Identity Crisis
by Adam Nayman

Something in the Air
Dir. Olivier Assayas, France, IFC Films

About midway through Olivier Assayas’s roman à clef, set, as its French title indicates, “après Mai”—three years after the charged events of May ‘68—the director’s 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. “Isn’t revolutionary syntax a petit bourgeois affectation?” chides the filmmaker cheekily. (I happened to see Something in the Air on the same day as Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers—a 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, it’s not exactly a subtle gambit. A few colleagues even read this exchange as an unflattering authorial apologia for Something in the Air‘s 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 weeks’ 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. It’s also fleet and fluid, which are welcome qualities and recognizable hallmarks of Assayas’s cinema over the years to boot. In terms of its structure, the film is a picaresque, tied principally to its protagonist’s movements and adventures, but it’s far less grotesque than the genre usually demands. The violence is mostly kept at bay, but we’re aware that it’s lurking: the characters have an alert, observant quality. It’s 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. What’s 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 announced—Assayas is by now an old hand at pitching his dramaturgy at the level of a stage-whisper—but we’re still able to make out Gilles’s 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 he’s churning out posters and leaflets, his painter’s eye is as much on the eye-catching graphics as the ideas they’re supposed to visually declaim, because Gilles is less an artist-revolutionary than an artist who is also a revolutionary. He’s experimenting with his métier, his libido, and the very idea of what it means to “be” something—especially 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 Niçoise-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 sequence—a primal scene in Assayas’s cinema—which gets mirrored (though not topped) in the new film. But even more telling is a sequence that takes place sometime après après-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 director’s movies: Irma Vep. It’s 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, they’re joined by a Raquel Welch–looking babe in a fur bikini on the deck of a fake nuclear submarine. That’s 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.

It’s a very funny scene, and it’s also an example of how when Assayas is really on his game, he’s peerless at integrating story, tone, and theme—that 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 representation—including the very period piece that we’re 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 cinema—Jaws and everything after. That Gilles is on hand to witness this silly but dead-serious spectacle is perhaps a joke on lowered expectations—from abstract art to shameless schlock. Or it could mean that, watchful and alert young man that he is, he’s 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.

Read Adam Nayman’s interview with Olivier Assayas.