who participated — many of whom never recaptured the intensity of those days — but for those that came after. “Something in the Air,” set in the middle of the 1970s, concerns those people. The characters want to pretend that they’re living in times as volatile as May 1968. They don’t, and yet there’s still work to be done, still oppressed people in France and elsewhere. If only the various splinter groups could mobilize, quit bickering and find a clean, coherent message.

Assayas sticks with Gilles, who over the course of the film drifts from drawing to politics to — just like his maker — movies. The shape-shifting nature of the film makes for a less thrilling experience than “Cold Water.” (It briefly nods to that film, with another country-set house party with loud rock music.) But it’s about the after-party anyway. It’s a crystallized, incisive portrait of the decay of youth, when interests narrow, often latching onto something one never expected. For Gilles, it’s working on a nudie monster movie set on a submarine. For others it may be different.

 
 
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