Rating:First of all, forget about the title Something in the Air. It means next to nothing, a painful example of the way that just about any title that includes unfamiliar nuance needs to be scrubbed into benign insignificance for American audiences (a practice undertaken most notably when The Madness of King George III dropped the Roman numeral so as not to baffle audiences only accustomed to seeing such adornments on sequels). In France, the film is called Après mai, a reference to the time after the explosive events in May 1968 that began with student strikes. The film begins in 1971, in a place described as “not far from Paris.” High-school students, too young to have participated in the insurrection just three years earlier, are trying to preserve the righteous calls for anarchy and social overthrow. It is after May, but they are doing their best to prolong at least the echo of that notable month.
Director Olivier Assayas was 13 years old in 1968. The film would smack of autobiography even if there wasn’t the added tip-off of a similarly titled memoir that he wrote (A Post-May Adolescence). Certainly by the time the main character, Gilles (Clément Métayer), is beginning to work as a fledgling member of the movie business, there can be no doubt that Assayas is tracing his own experience growing up as memories of revolution fade. There’s a loving devotion to tracking the details of how these characters interact with one another and engage with the world that they find unbearably plain. He’s especially fascinated by the tangible pieces of protest—mimeograph machines, posters, handbills, newspapers—which in some ways seems a nostalgic rebuke to the comparable ease of fighting the power with a smartphone and a Twitter account. These rebels needed to work for it.
As entrenched as the film is in established authenticity, it falters as a piece of drama. It’s convincing without being compelling. The bushy hairdos, psychedelic clothes and cross-legged circles around a guy playing Phil Ochs songs on his guitar all set the mood, but they don’t add up to a plot. There’s a security guard who’s injured during the retreat from a graffiti raid and some relationship bliss and misery that Gilles pendulums through, but these are excursions within the journey, not the purpose of the piece itself. The haziness of the story infects the characters too, with many of them coming across as interchangeable types, or even empty shells moving through the action. Besides the mise-en-scène, Assayas provides precious little to grab onto. That works better for something like Summer Hours, Assayas’ 2008 meditation on a family dealing with death, where the patience to let the truth emerge gives it more weight. Here, the film could use some of the energy of its youthful firebrands.
Then again, part of Assayas’ point is that youthful energy fades. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the way it tracks the progression of political convictions, the way they atrophy and fall away over time, especially when more homey responsibilities of home and job start to take precedence. The film makes a clear argument: no matter what, May won’t last forever.