SOMETHING IN THE AIR
Written and Directed by: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Clément Métayer, Lola Créton, Felix Armand, Carole Combes, India Menuez, Hugo Conzelmann
To be a youth in France in the early 70’s must have been a glorious experience. All those worldly ideals and hormones swirling to create a tangible atmosphere rife with rebellion. Director Oliver Assayas, who garnered much critical acclaim with his previous features SUMMER HOURS and CARLOS, has returned to his own personal font of youth to tell us a tale of teenage idealism clashing with onset adulthood in the drama SOMETHING IN THE AIR. While the story feels deeply personal (though blessedly not in an imposing, pressing way), it’s a slow walk down memory lane that may lack emotional resonance for mass audiences.
Our tale takes place in 1971 on the outskirts of Paris. The gendarmes are clashing with protesting youth, leading to violent beatings and arrests. One such group of these radical liberals contains our protagonists: Mop-headed part-time communist/part-time artist Gilles (Clément Métayer), folically challenged revolutionary Alain (Felix Armand), surly Jesse Eisenberg/Carrot Top clone Jean-Pierre (Hugo Conzelmann), and beautiful idealist Christine (Lola Créton). In an act of defiance, their underground organization trashes their school. However, all does not go according to plan when a security guard ends up in a coma, and evidence is found implicating Jean-Pierre. In order to lie low and distance themselves from Jean-Pierre and the scandal, the motley crew takes a road trip to – ooh la la! – Tuscany, where they begin to uncover their unique identities and make personal discoveries.
Overall, this is a gorgeous testament to the strength of the spirit of youth. Assayas has assembled a fantastic cast of mostly first time actors (with exception of Créton and Menuez, who’ve starred in other features) who handle the nuances of their performances like seasoned professionals. Characters’ struggles are not only compelling, but authentic. It’s interesting to see how the teens start out preaching equality and end the film on such different footing. Assayas’ camerawork in conjunction with breathtaking cinematography from Eric Gautier make for a formidable feature. You get the feeling that you are fighting the good fight right there beside these kids – and also yearning for them to get a clue about the real world.
Even though SOMETHING IN THE AIR is beautifully shot, and the soundtrack is excellent (punctuating more than a few scenes), the narrative may lack resonance with some viewers. The semi-auto-biographical story Assayas has written makes the film feel intensely personal. Normally a good thing (‘write what you know’ isn’t a clichéd phrase for nothing), here it feels self-indulgent and tad narcissistic as there are no major character arcs. While there are some really good questions raised throughout the picture, and I can see why audiences gravitate to his work, the story is a bit of a slog. Feeling twenty minutes too long, there’s just not enough of an engaging story to sustain the two hour run time. Echoes of SCENT OF WOMAN’s B-storyline are there, combined with an organic coming-of-age story; however, it fails to land, making you wish whatever is in the air would just dissipate at a faster pace.
3 out of 5
SOMETHING IN THE AIR plays at AFI Fest on November 2 and 4. It opens theatrically on May 3 with a national roll out to follow.