Fuse News Film Review: “Something in the Air” — Radicalism Redux

Something in the Air. At Kendall Square Cinema and other locations.

By Gerald Peary.

Leftward Bound: A scene from “Something in the Air.”

Something in the Air (at the Kendall Square Cinema and other New England movie houses) is a vapid, American title change for Olivier Assayas’s precisely named Aprés Mai, a narrative film about the student movement in France in the years after the large-scale May 1968 revolution had faltered. When most French citizenry had returned, happily or reluctantly, to their bourgeois lives, there were those, ever moving leftward, baby Jacobins who retained their political zeal. Assayas’s splendid, autobiographical feature is about one such young man, Gilles (Clément Metayer), a precocious high-school student who, in 1971, passes out radical flyers, battles front-on riot squad, club-wielding police, paints graffiti on his school at night, and torches the front of a building wherein young right-wingers congregate.

Gilles is part of a united front of determined students whose politics, never quite defined, is some rowdy combination of anarchism and Maoism, not only anti-capitalist but also far removed from the complacent French Communist Party, with its choke hold on the establishment labor unions. Gilles’s unsentimental group has no issue with violence as part of the struggle. When they severely injure a guard, sending him into the hospital, nobody mourns for him, nobody has a soul-searching moment of regret. Smash the state! Smash strictures on sexuality! When not pamphleteering or skirmishing with the official powers, Gilles and his friends bed-hop. When Laure, Gilles’s girlfriend abandons him, he takes up with Christine (Lola Créton) the dark-eyed beauty in his collective. She, a die-hard true believer, stays with him as long as their politics align.

Assayas and his sublime cinematographer, Eric Gauthier, have managed a remarkably cogent picture of the early ’70s, all those serious, earnest youngsters enmeshed in international politics, truly caring about the peasant revolts in Laos and Central America but also the sensual mood and the omnipresent psychedelic music and, yes, the stumbling about, the intangible feel, never expressed aloud, that perhaps something clear and truly communal in the 60s has been lost forever.

Where does Assayas himself stand, reliving his adolescence on screen? He’s certainly with Christine, who finally realizes she has been exiled to the most menial office job while her ultra-left, older boyfriend spends his days with other male comrades plotting a workers’ utopia. She dares utter a word of protest: “Feminism.” And Assayas is with his diffident, floppy-haired protagonist, Gilles, who considers the truths of a book attacking Chairman Mao, who becomes more interested in being a painter than an activist, and who, eventually, is faced with deciding the worth of anarchist destruction.

Assayas, the budding filmmaker? There’s Gilles as a lowly PA on a British Nazi sci-fi genre movie. But during an attack of a toothsome dinosaur head, Gilles does something that he never did as a committed revolutionary. He smiles.

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