Film Review: Something in the Air

Politics and art intertwine as a student flees France in the aftermath of a violent street demonstration. Precise, powerful drama from director Olivier Assayas.

As a follow-up to his comprehensive, documentary-like Carlos, director Olivier Assayas returns to the low-key, semi-autobiographical style that made his reputation. A sort of counterpoint to his Cold Water (1994), Something in the Air is an intriguing, probing and satisfying movie.

On its surface, this is a coming-of-age story about a radicalized student's discovery of art. It's 1971, three years after riots brought France to a standstill, and the country is still split between those seeking revolution and foes holding onto the status quo. But for the vaguely upper-middle-class students surrounding Gilles (Clément Métayer), politics is something of a game. A dangerous one at times, but little more than a hobby like sports or music. And for Gilles, a way to meet girls.

Printing and passing out pamphlets, vandalizing his school at night, arguing with fellow travelers in dingy cafés, attending political meetings: Gilles does what he thinks he's supposed to do, even when he disagrees with the party line. When an encounter turns violent (and a girlfriend dumps him), he decides to spend the summer in Italy, ostensibly to help the cause. Instead, disappointed by his companions, he finds a new outlet in moviemaking.

Something in the Air has a casual, offhand feel, as if we are experiencing events as they are happening. Assayas hurtles us along from scene to scene, the world and the time gradually filling out as the story unfolds. When it comes to technique, Assayas simply doesn't make mistakes. The way he stages scenes, his daringly elliptical editing scheme, even his music choices are unerring.

Something in the Air is so accomplished and accessible that it's easy to miss how densely textured it is. A street demonstration early in the film turns into a bravura example of composition and editing, a series of angular shots smashed together for maximum impact. A simple shot of Gilles rifling through his father's coat for change starts in a sunny, leafy exterior, spins through three rooms, and ends in a handheld close-up, all with such ease and polish that you wonder why every movie can't look this good.

Technique for its own sake can be tiresome. But Assayas has more to offer than spiffy camerawork. And while his characters may quote Pascal and Marx, the script is about more than intellectual virtuosity. The students in Something in the Air mirror the "professional" terrorists in Carlos, and both films are in a sense about our inevitable disillusionment with politics. Even the title (a 1969 single by Thunderclap Newman) evokes a call to arms that fizzles to irrelevance.

Assayas not only captures a moment in time, finding the seeds of dissension within it, but asks us to reconsider our present. The youth of the 1970s may have been hopelessly misguided, but as the director shows, at least they had causes.

Filmmakers turn out routine coming-of-age stories in their sleep. Something in the Air is made with such precision, clarity and sweep that it redefines the genre.