Something in the Air
Runs Fri., May 10–Thurs., May 16 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 122 minutes.
What the ’60s were, and what became of the New Left movement it birthed, depends largely on your perspective. Conservatives regard the era as their crucible—that moment when Western civilization teetered on the edge of anarchy and had to be saved, even if it meant firing upon your fellow citizens. (Only days ago, Kent State unveiled a memorial to the four young antiwar protesters shot to death on May 4, 1970, by National Guardsmen.)
The scene in France was strikingly similar, as Olivier Assayas’ new film tries to make clear. But the counterculture’s rise and fall is also the Rashomon event of the baby boom. No two people remember it the same, and most lose something elemental in trying to pin it down for posterity.
Something in the Air is what Assayas calls an “extension” of his 1994 Cold Water, and it returns two character names from that film, Gilles and Christine, like archetypes of the radicalized young French left. Gilles (Clément Métayer) is an aspiring high-school artist of Banksy stripe, studying the human form by day and sloganeering with spray paint by night. It’s 1972, and his art is visceral, unabashedly political, and roaring for attention. His muse Christine (Lola Créton) is a coquettish nymph, all sex in sun-drenched rooms; her elliptical smiles bespeak affection without commitment. Their paths quickly diverge and intertwine again as Assayas’ script explores the restless wanderlust of leftists who come to realize, through a haze of pot smoke and random acts of vandalism, that they’re risking their lives for a cause that’s collapsing under the weight of its own aspirations.
The film works best as a travelogue. Picture Anthony Bourdain as a wide-eyed young radical guiding you through the streets of Paris as protesters are beaten down; into Italian piazzas where revolutionary films are screened for donations to the Cause; and to the Near East, where kids flocked for enlightenment and cheap hashish. Assayas captures this corner of the revolution with passion and a striking breadth. Visually, the film is often gorgeous, particularly as it lingers on an idyllic French landscape or meanders with an artist’s eye over yet another sexually liberated ingénue.
But—and here’s the problem with almost every film that attempts to depict the tumult of that era—there’s a sense that Something in the Air should be accompanied by a docent who explains that this is merely one twist of one artist’s historical kaleidoscope, and that half-a-dozen other filmmakers would gladly argue the veracity of every frame.