“Film is a medium of the present. It happens on screen.” – Tim Orr
To make a film is to render the present past, and to watch a film is to render the past present.
The films of Olivier Assayas (“Summer Hours,” “Carlos”) are often explicitly about this temporal unease, especially his post-modern masterpiece “Irma Vep,” in which a director named Vidal (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, the iconic face of the French New Wave) struggles to find a relevant way to remake Louis Feuillade’s 1915-1916 serial, “Les Vampires.” In what Assayas has publicly considered to be a happy ending, Vidal deconstructs his own footage, superimposing the rough cut of his remake with a barrage of geometric doodles and ear-piercing feedback. Simultaneously mediated into oblivion and raw with personal struggle, Vidal’s work implicitly accepts that the cinema of the present is informed by the past, but not owned by it.
The magnificent “Something in the Air” is Assayas’ most directly autobiographical film to date, and it’s no surprise to see that his own coming-of-age hinged upon an elusive nowness, or that he had to effectively recast himself as Vidal in order to process his past.
The film begins with a floppy teenager named Gilles (Clément Métayer as Assaya’s blank but perceptive proxy) running around the February 9, 1971 demonstration, in which a branch of French maoists were teargassed by the Parisian police force. Originally titled “Après Mai” (or “After May”), “Something in the Air” rages with the orphaned energy that lingered in the aftermath of the May ’68 revolution, introducing us to the kids who were there to devour the crumbs of the counterculture. Gilles’ friends – the most memorable of whom is played by Lola Créton, perhaps the most compulsively watchable ingenue in all contemporary cinema – represent a generation of agitated adolescents so idealistic and impossibly beautiful that their physical presence alone is enough to suggest that this is a personal story told through a political lens, and not the other way around. Like a fire with nothing to burn, they have all the zeal in the world and no cause into which they might channel it.
Reductively (but helpfully?), “Something in the Air” is Olivier Assayas’ “Almost Famous.” An autobiographical coming-of-age story nested inside a fiercely nostalgic portrait of an artistic culture in transition, the film is warm, wistful, and absurdly cool in that casual way which is impossible of the present (a girl with whom Gilles has sex mentions that her father does the lighting for Soft Machine, which, ya know, no big deal).
Gilles’ innocence – imprinted upon us by the fact that he’s little more than a mute witness to the crime that uproots his life – only amplifies his struggle to live in the moment, the fading light of the film’s sun-dappled cinematography and the restless pace at which Assayas strings Gilles along his various misadventures underscoring the extent to which “Something in the Air” is no more concerned with the incidents it depicts (or their attendent politics) than it is the speed at which they slip into memory.
The film is particularly honest in how it depicts, in broad strokes, the formative impact of romance on a kid bumping up to 20, the way that Gilles’ bundles his maturation into a series of flashbulb moments, their traces singeing him like the shadows of a screaming explosion painted onto brick. A white summer dress, a girl fitting into the crook of his arm just so as she slept, another telling him not to watch as she walks out of his life, Assayas then allowing Gilles to do so via a crane shot that makes the memory relevant again by seeing it from an impossible remove. Through Gilles, Assayas personifies the sublime embarrassment of self-discovery, pitting the “me-ness” of the human experience against the independence of our infatuations, how much we wanted them to be ours forever, and how comfortable they seemed to be with the idea of existing on their own – how it all inevitably lead to that moment when you began to participate in your own life rather than just glomming on to the most beautiful ideas you could reach.
These abstract feelings have their immediacy returned to them by the fluid movement of Eric Gautier's camera, the DP who shot "Irma Vep" (and a ridiculous assortment of other modern classics) re-teaming with Assayas to create compositions that feel both headstrong and completely unanticipated, the camera always looking in the right direction with perfect focus as if by happenstance. The flow of the film's images achieve a velocity that holds the narrative together even when Assayas strains to resolve a (dramatically satisfying, but somewhat superfluous) abortion subplot long after it has abandoned any direct bearing on Gilles' maturation.
Revisiting the themes of 1994’s “Cold Water” (and, in one spectacular set-piece, expanding upon individual scenes), that “Something in the Air” is a gift to Assayas acolytes mustn’t distract from how enormously entertaining and relatable the film will be for anyone who has lived long enough to realize that the past won’t make sense of itself, and that self-discovery is the only truly radical idea worth pursuing. Like all of the best autobiographical cinema, the film proves (in Assayas’ words), that “the screen is the place where a memory can be reborn, where what has been lost may be found, where the world can be saved.” Thanks to "Something in the Air," it can also be savored.
SCORE: 9.1 / 10
P.S. I jumped the gun a bit and included “Something in the Air” on my list of The 25 Best Films of 2012. See where it fell: