The work of the wonderful French director Olivier Assayas might be divided, very loosely, into two broad categories: culture and tech-savvy bites out of the globalization-fraught modern world; and more traditionally “French” human dramas. A character in one of his finest recent films, Summer Hours, cites at one point the use of a modern telephone (not even an iPhone!) as a symbol of too much progress, and Assayas seems to carry a profound sense of the modern world’s competing debits and credits – he’s a man of immense learning, and of pride in that, who nevertheless understands the potential appeal of succumbing to mindlessness. Canadians might be most aware of his film Clean, a chronicle of an addict trying to take control of her life, notable among much else for making probably the best ever filmic use of Hamilton, Ontario (including a guest appearance by Metric, playing Dead Disco). As in all his works, Assayas invests that film with details that may only make vague sense as you watch them, but which convey an immense sense of layering and intimacy.
Something in the Air
A viewer of his new film Something in the Air (playing at the TIFF Lightbox as I speak; available soon in other formats) would certainly benefit from knowing a bit about the French political and cultural landscape in the aftermath of the May 1968 riots (to which the film’s original title, Après Mai, refers explicitly). The year is 1971, and the protagonist, Gilles, immerses himself in political activity, while also committing to developing his skills as a painter. He and his friends distribute flyers and sell newspapers; they attend meetings; they paint slogans on school property. The group argues about the scope of its activity – for example whether to extend its activities to address broader social problems, or to focus on student rights. They draw on the movement’s connections to make contact with other collectives; they smoke endlessly; they fall in love and have sex. Group members may differ in their degrees of idealism or passion, or in their pragmatism regarding future steps, but they’re not “alienated” in the way of many films about young people – they occupy their lives completely, absorbing experience without straining for it.
The film belongs then to that second category of Assayas films – fully immersed in a very specific, and very French time and place; among much else, it’s consistently ravishing to look at. But the horizons aren’t narrow – various characters travel to Italy, Afghanistan and Britain; they talk about going to the States, or to Nepal. It’s a striking (presumably unplanned) contrast with another film also playing at the Lightbox, which I wrote about here last week, Michel Gondry’s The We and the I. Gondry’s film, set in present day New York, also focuses on a group of teenagers, but the group’s energy is almost entirely invested in transient testing and positioning – who likes who, who’s going where, who knows what, and so on, all heavily reinforced and abetted of course by the ever-present cellphones. In an interview in Cineaste magazine, Assayas drew out the contrast: “kids like myself…we functioned with basically no money…the money you had you would spend on books, usually radical books, newspapers, and coffee…today it’s different; there’s too much money…it’s only consumerist logic that generates products that have a predetermined obsolescence.”
Crispness and clarity
The point isn’t just about nostalgia. Writing in the Globe and Mail, Rick Groen calls Something in the Air “a wispy picture, likeable certainly but lacking in crispness and clarity.” By comparison, I suppose The We and the I is eminently crisp and clear, but it’s related to the disposable crispness of the latest YouTube video, to the weightless clarity of the current talking point. The very point of Assayas’ film seems to be document a milieu marked by the absence of such qualities, and to muse – in a very specific historical context - on the necessity of that absence, necessary because to lay claim to clarity at that age is merely to prematurely sacrifice possibility and internal and external mobility (which is exactly the trajectory of many of those kids in Gondry’s film, whether or not through any fault of their own).
Peter Howell’s Star review also seems to be imposing some preconceptions on the film. He notes that the characters “face the moods, passions, raging hormones and unrequited love that torment the young.” But actually, you could hardly have a picture about teenagers where “raging hormones” are less of a factor: the characters hook up with ease, and if they’re occasionally in the situation of love being unrequited, then they seize on the situation’s dramatic grandeur rather than becoming morose and consumed about it (in the same interview, Assayas says “films about teenagers are always centered around sentiment, love, boys and girls, blah, blah, blah…I recall being interested in those concerns – but they weren’t the centre of my life”). If anything, they don’t “face” those issues; rather, they invite them, realizing their centrality to a full life experience.
The film returns constantly to the symbolic power of fire, as both a political and a personal symbol, of both destruction and commemoration. It’s hardly an unfamiliar motif of course, but it’s a long time since I’ve felt it deployed so intimately. The characters carry on a recurring debate about whether “revolutionary film” must deploy a “revolutionary syntax” – for example whether even a film sympathetic to left-wing struggles, if shot and edited in a conventionally accessible way, will implicitly support the bourgeois social structure that gave rise to those conventions. Assayas’ syntax here, no question, isn’t revolutionary; but then, the revolution didn’t triumph. His recurring strength, as much here as ever, is to master the evocative force of the syntax we know, and to demonstrate how frequently we squander it on cultural products of, well, predetermined obsolescence.
In the end, inevitably, the characters must start to move on: some double down on their activism, others return to a more traditional path; others are left at least temporarily adrift. Gilles goes to Britain, where through family connections he gets a job on a mind-blowingly cheesy movie set, wonderfully recreated by Assayas (in real life, he had a trainee job in the editing room of the first Christopher Reeve Superman film); he still sells newspapers though, and still attends experimental films (although he refracts the images through his own memories). Earlier, a friend chides him for his aesthetic interests, telling him: “Art is a choice – it’s a solitude,” and a choice incompatible with investment in a collective revolutionary effort. As the film ends, Gilles is starting to refine the choice, his interests shifting from painting to cinema (by definition less of a solitude – almost the last thing we see him doing is lighting his cigarette off that of another crew member), and his political activities becoming more formalized. It’s perhaps already a greater concession than he may have envisaged, and will no doubt become more so still…but even so, what wouldn’t you give to live in a time where even the compromises are so thrilling?