Olivier Assayas’s new feature, Something in the Air, opens with a spectacular clash between student protesters and riot police captured with a rending volatility and tactile immediacy that is electrifying though jolting and terrifying in a sad, even mournful way.
The movie (I prefer the more evocative French title, Après mai) is the concluding piece in a loose trilogy of autobiographically-shaped features starting with the superb Cold Water and the more introspective and subdued Late August, Early September.
The film that made his international reputation, the 1994 Cold Water developed out of the excellent French television series, All the Boys and Girls of Their Time (the same series yielded Andre Techine’s Wild Reeds, Chantal Akerman's Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the Sixties and Claire Denis’ US Go Home).
Set in 1972 on the outskirts of Paris, the story concerns the mysterious love affair of two criminally beautiful sixteen-year-olds, Christine (Virginie Ledoyen) and Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet). It was the first significant part for the unforgettable Ledoyen, and she lends the material a startling, feral quality.
Their rendezvous in the countryside sets in motion the movie's astounding final forty minutes set around a party at an abandoned chateau. The bacchanal, anarchic and impulsive, is enthralling and majestically captured (like the bonfire, abetted by the teenagers that use the broken down furniture as kindle), attuned to the freedom and energy of the music (Janis Joplin's version of “Me and Bobby McGee”) and the gloriously unpredictable and beautiful movements of the actors' bodies and faces.
Working with his early collaborator, Denis Lenoir, Assayas achieved a remarkable stylistic fluency in his bracing and startling capture of character, movement and situation that achieve a lyrical and privileged sensation. The movie's ending, charged, grave and wounding in its implications, is the most ambiguous of the director's career. One always sensed Assayas was never fully finished with the ideas, themes or characters.
Now, thankfully, Assayas has gone home, as it were, remixing, rethinking, some of the same material, from a different perspective, and the incandescent and thrilling result is his new feature. I’ve seen it twice now, and the second viewing helped clarify what I really like about it.
Cold Water was rough, messy and unfinished. Something in the Air has a rare and vital tone, a tough, honest and scrupulous reconstruction of the past, its youthful ardor mixed with a romantic verve, and how consideration of artistic choices and personal commitment spun on a dime, fleeting and often out of control and rapidly changing moment to moment.
Assayas is very acute of the personal ramifications of the “long decade,” that marked the nineteen-sixties, and what the carryover for the next generation of student radicals entailed. The self-portrait is wounding, even deflating, in what it unmasks. As a more doctrinaire friend observes, Gilles’s personal tension is naturally exacerbated between the solitary nature of his art and his obedience to the movement.
“I live in my fantasies,” Gilles says. He is naturally a man that stands outside, observing, coloring and reacting to events.
In this version, Gilles (Clément Métayer) is a talented young painter and somewhat reluctant participant in the social and political fervor that exists in the aftermath of May 1968. He is member of a cell composed of high school students who are involved with all manner of street theater provocations, distributing leaflets and committing small, isolated acts of political sabotage.
His dismay, even dissatisfaction, with the movement, is a constant. His uncertainty about the intellectual legitimacy of his actions and the necessity of his art is echoed emotionally, in the two women he oscillates between, the willowy and dramatic Laure (Carole Combes) and the smart, fearless and committed Christine (Lola Créton). As Laure recedes from his life and Christine assumes a more important role, Gilles slowly, irrevocably, begins to assert his own independence, regardless of the consequences.
After a security guard is seriously injured during one of the political demonstrations, Gilles, Christine and another friend, Alain (Félix Armand) flee to Italy and begin their own unsentimental education on art, sex and personal discovery. These passages are the most buoyant and transfixing in the film.
The camera, wielded by the great Eric Gautier, is fleeting and observational. Assayas’s liquid and relaxed style has moved from the nervous exhilaration of Cold Water to something pure, free and elastic, like the landscape rushing by as a train darts through the Italian countryside, a light that Gilles shines on Christine’s face, the charged, precise line renderings Gilles draws from the naked form of Christine, or the camera floating above and trailing Laure following her painful break up with Gilles.
The last time I interviewed Assayas, he said: “I think in time the influence of [Jean] Renoir has been growing. He's always been a filmmaker who was very dear to me. You have other filmmakers that really strike you. When I started making films, I had this big influence of the work of [Robert] Bresson, who for me was the most important thing in cinema. I kind of drifted toward Renoir.”
The Bresson connection is also relevant. The new feature, explicitly, acknowledges the influence of Bresson’s 1977 penultimate feature, The Devil, Probably. The class and period milieu is very similar. It’s worth noting, Assayas wrote a piece in Film Comment, where he talked about his friendship with Antoine Monnier, the great-grandson of Henri Matisse who played the ill-fated Charles in the Bresson film.
In the movie, like life, the hero privileged image-making to agitprop, luxuriating in a vivid and sometime contradictory kaleidoscope of movie history to locate his own voice. Rueful, observant and beautiful, Something in the Air is about how that vital and discerning consciousness came to be.
Thank goodness for that.