Made with the bittersweet clarity of hindsight and the assurance of a director in peak form, “Something in the Air” is Olivier Assayas’ wise and wistful memory-piece on the revolutionary fervor that suffused his young adulthood. Conjuring the mood and attitudes of 1970s European counterculture with pinpoint detail and nary a shred of naive romanticism, this tender but dispassionate semi-autobiographical drama offers a gentle rebuke to the celebratory spirit of many post-’68 movies, capturing how political zeal gives way to confusion, compromise and a dawning sense of personal identity. Local appreciation will be echoed by a warm reception abroad.
A much more genteel companion work to “Carlos,” Assayas’ indelible epic of ’70s terrorism, “Something in the Air” also harks back to “Cold Water,” his bracing 1972-set picture about Gilles and Christine, a pair of troubled teens in love and on the run. While the two young leads here are pointedly also named Gilles and Christine, the film in which they find themselves is a very different one, carefully observing their initial burst of teenage radicalism without sharing or encouraging it.
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A moody, dark-haired teen with a talent for drawing and painting, Gilles (Clement Metayer), like his pretty classmate Christine (Lola Creton) and many others their age, has been profoundly shaped by the tumult of May 1968. Following a vivid, harrowing reconstruction of a February 1971 clash between Parisian police and activists, Gilles and his friends mobilize themselves, reading left-wing newspapers by day and covering their school with graffiti slogans by night. But when a guard is injured during a Molotov-cocktail assault gone awry, several of them seek to avoid suspicion by heading abroad for the summer.
Partying hard and making love against the beauteous but politically restless backdrop of the Italian countryside, these passionate rebels-in-training immerse themselves in the leftist literature and dynamic visual art they hope one day to create themselves. Already jilted by his sultry g.f. Laure (Carole Combs), Gilles takes up with Christine, who shares his filmmaking aspirations but has very different ideas about how to fulfill them. Meanwhile, their painter friend Alain (Felix Armand) becomes captivated by a redheaded American dancer (artist-actress India Salvor Menuez).
Love and art, two things that would seem to dovetail with the characters’ revolutionary ardor, instead have a way of redefining their desires and exposing the fickle nature of their political allegiances. Following their blissful summer jaunt, Christine runs off with a filmmaking collective, leaving Gilles to return home feeling sullen and unsettled about his future, torn between the middle-class sensibilities he despises and a fierce radicalism he no longer has the energy to fully embrace.
“Shouldn’t revolutionary cinema employ a revolutionary syntax?” someone asks at one point, following a screening of agitprop films. It’s not the only moment here in which Assayas seems to be winking at viewers, who may recall the writer-director’s career has veered between cerebral high-art freakouts like “Demonlover” and deceptively bougie-looking dramas like “Summer Hours.” (Later, the film serves up a priceless sight gag when Gilles gets a job working at London’s Pinewood Studios, an episode drawn from Assayas’ own early filmmaking experience.)
Decidedly not revolutionary cinema, “Something in the Air” instead quietly demystifies its subject. The tone of the piece is wryly affectionate but never indulgent; the experiences depicted feel emotionally true and lived-in without ever catching the viewer up in a rush of intoxication or excitement. Eschewing the handheld restlessness of Assayas’ recent films, d.p. Eric Gautier’s luminous, sun-dappled compositions remain as steady as the editing by Luc Barnier and Mathilde Van de Moortel, which compounds the film’s slightly muted feel with regular fade-ins and fade-outs.
Particularly adroit is the use of music, drawing on a soundtrack hand-selected by Assayas from his own ’70s youth. Rather than merely laying in quick snippets of Syd Barrett, Amazing Blondel, Tangerine Dream, Soft Machine and Incredible String Band, the director allows songs to play out more or less in their entirety over long sequences of character interaction, establishing a free-floating, melancholy mood that doesn’t always work in obvious counterpoint to what’s onscreen.
Ably standing in for Assayas, Metayer is one of numerous first-time thesps here; French actress Creton is easily the sharpest and most recognizable thesp in the fresh-faced young ensemble. Francois-Renaud Labarthe’s detailed production design draws the viewer in with a wealth of sketches, posters, album covers, psychedelic projections and other visual materials that evoke the period as marvelously as Jurgen Doering’s costumes.