27 May 2013

Olivier Assayas’ ‘Something In The Air’

When it came out in France last year, this film was titled Après Mai, May being that of 1968 when France descended into near-anarchy. It was a cathartic moment, subsequently referred to in France as les événements. Various directors have made films set during the period, (eg Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, (Innocents, 2003), but the subject inevitably has limited appeal outside France. Nonetheless there are probably quite a few people who were around at the time and agree with the late Christopher Hitchens:
As someone born in 1949, I prefer to consider myself not a mere sixties person but a soixante-huitard.
Assayas was born in 1955 and was probably kept indoors during the real thing. But since the tensions of 1968 continued for some years afterwards, his film, being to some extent autobiographical, concerns a group of lycée (ie high school/sixth form) students in the summer of 1971, three Mays later. It seems to be a convention in French cinema that the only subject seen to be taught in a lycée is French literature (cf Ozon’s In the House, earlier this year). To advance the cause of the proletariat these 17-year old children of the bourgeoisie engage in Maoist (or maybe Trotskyite, the sort of issue they would debate at length) acts of political violence, coming up against reality in the form of the CRS. For relief they dabble with the drugs of the period. You can take your pick as to whether the UK/US title, Something in the Air, is actually referring to tear gas or pot smoke, the revolution not so much being here as over. When it all gets too much they take themselves off to Italy for R&R and a bit of underground film-making.   Once back in Paris the Assayas-like character, Gilles, decides to abandon his talent for Eminesque drawing to follow in his father’s footsteps in the film business, just like Assayas did. So as the film ends he is starting work at Pinewood (chosen to boost the UK market perhaps, and looking like it did in My Week with Marilyn) on the set of a rubbishy Nazis and dinosaurs flick – well what would you expect from les Anglo-saxons? And where does Gilles finds solace but in a season of French experimental shorts at the Electric Cinema in Notting Hill.

To give credit where it’s due, the 1970s seem to be authentically set and the riot scenes are convincing enough. In that pre-digital age agitprop was a print-based activity, so the girls got to operate the machines when they weren’t keeping house for the collective or partying in long white dresses, as though auditioning for Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.  As may be apparent by now, I was a little disappointed in this film, particularly because I liked Assayas' Summer Hours (L'heure d'été, 2008). I suspect Après Mai might have benefited from editing down from its 122 minutes to 100 or so. Assayas is married to the talented young director Mia Hansen-Løve, whose film The Father of My Children (Le père de mes enfants, 2009), I mentioned at the end of a post here two years ago.

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