Something In The Air is a sweet little film that is just a bit too big for itself. Revolution is in the air, and the film follows a group of students after the events of France in May of 1968. For those unfamiliar, don’t worry; all you need to know is given to you early. Students, artists, intellectuals, and political activists are speaking and acting out against outdated social conventions ranging from materialism to sexuality and clamoring for student rights. Think of them as more militant French hippies or artsy Occupiers and you have the right idea.
The students are highly literate, versed in Stalinism, Trotskyism, Maoism, Anarchy and more, but the screenplay is not so inaccessible as to require the same understanding from the viewer, who needs only to understand that there is a great deal of complexity of the political situation and to grasp that conflict is regular even among those who generally agree. In one of the more immediate arguments, an activist asks if revolutionary cinema—that is, a film advocating for a social or political revolution—should also employ revolutionary syntax. The filmmakers respond that such syntax would “confuse the proletariat” but their system would allow for education. Gilles (Clément Métayer) disagrees, and much of the film is about his journey to find some form of revolutionary, formalized artwork, albeit while balancing politics and (especially) love on the side.
Mapping the film from A to B is a mostly pointless task. Something In The Air is more about taking us through the lives and thought-cycles of young revolutionaries than making a judgment about their own politics. Hopefully the inner-conflict that plagues the youth is proof enough that their discourse can be just as problematic as what they are rebelling against. But girlfriends come and go, political opinions change, and people move from painters to filmmakers, activists to dancers, and more. Olivier Assayas has said the film is semi-autobiographical, and as such it would make more sense for the film to be about making sense of a time and place rather than focusing too heavily on a political conflict. If Something In The Air proves anything, it’s that sometimes things don’t make sense. We drift through life in a series of stop-and-start interests miring a few constant passions. People come and go, and we try to move on but are afraid to leave our friends behind. Most of the film’s obvious themes—the role and power of art, politics, youth—do not even arrive at uncertain conclusions. At the end of the film, they just keep going. Nothing has been settled yet, and nothing will be. These questions stay with us throughout life and the beauty of youth is that we are so captivated by them.
This is one of the film’s big weaknesses but also one of its most compelling strengths. With nothing concrete being suggested about the abstract problems raised throughout the question, it’s easy to see Something In The Air as an over-ambitious coming-of-age film that never finds its footing. At the same time, that lack of epiphany is also one of its biggest statements. The film keeps a smart distance from the revolution, leaving its characters to ponder it amongst themselves while the viewer gets a look at the bigger journey, the one of self-discovery, that the characters could not reflect on so easily. It’s no coincidence that both of Gilles’ contain a self-awareness that he doesn’t; Gilles is being pulled between artistic growth and the self-discovery that goes with it but is desperate to stay rooted in his own political truisms.
As literate as the script that displays all of that is, it’s Assayas direction that allows us to make sense of the quietly sprawling story. The most lyrical moments are the outdoor exteriors, where Eric Gautier makes natural light evoke memories and optimism in much the same way he did in Assayas’ Summer Hours, and the psychedelic soundtrack is utilized to great effect in everything from parties to picnics. Every exterior is beautifully and lovingly captured, as if Assayas’ is trying to recreate his fondest memories. Sometimes the memory is more sad than happy, but Assayas is reveling in the good that came of it. Even the melancholy is beautiful. The muted, distant approach doesn’t distract from its optimistic and loving outlook. There is a scene in which Gilles’ best friend joins a circle of friends on the grass, a man with a guitar playing songs of revolution, but the politics fade into the background, and a focused, close camera captures the beauty of the encounter. Politics are secondary to watching these people fall in love.
What Assayas’ is really celebrating is the determination and growth of youth. He’s celebrating the crazy side, and he’s showing the mistakes but emphasizing the intellect. It’s an ode to the fleeting moments of happiness and usefulness that color our best memories, beautifully envisioned in lyrical images and an appropriately drifting but strangely coherent narrative. Even a party full of heroin, lost love, and a bonfire going out of control is made arresting through expressionist lighting and a thick, trippy soundtrack. The bad memories become just as dear and important as the good ones.
That’s what makes Something In The Air great. These people are quintessentially young, with admiration and a paradoxical, self-assured doubt unique to the always-learning, artistically-inclined youth. It’s not about politics and changing the world, it’s about fighting to discover yourself and exhibiting a specifically youthful passion and love. When the film reaches its ending, the message is one that any art-loving youth can immediately relate to, free of pretenses, beautifully intimate, and simultaneously tragic and liberating.