Film of the week: Something in the Air
by Jonathan Romney
Sight and Sound
Olivier Assayas reignites the early 1970s in all their vibrancy and vitality.
Since its completion, Olivier Assayas’s wistful Something in the Air has acquired additional layers of loss and regret. The film is dedicated to the director’s filmmaker friend, the late Laurent Perrin, while its editor Luc Barnier, a long-term Assayas associate, also died last year. The film’s final sequence is set to a number by British avant-rocker Kevin Ayers, who died this February.
All this gives Something in the Air a surplus of nostalgic poignancy. Assayas’s reminiscence of the early 1970s (following his 2005 autobiographical text A Post-May Adolescence) might recall the last words of Sentimental Education, as Flaubert’s characters Frédéric and Deslauriers, remembering their youth in turbulent times, remark: “That was the best thing we ever had.”
In Flaubert’s novel, these words carry a bitter charge, as Frédéric has failed to understand the historical urgency of the times he’s sleepwalked through. By contrast, Assayas’s student hero (and counterpart) Gilles very consciously lives his epoch to the full, in all its complexity and contradiction. Something in the Air looks back to the early 70s as, if not a lost paradise, at least a lost hotbed of infinite possibilities, and if the film is nostalgic, this is a nostalgia well earned. Assayas depicts a culturally and politically vibrant era made and lived through by intelligent, sensitive beings taking full advantage of their moment.
There is nothing glibly distancing about Assayas’s treatment of the period – which comes as a shock, given the way that British and American films about this era almost routinely use caricature to defuse their embarrassment at bygone idealism and stylistic exuberance. It’s bracing to see how Assayas respects the genuine experimentalism of the time – treating, say, a spacy improv-rock concert with liquid light show not as a grisly efflorescence of baba-cool hippie-ism, but as a vivid and valid manifestation of arts-lab culture.
The film’s English title – with its nod to the 1969 Thunderclap Newman hit, not featured on the soundtrack – alludes to the mood of a certain time, to something new about to emerge. However, the original French title, Après mai (‘After May’), suggests a theme of aftermath, of a generation arriving on the scene just too late – the film depicts the younger siblings of the Class of 68, their political passion coming to the boil three years after France’s national ferment failed to bring about the hoped-for tabula rasa.
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