The idea of contemporary high schoolers having a passionate argument about Trotskyites vs. Maoists is so alien as to feel like something out of science fiction, but we believe the political passion of the characters in “Something in the Air,” the stirring new film from writer-director Olivier Assayas (“Summer Hours”).
Coming of age in 1971, these teenagers are blossoming into adulthood in a very specific cultural context — the wake of the May 1968 demonstrations in France, in which both students and workers went on strike, grinding the nation to a virtual halt. (The film’s French title is “Après Mai,” or “After May.”)
Early on, we see our protagonist Gilles (Clément Métayer) and his comrades marching in the street, only to be attacked by riot cops wielding nightsticks and smoke bombs. (The phrase “police brutality” has been rendered quaint and powerless over the last 45 years or so, but Assayas portrays it with vivid horror.) This early encounter with the authorities drives the characters’ revolutionary fervor for the rest of the film.
Gilles and his friends vandalize their school with revolutionary slogans, and when a security guard captures their friend Jean-Pierre (Hugo Conzelmann), the rest of them return the following night to fire-bomb the guards’ shack; in the ensuing chase, another student drops a bag of cement on a guard, critically injuring him.
Deciding to leave town over summer break until the literal and metaphorical heat die down, Gilles heads for Italy with Christine (Lola Créton), who has become Gilles’ girlfriend after he gets dumped by the London-bound Laure (Carole Combes). Christine winds up going off with agit-prop filmmaker Jean-René (Simon-Pierre Boireau), while Gilles returns to France, initially still caught up with anti-establishment fervor but eventually more interested in pursuing his career as an artist.
There’s not a lot of “plot” here in the traditional sense, but that doesn’t mean that Assayas isn’t telling a story and doesn’t pack each moment with character revelations and social critique. He never underlines the things he’s pointing out – the subtle way, for instance, that supposedly enlightened male revolutionaries still expect the women among them to cook, clean and be available for sex – but for audiences paying attention, the filmmaker is laying out a rich tapestry of history with a minimum of old-leftie nostalgia.
In subtle ways, and through a collection of powerful yet subtle performances, Assayas addresses any number of ideas, whether it’s society’s pivot from ’60s radicalism to the complacency of the Me Decade or the inevitable withering of youthful idealism in the face of adult realities, which will continue to occur for as long as there are teenagers.
First-timer Métayer is a wonderfully expressive blank canvas; Gilles doesn’t talk a lot or react particularly strongly to the events going on around him, but he communicates volumes with the slightest facial expression. In fact, with the exception of Catherine Breillat veteran Créton, almost all of the young actors here are making their film debuts, and they bring a naturalist intensity that often gives “Something in the Air” an almost documentary feel.
At one point in the movie, the activist filmmakers get into an argument over whether a revolutionary cinema demands a revolutionary cinema language. Assayas has split the difference, capturing both the enthusiasm and the eventual dissolution of the spirited era with a narrative that’s both obscure and evocative.
Whatever side of the barricades you might have chosen to stand on in 1968, you’ll find his approach, and his characters, fascinating.