by Adam Nayman
Something in the Air
Dir. Olivier Assayas, France, IFC Films
About midway through Olivier Assayasâs roman Ă clef, set, as its French title indicates, âaprĂ¨s Maiââthree years after the charged events of May â68âthe directorâs tousle-haired juvenile stand-in, Gilles (Clement Metayer), encounters a cell of agitprop filmmakers. Moving through Italy with his new girlfriend/fellow traveler Christine (Lola Creton), he has met them at an outdoor screening of a didactic documentary about Laotian insurgents. The directors take a question from the audience about why their supposedly taboo-breaking film has been produced in such an accessible manner. âIsnât revolutionary syntax a petit bourgeois affectation?â chides the filmmaker cheekily. (I happened to see Something in the Air on the same day as Harmony Korineâs Spring Breakersâa film that illustrates this dichotomy a little too perfectly).
If Assayas is using this scene to practice a bit of the old Cahiers film criticism that jump-started his career, itâs not exactly a subtle gambit. A few colleagues even read this exchange as an unflattering authorial apologia for Something in the Airâs lightly airbrushed aesthetics, which are far from the revolutionary syntax of demonlover or even the crackerjack action movie moves of Carlos (another film, come to think of it, about the literally and figuratively seductive aspects of nascent activism). Upon a few weeksâ worth of reflection, I can concede Something in the Air is indeed a little anodyne, a bit blandly lovely both in its casting and in its seventies-inflected cinematography. Itâs also fleet and fluid, which are welcome qualities and recognizable hallmarks of Assayasâs cinema over the years to boot. In terms of its structure, the film is a picaresque, tied principally to its protagonistâs movements and adventures, but itâs far less grotesque than the genre usually demands. The violence is mostly kept at bay, but weâre aware that itâs lurking: the characters have an alert, observant quality. Itâs like watching a summertime idyll where everyone is looking over his or her shoulder.
If it seems at times like Assayas the filmmaker is a little wiser and warier than his youthful rear-projection, then that is a common byproduct of writing autobiography. Whatâs impressive is how strenuously he avoids condescending to Gilles and his compatriots, whose first flush of anti-authoritarian bravado surely has its callow elements. None of the plot beats or character shifts are loudly announcedâAssayas is by now an old hand at pitching his dramaturgy at the level of a stage-whisperâbut weâre still able to make out Gillesâs skepticism about certain aspects of the ultra-left's hard-line ideology; we perceive how his commitment to the cause is also to some extent a matter of chasing a girl. And we recognize that, as even heâs churning out posters and leaflets, his painterâs eye is as much on the eye-catching graphics as the ideas theyâre supposed to visually declaim, because Gilles is less an artist-revolutionary than an artist who is also a revolutionary. Heâs experimenting with his mĂŠtier, his libido, and the very idea of what it means to âbeâ somethingâespecially difficult to ascertain when other people have their own strong ideas about what that thing might be.
This is where Something in the Air is both at its strongest and its most affecting. It seems like Assayas, never known as an explicitly "personal" filmmaker, made it as much to take stock of where he is now in his life and his career as to do some sort of Proustian reconnaissance on his sun-dappled NiĂ§oise-salad days. The self-referentiality is multifaceted: Gilles and Christine are of course character names from Cold Water, which seems like an inescapable reference point, being about young artists and amour fou, and containing that epic, needle-dropping house party sequenceâa primal scene in Assayasâs cinemaâwhich gets mirrored (though not topped) in the new film. But even more telling is a sequence that takes place sometime aprĂ¨s aprĂ¨s-Mai, when Gilles has distanced himself from his more strident positions and is now trying to break into the commercial film industry instead of soldiering on with the agitpropers.
We see him gophering on the set of some grade-D creature-feature, and the backstage bustle of set dressers and impatient actors is wholly credible and evocative of yet another one of the directorâs movies: Irma Vep. Itâs the particulars, rather than the general atmosphere, that need elucidating here, however. As Gilles walks through the studio lot, we see extras dressed as Nazis kicking around a soccer ball and standing in their SS uniforms waiting for makeup; once they make it to the set, theyâre joined by a Raquel Welchâlooking babe in a fur bikini on the deck of a fake nuclear submarine. Thatâs the cue to bring in the fiberglass Godzilla, flapping its gums aimlessly at the odd assemblage while the crew (and we) look on with something less than awe.
Itâs a very funny scene, and itâs also an example of how when Assayas is really on his game, heâs peerless at integrating story, tone, and themeâthat he truly is a great filmmaker. Gestapo officers, cave-girls, and dinosaurs: all freeze-dried relics frequently reanimated by the movies, which in playing so fast and loose with history end up defanging and deforming it. Every movie about the past is an exercise in imaginative representationâincluding the very period piece that weâre watching. The bargain basement monster shimmies and undulates like a Chinese New Year dragon (Assayas is so smart that I am not putting any possible resonances past him) and it also gestures toothily towards the immediate future of cinemaâJaws and everything after. That Gilles is on hand to witness this silly but dead-serious spectacle is perhaps a joke on lowered expectationsâfrom abstract art to shameless schlock. Or it could mean that, watchful and alert young man that he is, heâs absorbing the full spectrum of responses to this ridiculous and sublime moment, so that he might remind himself of them forty years down the road, when he has long since graduated from fetching coffee for the schlockmeisters and has it in him to make a tender and perceptive movie about his own strange (pre)history.