Review: Something In The Air (Après Mai)

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Something In The AirThe Pitch: The French version of The Young Ones turned out somewhat different…

The Review: From a very early age I had an aptitude for mathematics, so it was no surprise that mathematics was my course of choice when going to university. While I pursued my studies, other aspects of my life struggled to find breathing room; my piano playing days came to an end in my first year, while my occasional interest in film led me to write some enthusiastic reviews to help drum up interest for the film society at another university. Twenty years later, I’ve fallen into a career with a passing connection to my studies, taken up my interest in music again – but still can’t play the piano – and I still write the occasional review of a film here and there, the seeds of my present life having been liberally sown many years earlier. Olivier Assayas has taken a repeated interest throughout his career in what effect our formative years can have, in films such as his earlier Cold Water, and he’s also used the backdrop of his own adolescence in the quasi-revolutionary France of the Sixties and Seventies that was his own stepping off point. Here he returns to both those themes and settings for another look at disaffected youth, in a form of cinematic join-enough-dots-until-you-can-work-out-the-picture.

Gilles (Clement Matayer) is a young French activist on the political scene in his native France, distributing newspapers at the school gates in the day and engaging in graffiti and general disruption at night. When his group injure a security guard while on one of their late night activities, the group disbands and spreads across Europe to lie low for the school holidays, and the break up of his relationship with Laure (Carole Combes) sees him accompanied to Italy by Christine (Lola Creton), a fellow revolutionary who’s taken an interest in documentary film-making to promote political causes. While Gilles attempts to make sense of the direction his life is headed in, his path repeatedly intersects with others in his cohort, and as Christine and Laure and his other friends Alain (Felix Armand) and Jean-Pierre (Hugo Conzelmann) drift in and out of his life, Gilles’ search for his own sense of purpose leads him in unexpected directions.

While Assayas has claimed that there’s nothing overtly autobiographical in Gilles’ youthful evolution, the journey he undergoes echoes the director’s own background, as both character and director gravitate towards a life in film (Assayas, like many New Wave film makers before him, was an extensive contributor to seminal French film magazine “Cahiers du cinema”). What Assayas does capture wonderfully, through the use of an inexperienced cast and a minimal amount of narrative, is both the sense of zeal and purpose that often grips adolescents at the peak of their studies and also the sense of the youth of Seventies France attempting to find their station in society. Après mai, the original French title, refers to the 1968 social uprising that gripped France and threatened Charles De Gaulle’s presidency, and the social tension pervades the first half of the film. Assayas also considers issues of class, for despite their Communist and Trotskyist leanings this is a group of people sympathetic to class struggles rather than experiencing it themselves. The film successfully blends the various individual paths of the group as each searches for their own identity and purpose, whether more deeply involved in political or social causes or increasingly drifting.

That’s where Something In The Air struggles a little; it’s Gilles’ story that ties the threads together, but his deepening ennui and disaffection from the sharper end of the political movement is reflected in the second half of the film and when your central character becomes spiritually lost, it’s hard for that not to reflect back onto the audience a little. His increasing fascination with art forms for their own sake, rather than as political machinery, is also reflected in Assayas’ technique, and there are still both a few fun moments as Gilles’ own path comes to an increasingly strange point and some almost dreamlike imagery, especially in Gilles’ later encounters with Laure. Metayer and Armand, both appearing in their first feature, suggest longer careers are available and the naturalistic performances from across the cast are uniformly great. In addition to the effective cinematography from Eric Gautier (who’s also collaborated memorably with Walter Salles), there’s a fantastic contemporary soundtrack that helps to elevate the mood whenever the story sags slightly. For those that have a strong affinity to narrative structure, Something In The Air might prove a difficult watch at times, but for anyone willing to wistfully thinking back to their own youth, or indeed to speculate as to what might lie ahead, Something In The Air’s meditation on youth can be considered a reasonable success.

Why see it at the cinema: Assayas succeeds in conjuring some indelible images, and Something In The Air works better if you can immerse yourself in it, so much easier at the cinema. Additionally, there’s a symmetry to the shots of documentaries screening in various cinemas which will be lost slightly if left to a home audience.

What about the rating: Rated 15 for strong sex, nudity and drug use. It’s a fairly mild 15, but a justified one nonetheless.

My cinema experience: Apparently not the Friday night entertainment of choice in Cambridge, the showing I attended at the Arts Picturehouse had a grand total of five people in attendance. Thankfully screen 3, which can occasionally suffer from quiet sound issues, had the sound set to Friday night levels, all the better to enjoy the beautifully assembled soundtrack on full. Around the normal fifteen minutes of ads and trailers mirrored the more civilised experience the Picturehouse chain normally represents.

The Score: 7/10

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