“Nothing tells memories from ordinary moments. Only afterwards do they claim remembrance on account of their scars.” – from Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962)
By 1971, the year in which Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air (titled Après Mai in French) kicks off, the film containing this wise bit of narration was already nine years old, and the French New Wave, to which it is loosely connected through timing and Marker’s affiliation with such figures as Agnès Varda and Alain Resnais (who are linked to that key period of film history, but often considered as a separate contingent of it under the term “Left Bank”), was a thing of the past. So too was May 1968, along with the feelings of solidarity and turbulence given off by the student and worker uprisings that gripped France in that short period of time, born from the striking parties’ broiling anger and determination to fight against the inadequacies of President de Gaulle’s government. Assayas grew up in a post-May ’68 France (as he describes in his autobiographical book A Post-May Adolescence: Letter to Alice Debord, which has been recently published in English for the first time by the Austrian Film Museum to coincide with Something in the Air’s expanding festival run) and established himself as both a film critic for the hallowed Cahiers du Cinéma and a filmmaker in a post-New Wave French film industry. Thus, in both politics and cinema, he was forced to come of age and find his true place without the comforting, unifying pull of a focused cause shaped by the hopes and fervor of like-minded comrades. He was truly of a lost generation left in the shadows of momentous changes and dramatic events that had long since passed, leaving behind a strange climate of ambiguity and aimlessness. Fortunately, Assayas (as well as other filmmakers of his time, including Claire Denis and Arnaud Desplechin) realized that the best way to challenge the New Wave’s legacy was to simply not challenge it, opting instead to better understand his personal relationship with story, character, theme, and form in cinematic terms, a focus that has successfully resulted in one of contemporary cinema’s most inspiring and exciting bodies of work.
But by no means did Assayas lose sight of those shadows of history. Instead, he dedicated himself to studying the sad and stirring sensations of time’s passage and the evolution of the world into a bewildering, multicultural, technology- and money-driven realm over the course of his films. With Something in the Air and its most apparent companion piece, the preceding Carlos, he crafted expansive, multi-layered portraits of historical and political change as perceived through the purposely short-ranged lens of his characters’ experiences. Hence the quote from Marker’s iconic film, which perfectly reflects both the heightened sense of immediacy and fluid propulsion between events that has become a distinctive component of Assayas’ cinema and the corresponding nature of his characters who meet each twist and turn in their lives as they come, often comprehending and reflecting upon the gravity of certain events only later, once the damage has been done, and only in brief and fleeting instances.
This in-the-moment focus is the central ingredient that lends Something in the Air both its intoxicating allure and heartbreaking sadness. Though the film indeed starts a few years after that all-important month of May, the viewer is hurled into a tone of drive and urgency that feels tangible and significant in its own right – initially, at least. Early on, our young hero Gilles (Clément Metayer) gets swept up with his fellow student activists in a flurry of clashes with armored police, guerilla graffiti offensives, and Molotov cocktail-spiked retaliations. But even though he involves himself in these militant activities, his true passions lie in the arts as both a developing painter and aspiring filmmaker. As the era’s cultural and political scenes bleed freely into one another, so too do Gilles and those around him integrate questions and theories about art and expression into their political projects. In one scene, an agit-prop film screened outdoors in an Italian village provokes a debate on cinematic style and whether it should be designed to be accessible to the masses according to established (and, to some, hated) forms or fashioned in a more challenging, “revolutionary” manner. Ideas, philosophies, and slogans are still sought, guarded, plucked, and swapped in this post-May time as young people wield them in their ever-constant searches for their proper places.
One element explored here that is also addressed in Carlos is the challenge of ensuring that one’s actions are closely aligned with one’s beliefs and conscience. Tied to that is the decision of whether to face risk in order to fulfill those beliefs or opt instead for the more disappointing route of safety and compromise. In both Carlos and Something in the Air, the course of history and changing ways of the world order gradually but definitively whip away the exotic promise of a life of risk and resolute action through the revolutionary struggle against capitalist imperialism (or whatever other evil one may fancy), replacing it with the parameters and threats of legal persecution and hard facts of life and survival. The romantic dreams of artistic success, drug-fuelled quests for enlightenment, and impulsive yearnings for love that fill Something in the Air aren’t suddenly erased, but instead torturously complicated, starved, and twisted by inevitable waves of maturation and practicality. Parents are turned to once more for jobs and shelter, soul-searching pilgrimages are cut short, personal ideas are put in the service of commodification and the media, secretarial positions and side jobs are taken, love affairs are strained and broken off. The utopian vision of the world after the revolution’s victory is always out of reach and focus like a hazy mirage; an idealized goal that appears different to each person striving to reach it. Over the course of the film it slowly dissipates, becoming less and less real to the confused youths who only ever had a flimsy grasp on it to begin with. And once reality finally sets in, those who are no longer eager to keep up the fight must adapt and conform.
Assayas has a strong talent for crafting characters who run along their respective tracks, pulled along their individual courses according to their differing beliefs, perspectives, experiences, and ideas of where they want to go in their lives. Occasionally, desire takes hold and leads to the thrills of love, only to be interrupted when the participants’ briefly converging courses are driven apart once more by new circumstances and events. In Something in the Air, the pain brought about by the ensuing distance is strongly felt in key scenes as Gilles and other characters fall in and out of each other’s lives. Politics, art, drugs, travel, religion, jobs – whatever the motivating factor, as the youths search for that elusive balance of meaning and survival, along the way sharpening their opinions and views while nobly attempting to keep them intact, paths branch off into unpredictable directions, plans are made and adjusted, and hopes and dreams are similarly compromised in light of the current conditions. Just as the film smoothly coasts along from one vivid moment to the next, so too do the young characters continually focus themselves on the business at hand, throwing themselves into printing and distributing revolutionary leaflets, painting, shooting films, traveling the world in search of fresh highs and epiphanies, returning to school, or starting new jobs – if only to distract themselves from the pain of loss, whether it is a cherished love, a meaningful cause, or one’s own youth that is being mourned. No, nothing tells memories from ordinary moments, but it is the memories that Gilles and the others are left with once they have exchanged the blind, blissful ideals of the past for the cold comforts of their new realities. And though they are still in constant engagement with the present moment, pouncing upon excitement and contentment where they can find them, in the film’s final scene Assayas allows Gilles a haunting moment of contemplation in which the beauty and happiness of his past appears before him in a captivating yet tragically inaccessible vision of what once was and might have been, but can never be again.