Between 1904 and 1906, James Joyce tried to write an autobiographical novel called “Stephen Hero,” but he grew frustrated with the manuscript and abandoned it (it was published posthumously in 1944). A decade later, armed with the publication of his short-story collection Dubliners, he revisited this failed pass at a first novel, emphasizing the psychology of his alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, and experimenting with language and form to create A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. For Joyce, practice and perspective enabled him to craft a more meaningful expression of his life experience.
Something in the Air, which opens Friday at Music Box, has a similar back story. French writer-director Olivier Assayas enjoyed his first international success with Cold Water (1994), a largely autobiographical tale of two teenagers, Gilles and Christine, living through the doldrums of a French suburban community in 1971. After being arrested for shoplifting, Christine is sent to live in a mental institution, which she eventually escapes, joining Gilles at a bonfire party at an abandoned French country house. Kids drink and smoke hash while listening to such familiar rock songs as Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Up Around the Bend” and Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee.”
This may sound like a tale of romance and reverie, but Cold Water plays out more like its title: icy, flat, and shapeless. The film’s gray-blue palette gives it a depressive feeling. Assayas deliberately chose actors with little to no film experience, and it’s obvious, not so much in their delivery but because they all behave like teenagers from the 90s instead of the 70s. There’s a linear narrative, but the scenes and the transitions between them drag on interminably. One gets the sense Assayas might agree—in a recent Film Comment interview he notes, “Ever since I made Cold Water, I felt there was material from that period that I hadn’t dealt with and could be the basis for another film.”
Assayas’s last project, broadcast in France as a miniseries, was the critically acclaimed Carlos (2010), a five-and-a-half hour study of Carlos the Jackal, the political terrorist who became notorious for his 1975 raid on the OPEC headquarters in Vienna (to which Assayas devotes a considerable, memorable portion of the film). By then Assayas had been making films for 30 years, yet Carlos felt like a watershed. Not only did Assayas exhibit a newfound confidence, but the story represented a survey of his interests: the 1970s, leftist politics, popular music, Europe after World War II. In a way Carlos was Assayas’s Dubliners, considering a wide range of social history.
Radical politics also figure prominently in Something in the Air, whose French release title, Apres Mai (“After May”) references the May 1968 uprisings in France. The film opens “near Paris” in late spring 1971, with Gilles carving an anarchy symbol into his desk at school. After class he hands out liberal political papers on the school grounds, where he’s alerted to a protest. Shouting slogans and wearing helmets, he and his fellow activists march up to a throng of riot police who wield batons and fire off gas grenades. The ensuing melee prompts Gilles and his friends to vandalize their school, once with spray paint and again with Molotov cocktails. Chased by security, they throw a sandbag over a walkway on top of one of the guards, which leaves him in a coma.
The kids barely consider the guard’s condition—politics trump any moral code—but this event becomes a turning point. To avoid punishment for the assault, Gilles flees to Italy for the summer with his new girlfriend, Christine, and his painter friend, Alain. As they traipse through northern Italy, they each begin to realize their respective paths: Alain to Nepal, to pursue painting with an American girlfriend; Christine to join an agitprop film crew in Italy; and Gilles, beginning to feel disillusionment with radical leftist politics, back to Paris to enroll in Beaux Arts and eventually work for his father as a TV writer. In each case the characters live through experiences that shape their lives, whether it’s abortion, death, failed relationships, or just making one’s way in the working world.
In one sense Something in the Air can be viewed as an inversion of its predecessor. The protagonist of Carlos uses politics and persuasion to lure young, passionate people into a radical movement; when his followers see that he prizes his ego over ethics and ideology, they break away from him. By contrast the main character of Something in the Air strays from left-wing activism once he recognizes the movement’s flaws. When a group of older agitprop filmmakers see Gilles reading Pierre Ryckmans’s The Chairman’s New Clothes—an exposé of the atrocities committed by Mao during the Cultural Revolution—they argue that Ryckmans is a CIA agent disseminating propaganda. Gilles explains to them that Ryckmans’s identity is well-documented, but they refuse to acknowledge anything other than their own conspiracy theories. Concordantly, this is around the same time Gilles begins to become an artist, painting frequently and asking the filmmakers if he can borrow their camera.
As with Portrait of the Artist, many of the events in the film mirror the writer’s own adolescence: like Gilles, Assayas wanted to be a painter before turning to film, started out doing grunt work on British B movies, and helped his father write a TV show based on the detective novels of Georges Simenon. Assayas also recycles the climactic sequence of Cold Water, in which a country house becomes the site of a bonfire-lit party. Otherwise the two films feel completely different: whereas Cold Water was dominated by gray midcentury-modernist architecture, Something in the Air is sunny, multihued, and rhythmic, cinematographer Eric Gautier (a longtime Assayas collaborator) lingering over verdant forests, the deep blue of a Florence dawn, magenta-lit rock concerts, and citrus-soaked Italian summers. Many have called Something in the Air a celebration of youth, but the movie is just as much a visual love letter to French and Italian landscapes.
Something in the Air also has a specificity and confidence that Cold Water lacked. Assayas is more attuned to detail this time around. Thanks to the costumes, hair, and props, the actors more closely resemble people from the 70s. The camera fixes on leftist newspapers as they’re dropped onto counters, or on iconic LP covers as Gilles rifles through his record collection. And just as Assayas scored the terrorist attacks of Carlos to coiled postpunk music, here he plies obscure late-60s/early-70s progressive folk and psychedelic rock tunes. Soft Machine’s demented “Why Are We Sleeping?” invigorates the aforementioned bonfire scene, Dr. Strangely Strange’s “Strings in the Earth and Air” is used to spooky effect for a nighttime tryst, and in a particularly moving sequence, a character’s postabortion introspection is accompanied by Amazing Blondel’s sweeping “Celestial Light.”
Toward the end of the story, while working on a film set, Gilles walks behind a movie screen, a symbolic representation of Assayas walking into his future as a filmmaker. It’s not quite Stephen Dedalus setting out to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race,” but it seems an apt summation of the director’s intent. Something in the Air is the cinematic equivalent of a Joycean epiphany, for the characters and possibly for the audience. You might not walk out of it wanting to move to Europe or become an artist, but you might be inspired to ponder what makes you happiest and whether or not it’s still possible to make that passion the motor of your life.