Something in the Air (2012, Olivier Assayas)

Something in the Air _sees Olivier Assayas back in autobiographical mode again, mirroring his 1994 film _Cold Water _in not only form, but in the name of the protagonist created to represent Assayas,  called Gilles in both. Renamed rather than translated from the French title Apres Mai,_ (After May) Something in the Air is perhaps the more fitting title. The French title refers to the period in which the film takes place, as in after the civil unrest of May 1968. The English one to a Thunderclap Newman song from roughly the same time. The French title sets viewers up for a study of the aftermath of the revolutionary spirit of France at that time. The English ones merely speaks of the films wandering quality, making for no unmet expectations. There is something is the air, but Assayas makes no great attempt to grasp at exactly what it is.

Assayas seems more uninterested in specifics in this film than ever before, making mood his focus throughout this nostalgic muse of film. More of an evocation of a specific time and place than anything else, Assayas limberly follows his stand-in Gilles through Paris, Italy and London, as he meanders through youth - accompanied by floating camera and carefully selected pop tinged soundtrack - as Gilles tries to find his place within the world as Assayas saw it in the early 1970s. His searchings see him involved in a graffiti and molotov cocktail attack upon his school, in attendance at leftist cinema screenings in Italy, and ducking in and out of youth liberation front parties and meetings, as he moves gradually away from these acts of collective outcry and  navigates towards individual expression through the arts. Little is explained about Gilles, as the combination of a closed, quiet performance from first time actor Clement Metayer and deliberately vague writing from Assayas make for a purposefully shallow representation of character. Gilles, as avatar for Assayas, is fairly useless in learning much about the directors own past, his screen girlfriends struggling to read him as much as the audience, instead acting as a shoulder for Assayas camera to swoop over as he creates images of a time obviously fond to him.

This is the mode Something in the Air operates in. Vague and universal rather than directly insightful, Assayas offers fragments of his memory as guide Gilles moves from place to place throughout the early seventies, conjuring scenes that are evocative of a some kind of remembered past without revealing anything too notable. In a self-referential moment during one of the stronger scenes, a filmmaker at one of the leftist film club meetings replies "isn't revolutionary syntax a petit-bourgeous affectation?" when asked by an audience member why his film is presented in such a intellectually simplistic visual format. Assayas seems to be anticipating derision of his films choice of aesthetics over depth. Recognition doesn't exactly equate to address however. Most scenes, though vividly constructed - Assaya's command over mise-en-scene characteristically great and the sense of place and time always razor sharp - lack anything as memorable as this one line.

Assayas starts in incendiary fashion with the firebombing of the school,_ but _Something in the Air loses something of its impact as Gilles wanders on and on, Gilles' growing detachment from activism means less of the more explosive material Assayas dealt with in previous film Carlos, _though his gravitation towards art does produce some pleasing, more gentle moments._ The final scene, as Gilles takes up his first cinematic work placement on a B-movie monster flick in London, sees a return to clarity, proving a fitting means of showing Assayas realisation of his comfort within the artistic world, as well as a hugely entertaining, well-staged scene. Gilles walks past amusingly campy animatronic dragons and golden bikini clad vixens, looking content and at home for the first time.

Similar to Assaya's previous Carlos in its 1970s setting and lapsed-revolutionary characters, and to Summer Hours _which came before, in its floating camera, and nostalgic, sentimental mood, _Something in the Air, by its finish feels less satisfying and complete than either. The haziness of Summer Hours worked because all that mood, all that sentiment, was set against a discourse of conflicting familial values, modernity v traditionalism. There was a depth beyond the imagery. The subtext in Something in the Air is less tangible, and the superficiality more apparent. In _Carlos, _the commentary on lost ideals feels more decisive. As an amalgamation of the two, _Something in the Air _shows smidgeons of what these previous films offered, but only matches their greatest moments in passing, before Assaya's camera floats on or fades out before anything too climatic or incisive is allowed to occur.

This is intentional, Something in the Air is accomplished, but unassuming. It is entirely watchable, but fairly difficult to get too excited about, though perhaps it is heightened by some personal experience of the place or period. For some it may be an emotive, searching evocation of a particular time, for others it might seem all a bit lifeless and in need of a greater degree of clarity of purpose. Others something in between.

**★

Originally posted on Front Row Reviews.

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