Olivier Assayas' dreamy French flick Something in the Air opens in a high school courtyard "not far from Paris," where dozens of teenagers are milling around, dressed in cropped or shaggily over-long 1970's fashions. The next scene shows them launching themselves in protest on the streets and subsequently fleeing some vicious police brutality. In his film, Assayas has captured an almost ineffable energy of both youth and revolution—in which everything is simultaneously exciting and insufferably stalled.
Something in the Air centers on the student rebellions in France in the early 1970s. But more than depicting a slice of France in 1971, the movie is a wise and whimsical take on the way a summer transforms a group of high school students. The students are treated as ineffectual youth and dangerous revolutionaries. They actively rebell, whether it means working for underground newspapers or holding hands in movie theaters and getting scolded in their parent's basements.
The movie primarily follows one young homme, Gilles, who functions as a sieve of the times. He’s part of the political movement, not because he completely supports it, but because he wants to be part of the zeitgeist. While this could come across as pretentious or phony in another context, Assayas elevates Gilles' desire to be part of the scene as a form of self-discovery, perhaps because the film reads as slightly autobiographical for the director. Assayas was sixteen in France in 1971 and—touches of Cinema Paradiso here—probably had the same filmmaking aspirations as Gilles.
The details of revolutionary happenings are a little convoluted, but it doesn't matter, because the movie isn't really about that. It's about self-reflection and Something in the Air reveals this to us without getting into angsty on-the-nose dialogue.
Towards the movie's end, Gilles finds himself working on the production of a B sci-fi movie that features a Godzilla-like creature tormenting a WWII submarine. Gilles has that slouchy teenage mope on, and you can tell from miles away that he hates the artifice, the premise, the lack of vérité. Then, when a starlet in a Barbarella bikini messes up a take, Gilles makes a slow and steady fuck-you strut out of there. He gets a light from the man operating the kraken and walks behind the screen of the set, his shadow looming large in the sham background. He's off to make the art-house film of his dreams, and maybe the whole thing is a little silly but somehow, the moment is electrifying.
The characters are embedded in a softly sunny scenes, beautiful landscapes, and "magic hour" lighting. While Something in the Air boats a gentle glow of an idealized memory, its subject matter is about something darker. All told, Something in the Air is a gorgeous and substantive teen movie of the first order. As the characters navigate revolution and love and politics and art, we catch brilliant glimpses of personal and political turbulence below a rosy sheen.
Something in the Air opens May 3 in New York and Los Angeles.