French filmmaker Olivier Assayas’s “Something in the Air,” a semi-autobiographical tale of revolution that manages to feel both shambling and urgent at the same time, takes its title from the 1969 Thunderclap Newman song of the same name, the chorus of which features the line “We have got to get it together now.” The film’s original French title, which translates to “After May,” may help explain the reference.
Set in 1971, during and just after senior year for a group of high school friends — a time of transition and new beginnings — the film is about finding oneself.
It centers on a stand-in for Assayas: Gilles (Clement Metayer), an aspiring teenage painter, who is, like many of his peers, still halfheartedly caught up in the radical leftist fervor that was awakened in France’s youth by the riots of May 1968. Although it helps a little if you know what those protests were about — partly workers’ rights, but other forms of liberation, too — it doesn’t really matter. It’s never clear whether the movement that Gilles and his pals discuss with such passion is a cause or a pose.
Assayas doesn’t seem to care either, dropping cryptic references to such police organizations as the C.R.S. and the S.A.C. without explaining what they are. One scene features someone singing a protest song about the obscure American journalist and activist William Worthy, who in the 1960s violated State Department travel restrictions by going to Cuba. At least there’s an English-speaking character (India Salvor Menuez) there to explain the song to her French boyfriend (Felix Armand) — and to us. Most other details seem included for period flavor, of which there is plenty. The “something” in the air here might be hippie music mixed with pot and tobacco smoke.
Love is also in the air.
Gilles starts out dating Laure (Carole Combes), only to hook up with Christine (Lola Creton) after Laure dumps him for an older man in London. Gilles and Christine get together after the accidental wounding of a security guard — during a night of vandalism and Molotov cocktails — forces the pair to lie low in Italy for a few months, organizing Italian workers, after graduation. A perfect subtitle for the film might be “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.”
But the real revolution that Assayas is talking about isn’t political. It’s the one that everyone goes through in the process of growing up.
Gilles is looking for romance, even as he’s looking for the sense of belonging that’s conferred by hanging out with cool kids. But he’s also an artist, and that means that he’s interested in making something that makes a difference.
The fevered impatience of the young to matter is what Assayas gets exactly right. Should Gilles’s friends go back to school or travel to Nepal? Should Gilles continue painting, switch to making films or work for his father? Other than Gilles’s dad (Andre Marcon), the movie is almost an adult-free zone. “Something in the Air” smells like freedom, but also a little like panic.
Gilles and his cohort don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. But more important, they can’t make up their minds whether they want to set the world on fire, or burn it down.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains nudity, sexuality, drug use, obscenity, violence and pervasive smoking. In French, Italian and English with subtitles. 121 minutes.