Filmmaker Olivier Assayas was about the same age as protagonist Gilles (Clément Métayer) in 1971, the year “Something in the Air” takes place, and the film is undeniably intended to be read as an autobiography. It’s two hours of Assayas recreating that culturally turbulent time in France’s recent history—the period following the May 1968 revolution in which youths explored ways to continue their New Left activism—as he remembers experiencing it.
That the material is so clearly personal for Assayas keeps the film from ever coming across as a blanket glamorization of the counterculture of the era, which had more than its fair share of drawbacks. Instead of focusing too heavily on sociopolitical context and the consequences of youth radicalism, the writer/director simply shares his fondness for the sense of idealism with which he and his classmates protested and rabble-roused.
Of course, one could argue that Assayas’ fondness is objectionable when such idealism fostered political naiveté and even resulted in harmful criminality, instances of which are depicted in “Something in the Air.” When Gilles and his classmates meet to discuss their plans for revolution, there are a lot of hollow rhetorical appeals about workers and oppressors, but little substantive discussion. When they seriously injure a security guard with a Molotov cocktail, no one seems to care about whether the man will be OK.
Despite the questionable maturity of Assayas’ Laissez-faire attitude toward these details, however, the fact that he doesn’t gloss over them to try to make New Left activism as tantalizing as possible shows a commitment to historical honesty, which is all too often disregarded in American cinematic representations of the ‘60s and ‘70s, like Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock.” Never once did I doubt the legitimacy of the depiction of France at this time in “Something in the Air,” which feels like a well-rounded collection of Assayas’ memories.
It helps that Assayas pays attention to Gilles’ human side, characterizing him as an ordinary teenage boy rather than a strategy-obsessed rebel. Gilles is perhaps more consumed by girls than revolution: after first-love Laure (Carole Combes) breaks his heart to go live in London, he takes up with fellow activist Christine (Lola Créton, destined to be a big name in the near future), with whom he travels to Italy before they part ways due to divergent interests. With the end of each relationship comes a new sense of direction (or lack thereof) for Gilles — Assayas’ perceptive recognition of the episodic nature of teenage life.
And yet, for all the little things that are appreciable about “Something in the Air”—and the film’s technical accomplishments, especially Eric Gautier’s perspective-enhancing, always mobile camerawork—the film is short on big ideas. Perhaps not all films need big ideas, but without them, Assayas fails to generate much passion in the viewer, which keeps us from relating to the overwhelmingly passionate (albeit often delusional) characters. Ultimately, “Something in the Air” is the type of film that gets a lot of things right, but never fully resonates.