"Youth in the 2010s live in a shapeless present," writes French filmmaker Olivier Assayas in the notes to his bittersweet, quasi-autobiographical Something in the Air. "They exist outside History, cyclic and static."
Assayas is writing about a topic that has obsessed him over his 20-year career in films ranging from Cold Water to Summer Hours to Carlos—his youth in the early 1970s and the intersection of art, politics and revolution.
Unlike today's vague Hopers and Occupiers, the kids of 1971 in Something in the Air are a group of violent, ideologically trained anti-Soviet, post-Maoist, anarcho-something or others. Or, as Assayas puts it, "experts on the dissent between Trotsky and Lenin, between Trotsky and the liberals [...] the schism between the U.S.S.R. and the People's Republic of China [...] the differences of opinion at the heart of the Eastern Bloc, knowledge that would be of precious use once the revolution came along."
Something in the Air focuses on the slow disillusionment of one youngster, evidently modeled on the filmmaker. Gilles (Clement Metayer), looking like a cross between a young Jake Gyllenhaal and (unfortunately) Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, is an affluent teen whose life seems pretty charmed: studying Pascal's Pensées at school, painting in his bedroom, riding his moped and having sexy sex (to the strains of Syd Barrett's "Terrapin") with a sophisticated young lady who critiques his art in the nude afterward while puffing on a cigarette.
But Gilles is also caught up with a group of student militants, and when events take an ugly turn, he and a couple of pals light out for Italy.
Viewers may have difficulty empathizing with the young radicals who drink wine and eat foie gras as they contemplate how their callous violence will liberate the proletariat. But Assayas isn't blind to this. For him, as for perhaps Bertolucci when he made Before the Revolution, revolutionary idealism may be impractical when applied to politics, but it's vastly liberating as an aesthetic transformation. —David Fellerath