With 2010’s Carlos, director Olivier Assayas not only created one of the best movies of the new decade, but provided a fascinating study of how the political idealism of the 1960s curdled into the nihilism and violence of the ’70s. His newest movie, Something in the Air, is a coming-of-age tale about an aspiring artist/filmmaker (according to Assayas, based heavily on himself), but it also traces the same general arc as Carlos, following characters who get involved in radical politics partly to make a difference and partly to look cool, yet end up feeling disillusioned and isolated from each other by the end.
The movie opens in a suburb of Paris in 1971, just three years after the student riots that brought French society to a standstill. Gilles (Clement Metayer) is an idealistic teenager who sells left-wing newspapers outside his school after class and creates avant-garde paintings. He and his friends soon get involved in a massive protest against the police that ends with a number of students being violently beaten, and they retaliate by vandalizing their school and covering the building with political slogans. Unfortunately, during a second attempt to deface the school, they’re confronted by a group of security guards and fight back, knocking one of the guards unconscious. The group decide that the best thing to do is to travel across Europe over the summer while their victim recovers, and hope that the heat has died down by the time they get back.
And so Gilles and pals Alain (Felix Armand) and Christine (Lola Creton) head out for Italy. Gilles at first pines for ex-girlfriend Laure (Carole Combes), whom he’s recently broken up with, but quickly falls into Christine’s arms; meanwhile, Alain easily scores a new American girlfriend named Leslie (India Salvor Menuez), who talks vaguely about studying the spiritual side of dancing. The newly formed foursome spend their time wandering the continent, chain-smoking incessantly, and helping a filmmaking collective work on a documentary that aims to expose the plight of Italian laborers.
To put it mildly, Something in the Air is not a plot-intensive film. It bounces around from scene to scene and location to location, coolly observing the aimless wanderings of its young characters, and the only connective tissue is Gilles’ slow realization that he no longer finds his friends’ lifestyles or associates all that interesting (he criticizes the filmmaking collective’s work on the grounds that it’s not revolutionary enough and that they’re using the language of bourgeoisie art in the service of radical ideals). But what makes this approach frustrating is that Gilles has to be one of the most vaguely defined characters to appear in any recent movie, despite the fact that he’s onscreen for most of the 122-minute running time. If you were asked to give a description of him, you’d probably settle on “ambivalent” or “shaggy-haired.” It’s hard to tell if this is a failure of Metayer’s acting or Assayas’ screenplay, but either way, it’s hard to get invested in Gilles’ maturation when he barely seems like a complete character.
Nevertheless, Something in the Air is always interesting on a moment-by-moment basis, even if you’re struggling to remember most of it a few weeks later. Assayas’ taste in soundtrack choices is, as usual, first-rate, and Creton is charming as Christine (you almost wish the movie were about her relationship with the filmmaking collective, who use her as a sort of live-in maid and intern). And amidst the blur of traveling and short-lived flings, there are a few terrific scenes -- Laure wandering in a drug-addled haze at a bonfire party at her parents’ home that ends with the revelers setting fire to the house, or Gilles working as a production assistant on a hilariously awful-looking movie that involves Nazi soldiers, a Godzilla-like monster, and a curvy beauty in a fur bikini.
It’s just a shame that those scenes don’t add up to a more clearly defined character arc for Gilles, since a good coming-of-age film needs to show how its protagonist has his heart broken and learns to survive in the world of adults. Befitting a movie that’s deeply autobiographical, Something in the Air has the vivid details of someone’s memories, but it also has the shapelessness too.
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- Released: 2012
- Review: With 2010’s Carlos, director Olivier Assayas not only created one of the best movies of the new decade, but provided a fascinating study of how the political idealism of the 1960s curdled into the nihilism and violence of the ’70s. His newest movie, Someth… (more)