Children of the revolution – ★★★½
Olivier Assayas’ first major work since his epic, sprawling biopic Carlos (334 minutes) sees him telling a personal story about a young French student struggling to define himself in the early 1970s.
The film’s French title “Après mai” alludes to the timing of the story which takes place in Paris in the shadow of the May 1968 student and worker “revolution” that alerted the world to a new sense of unrest that was gripping France. The man loosely based on Assayas is Gilles (Clément Métayer), a teenager who is coming to the end of his high school education but is currently more interested in left-wing politics and street protests. These involve covering their school in graffiti, petrol bombs attacks and general anarchist tactics designed to unsettle the establishment. He’s joined in his adventures by two of his friends, Alain (Felix Armand) and Christine (Lola Creton). When one of their attacks goes wrong and a guard ends up in a coma, the group disband and lie low for a summer in Florence with Gilles and Christine briefly doing a line.
There’s lots of story and movement fitted into a film that clocks in at a little over two hours. Everyone takes themselves very seriously, but then you remember that at 19, you can’t really step back and laugh at how ridiculous and self-important the image you’re projecting is. The middle-class students we meet aren’t exactly struggling for money so can indulge their interests in art, film, travel and protest, and all while dressed as members of The Strokes.
While all of the characters are very dry and French, the Assayas-like Gilles is probably the most relaxed and the one you’d most like to go for a coffee with. While he was maybe a little too bashful to reveal himself fully in high school, over the years his true passion for cinema and belief in love take precedence over any anarchist pretentions. Many of his friends and colleagues will say and do things that will may illicit some grimacing but throughout the film he remains a damn cool dude, albeit one who isn’t sure he’s really all that bothered with all the fuss around France’s New Left. The fact that the man portraying him, Clément Métayer, had never acted before makes it all the more impressive.
Something in the Air’s greatest strength is probably its sense of time and place. Much like Assayas’ Carlos or the Chilean picture No, it effortlessly brings us to an earlier time with phenomenal attention to detail in the production design in little things like their printing presses and studios, even the vans they drive and the trains they take all help us rewind forty years. The fact EVERYONE smokes pretty much non-stop is also a delight to behold when we’re used to seeing Hollywood films where only the villains are allowed to hold a ciggie. The cinematographer Éric Gautier has done a superb job in shooting the film, almost floating his cameras through scenes and giving it all a wonderfully soft, romantic feeling with vintage colouring that will have some people thinking they’re looking at a moving advertisement for photo-filtering tool Instagram.
Its got a lot wrong with it and its pacing and uneven supporting characters (the American redhead really can’t act) will frustrate a lot of people but it works well as Assayas’s portrait of himself as a man growing into himself and finding out where his true interests lie. *spoiler* – cinema
France / Directed By: Olivier Assayas / Written By: Olivier Assayas / Starring: Clément Métayer, Lola Créton, Felix Armand, Carole Combes / 122mins / Drama / Release: 24 May 2013 (Ireland, UK)