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In ‘Something in the Air,’ Olivier Assayas creates all this useless beauty

‘SOMETHING IN THE AIR’ ★★★

Gilles Clément Métayer

Christine Lola Créton

Alain Felix Armand

Laure Carol Combs

Leslie India Salvor Menuez

IFC Films presents a film written and directed by Olivier Assayas. In French, English and Italian, with English subtitles. Running time: 122 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opening Friday at the Music Box.

The French title of “Something in the Air,” Olivier Assayas’ semi-autobiographical coming-of-age film, is “Apres mai,” which translates into English as “After May.” And everyone, or at least everyone of a certain age, knows that “May” means one thing in French: May 1968. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” wrote Wordsworth of an earlier revolution in France. “But to be young was very heaven!”

If that isn’t actually an onscreen epigraph in Assayas’ movie, it’s an implicit one. “Something in the Air” is suffused with its auteur’s nostalgia for a galvanizing moment in his adolescence that connected with a tumultuous and transformative period in modern French history: student protests, demonstrations, riots, police brutality, workers occupying factories, students occupying universities, culminating in a general strike that shut down the nation’s economy and government. Those were the days!

Nostalgia, of course, is associated with a longing for lost innocence, an ache for that quintessentially youthful optimism that views the world as open to endless possibility. The movie is populated with fresh-faced would-be high school revolutionaries whose precociousness is commingled with a comically endearing naïveté. These kids are poised on the cusp of “real life,” facing a dizzying array of new experiences to try out. While earnest and serious, they’re not sullen, though they hardly ever laugh, which is mildly disconcerting in such fresh-faced youngsters.

With so many issues of life-and-death importance swirling around them, nobody has time to waste on polite chit-chat about trivialities like the stock market or sports teams. Conversations, seething and roiling with passion and conviction, become fervent debates about the only things that matter: politics, art, philosophy, sex, love and friendship. They are the very molecules of the air these kids breathe, the wine they drink, the nourishment that feeds their developing bodies and minds. From the perspective of 2013, it all seems somewhat quaint — foolhardy but also rather noble.

What story there is in “Something in the Air” follows would-be painter and filmmaker Gilles (Clément Métayer) as he aimlessly wanders after romance, adventure, artistic ambitions and revolutionary politics from the suburbs of Paris to Italy and back again during the summer of 1971.The first time we see him, he’s carving an anarchy symbol into his wooden school desk with the sharp end of a compass. Right away we know he’s an artist of sorts, and we find that his interests extend to graffiti, propaganda posters and fliers, and watercolors he allows few people to see.

Assayas looks back on the values and priorities of the time with a vision that’s both wry and tender. When Gilles asks a member of a radical collective if he can borrow his 16mm camera to make a short film, he’s told: “We do agit-prop. Usually we don’t lend for fiction.” It’s a line that crystallizes the tension between aesthetics and politics underlying almost every introspective thought and social interaction.

In Florence, Gilles and a girlfriend come upon an outdoor screening of a documentary about Laos from “the Hedgehog collective.” The post-screening Q&A is priceless, as the usual self-congratulatory audience remarks are replaced by more loaded challenges to the filmmakers’ ideological purity.

A viewer characterizes their film for adhering to the “classical style” of the bourgeoisie: “Shouldn’t revolutionary cinema employ revolutionary syntax?” But, counters one of the filmmakers, “Such a style would be a shock to the proletariat. Our role is to enlighten them.” And what if this so-called revolutionary syntax was actually a manifestation of the “individualistic style of the petit bourgeoisie”? After all, “style” itself is for aesthetes: “You can’t make entertainment in revolutionary times.”

Gilles’ verdict: “Boring films, primitive politics.”

It’s almost like having a critic providing a running commentary track from within the movie. Of course, Gilles is a stand-in for Assayas, who is a former film critic, so there’s a wholeness to the movie’s conception, a feeling that the writer-director’s sensibility is shining through every frame — though compared to the operatic fever-dream of Bernardo Bertolucci’s daring, transgressive, NC-17-rated “The Dreamers” (2003), it’s pretty tepid stuff. Yet it has its own undeniable, understated charm.

The movie does meander, however, and there are times when I wondered if the American title, “Something in the Air,” referred to Eric Gautier’s camera, which glides incessantly through the treetops in so many nearly identical crane shots that it becomes almost a running gag. Yes, it’s lovely to look at, but I couldn’t help thinking of an old Elvis Costello album title: “All This Useless Beauty.” (Talk about the individualistic style of the petit bourgeoisie!)

As in Assayas’ “Cold Water” (1994), to which this film is an unofficial companion piece, most of the actors are non-professionals, which perhaps contributes to the air of emotional opacity that makes them seem so unformed, incomplete. That’s because the film is about the process of becoming — not in the sense of discovering one’s destiny, but of finding an identity that fits. Fans of Assayas’ “Cold Water” and “Summer Hours” will appreciate the fluid camerawork that snakes from room to room in some of the most seductive adolescent party scenes ever committed to film.

In the end, the pursuit of high-minded ideals can’t help leading to disappointment, because that notion of “ideological purity” is a myth. Callow as Gilles is, he’s established early on as a rebel among rebels when he buys a copy of Simon Leys’ “The Chairman’s New Clothes.” The Cultural Revolution is in full swing, but the book’s author says the whole thing is a sham, while some of Gilles’ traveling companions say it was actually written by a covert CIA operative as part of a plot to discredit Mao. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for them; they want to believe in a utopian leader, but they are doomed.

As summer turns to fall, Gilles finds his attentions drifting away from politics and settling on more practical concerns, like what to study in school. It’s “After May,” after all, and late in the season, the revolution cools along with the weather. What begins in white-hot fervor — tear gas and Molotov cocktails against injustice — settles into into more practical career-oriented ambitions. Dreams are deferred to accommodate unforeseen realities. Things change. Gilles finds work as a production assistant on a science-fiction exploitation movie “with prehistoric monsters and Nazis, I think.” Perhaps he’s discovered the perfect fusion of art and politics.



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