Après Mai (Something In The Air)
Director Olivier Assayas Stars Clément Métayer, Lola Créton, Felix Armand France 2012 Language French (with English subtitles), Italian, English 2hr 2 mins Colour
Engaging look at the aftermath of the 1960s
Before getting to what’s good about this film, one minor quibble that troubled both my friend Alice and me. That was the hair of the central character, Gilles (Clément Métayer, who looks like Gael García Bernal). The film starts in 1971, but Gilles has a cut and texture that suggests expensive 21st-century hairdressing, making him look not much a child of his time, more a member of a well-funded ’60s-influenced band of today. Furthermore, it never loses its bounce or shape, even when it’s been under a helmet, or Gilles has been sleeping on the floor of a barn, having sex on the floor of a barn, sleeping in the corridor of a train, hitch-hiking on the back of a flatbed truck…
'Do you think it's a wig?' Alice asked. By contrast, Gilles’ mates Alain (played by Felix Armand with lank, aspiring-to-be long locks, prematurely balding) and Jean-Pierre (Hugo Conzelmann, sporting a halo of ginger bubble curls), look the real deal. It's no surprise to find that it's pretty-boy Gilles whose character is clearly based on writer-director Olivier Assayas.
We begin with Gilles and his chums still at school, and with, as the French title suggests, the spirit of ‘68 still present*. Gilles initially seems to be a bit of a firebrand, selling anarchist newspapers, nipping into Paris to riot, getting into scrapes closer to home and taking the hard line at the messy meetings of student activists.
But Gilles isn’t a political obsessive - he’s a painter, of not very good Jackson Pollock-esque scrawls, which seem to impress girlfriend No1, troubled Beat-poetry fan Laure (Carole Combes), whose step-dad does visuals for Soft Machine, and No2, the more ideologically committed Christine (Lola Créton, who has a real-world, as opposed to movie world, beauty). Art for art’s sake, and certainly art as a way of getting laid, matter as much to him as the eternal struggle against the bourgeois state.
By following the emotional, political and artistic entanglements of Gilles, Christine, Alain, Jean-Pierre and Laure, the film takes in the breadth of the 1960s fallout, from rich American kids who have fried their brains on acid in India to grumpy Trots, droney art-rock bands to film-making collectives debating whether to let the workers film and edit their own story. Down the hippy trail, it reaches Kabul, Pompeii and the Portobello Road.
Critics have praised Assayas’ approach to the past as neither judgmental nor chokingly nostalgic. But he’s unambiguous on a couple of things: one, that many, though not all, of these kids were, like himself, children of privilege – turning in and dropping out to their mates’ parents’ huge country houses. Two, that the ideologues – who frequently (correctly) accuse Gilles of being a bourgeois individualist – are dicks, blithely dismissing reports of the horrors of Mao’s China, endlessly playing the ‘more revolutionary than thou’ card, and unresponsive when their own reactionary dealings with women are challenged.
It’s a gently sprawling movie, but it doesn’t feel out-of-control or flabby. There are lots of telling details and moments, from the way the kids wear crash helmets to go rioting but never when riding their mopeds to the film collective sending someone to spy from across the street at the cinema where one of their turgid celebrations of the workers’ struggle has actually been given a commercial release, deludedly suspicious of the low returns the owner is reporting. Not to mention the loving recreation of the shooting of a film that, although a couple of tiny details have been changed, is blatantly The Land That Time Forgot (which starred the immortal Doug McClure).
As Alice observed, it’s a film with lengthy dialogue-light stretches, but that is also talky when it needs to be. It’s well served by a cast consisting largely of newcomers. And although the film recreates the debate between political vanguardists and the film avant-garde about the future of cinema, Assayas himself here opts for a conventional, beautifully made, massively enjoyable film.
*Mind you, if you believe series four of Spiral/Engrenages, France is still has plenty of would-be anarchist/far-left revolutionaries