Something in the Air – What it is to be young

This is my review of Something in the Air [DVD].

Apparently semi-autobiographical for the director Olivier Assayas, and entitled “Après mai” in the original French, this film recaptures the sense of confused anger and scattergun resistance against injustice which persisted after the famous Paris riots of May 1968.

Gilles is in his final year at the lycée with ambitions to be an artist, also caught up in street protests, demonstrating against the police and pasting up militant posters. We gain a vivid sense of being young in the 1960s, the sudden sense of freedom to question and attack the accepted values of society, to travel, drop out, and play with fire – a constant theme in the film – experimenting with drugs at the risk of self-destruction. It shows the uncertainty and fragility of first relationships, which one may come to value when it is too late, or, in the case of the women in the film, even when thought to have been freely chosen, prove to be a trap into some aspect of stereotyped or conventional behaviour

The film is visually very beautiful – the view over the valley where Gilles meets his first girlfriend, the apparently liberated artist he would like to be. It is also very French in portraying the heated philosophical debates and the ambience of the dry, traditional approach to teaching in school, the chickens running along the street past the old stone houses, the leafy courtyard gardens with paint peeling on the sills as the men discuss making films to show soldarity with the workers. It is well-acted and most of the main relationships are quite sensitively developed.

On the downside, apart from being about thirty minutes too long with a clear need to edit some scenes sharply, the storyline is too fragmented and meandering, at times hard to follow. Some of the political discussions to do with say, relationships between students and workers, or between workers in different countries, or the issue of how to use film to promote ideas, are presented in a rather oblique or rushed and unclear way. I also agree with reviewers who have criticised the glossing over of the irony that most of the young people clearly come from unusually wealthy and privileged backgrounds.

I left the film irritated by the sense that potentially fine ingredients had been scrambled into a dog’s breakfast. On further reflection, I am left with a growing sense of the beauty of the film, some highly amusing scenes and the portrayal of the uncertain nature of youth, half-drifiting, half-striving in search of a goal, which may end in success, annihilation or nonentity.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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