After Carlos: Assayas does himself in the Seventies
A couple years ago Olivier Assyas impressed the world with his dashing mini-series biopic about Carlos the Jackel, Carlos, a tale of radical agit-prop and sabotage in the Seventies by a leftist master of mayhem. But despite the success of Carlos it didn’t enable Assayas to show his own role in this period, so he made Something in the Air — original title Après Mai, “After May” — where an alter ego experiences the moment more as the writer-director himself did. This time there are some explosions, but nothing as spectacular as the radical acts in Carlos, though there is vandalism and Molotov cocktails and a blown-up car. The opening political stunts are carried out by lyçée students. Après Mai has nothing to do with radical terrorism. It’s a story of art and politics, music and love affairs, and how for a 16-20-year-old, they’re all mixed up together. If Carlos was Assayas’ ultra-cool-terrorist-in-the-Seventies movie, this is his talented-but-confused-French-youth-in-the Seventies movie, and it takes decidedly second place. The content of this second movie is no match for that of the first. Moreover though I know Garrel’s film is about 1968 and its immediate aftermath rather than the early Seventies, it was hard not to think of his deeply romantic and compulsively gloomy black and white film Regular Lovers while watching this. And though the newcomer Clément Métayer, who plays Gilles, is engaging and soulful in his sallow, long-faced way, he is no match for Louis Garrel (though he’s more like a real French teenager and less like the profile on a Byronic Roman coin). And despite her classic face neither can Lola Créton, who plays Gilles’ girlfriend Charlotte, compete with the subtle charms of Clotilde Hesme. Assayas’ new film is beautiful, detailed, and accomplished, almost too rich in splashy details. It might have been move evocative with a lower budget. Nonetheless the chops Assayas built up as a vibrant film historian in Carlos are still evident here, so although no match for the previous film, this is still impressive work with richer detail than most other films of this genre.
Something in the Air is a fumbling and unhelpful title. The actual one, “After May,” states the movie’s real theme: the disillusion and long search for meaning that followed the heady times of the Sixties. These high school students are a little like the much later Italian ones in Gabriele Muccino’s appealing (and swift and economical) debut Come te nessuno mai/Forever in My Mind, who envy their parents’ Sixty-Eight activism and start a school revolt, with all the trappings, to relive those days. But Muccino’s film knows where the boys’ minds are: for them politics is an excuse to lose their virginity. Assayas’ world is more complex, and Après Mai has a lot of serious discussions of revolutionary theory and political strategy. These kids are older and more serious than Muccino’s younger brother, Silvio, with his little earring and his urgent desire to get laid. Gilles is a serious artist, with, like Assayas’ own, a father in the movie and writing business; they work together some, and argue about how good or slapdash Gilles’ father’s screenwriting or Simenon’s Maigret novels are. Gilles is leftist in spirit, but art is the stronger calling, and he sticks with it, after the early activism and the continuing friendships with guys who make movies about labor unions in Italy or go to Afghanistan or Nepal, or somewhere.
Assayas gives Gilles/Clément a lot of face time, but he’s largely a vehicle for a travelogue of European youth in the early Seventies, and there are some great vinyl rock anthems, various pairings-off and those ardent political discussions. But most of all the director relies on big scenes, climaxing in a visit to Charlotte’s family mansion in the country in the summertime, when a spectacular hippie drug party is going on, complete with acres of candles, haystack bonfires, and finally a fire that invades part of the house, forcing Charlotte to leap from an upstairs window (that’s all of her for a while). This is a flashier, period version of the party at the end of the director’s Summer Hours, a simpler film but a more fully achieved one because it knows what it’s doing. But though Après Mai/AKA/Something in the Air is a big sprawling shambles, it evokes the Seventies in multifarious and true ways. I think I would watch it again. After all, it’s in French, and the French do this sort of thing, the politics, the art, the angst, the clothes, so well.
Something in the Air/Après Mai, in French with some English, 122min., debuted at Venice and was shown at Toronto. Screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where it was also included as part of the preferred group of the Main Slate. It will be released in France, Belgium and Switzerland Nov. 14.
Director: Olivier Assayas
Stars: Clément Métayer, Lola Créton, Felix Armand