Something in the Air 13/06/13 3:21
The movie opens in 1971 with a demonstration by radical high school students being broken up by baton-wielding, tear gas spraying riot police. We get to know four or five of these students as they take different paths over the coming years, with the central figure a young painter named Gilles, played by Clement Metayer. Gilles has a romantic fling with a poet played by Carole Combes, who goes off to England and later appears submerged in the hippie drug culture. Then he hooks up with Christine, played by Lola Creton, a fellow member of the radical group that prints leaflets and does night-time graffiti raids where they spray slogans on the walls of the school. It sounds a bit silly in retrospect, but Assayas treats it with the same matter-of-fact tone that one would experience it with at the time. After an incident where a school guard is injured during a violent confrontation, a group of them flee to Italy for awhile, where Christine ends up going off with a film collective and another friend falls in love with an American dancer and ends up traveling to the far East with her.
As you can tell, the film is episodic in nature, but such is the director's skill that the pace of the editing, the gliding camera, and the soundtrack filled with interesting and obscure music from the period, blends into what seems like a total environment. Although this is France, the movie really speaks for almost any member of that generation in the West, America or Europe, living on the edge and believing that something new was coming to be. There's also a sense of an intellectual life, reading certain authors and discussing ideas, political and otherwise, which is a part of life rarely conveyed well in a film.
Assayas only hints at the complicated political infighting, between the anarchists and Trotskyites, for instance, and everyone against the Communist Party of the old left—but we get enough of the flavor to understand. This is not an analysis, but a lyrical glimpse into a neglected aspect of the past, and it's all done with marvelous skill. To use a musical metaphor, there are fine guitarists or violinists that I enjoy, but I can immediately tell the difference when a real master starts to play, and that's the feeling I get from Olivier Assayas, who is gifted with the ability to create an immersive experience on film that is something akin to genius.
The picture has the ragged shape and seemingly random quality of real life, but in fact it's an expertly crafted film that stands head and shoulders above most anything else you'll manage to see this year. It's not a film of judgment about the 1970s—there's no moral or satiric point of view, really—the director has the breadth and depth of vision to allow us just to be there and have our reactions, and hear the echoes from our own lives. Something in the Air achieves the kind of clarity that awakens multiple meanings and emotions if you are open to them.