MUBI Mondays: Something in the Air (2012)
We've got to get together sooner or later8
Because the revolution's here8
Josh Slater-Williams | On 28, Sep 2020
On Mondays, two of our resident cinephiles highlight a film currently available on MUBI UK. We call it MUBI Mondays.
This review contains mild spoilers.
The French title of Olivier Assayas’ 2012 film, Après mai, translates as “After May”, referring to the famous uprisings in the country during May of 1968. It was a period of revolutionary zeal that is also evoked by the film’s UK title, if one recalls the lyrics of Thunderclap Newman’s 1969 hit single Something in the Air: “We’ve got to get together sooner or later, because the revolution’s here.”
Assayas is no stranger to the revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s himself, and Something in the Air is semi-autobiographical. Rather than providing a historical exposé of the revolutionary ideals of the time, the film is instead a coming-of-age narrative set against that backdrop of demonstrations and fervour; it is more in line with a film like Dazed and Confused (1993) than any overtly politically charged work.
Assayas was himself a teen at the time of the film’s setting. At the age of 13 in 1968, he was not old enough to take part in the events of that May, but was among the subsequent set of disillusioned young people influenced by what had occurred, despite the apparent, definitive failure of that so-called revolution. His film’s characters become involved with various groups and methods of radical-left political expression, but as the film’s roughly six-month span progresses, the viewer sees their idealism gradually dissipate. Many are drawn towards artistic pursuits, some of which concern the burgeoning counterculture frowned upon by some of the politically-minded people they have come across. By the film’s end, Assayas’ onscreen surrogate Gilles (Clément Métayer) is working as an assistant on a commercial genre movie at Pinewood Studios, a reflection of the director’s own first steps into the filmmaking world.
Assayas has mined similar territory before with his earlier effort Cold Water (1994), though that film only alludes to political beliefs rather than articulating them. Similarly based on his own past, it too is concerned with the early 1970s and a narrative of youth rebellion and its failures, and one can even see references to that prior film here; Assayas, in a self-reflexive way, is looking back on a previous incarnation of him looking back. Both pairs of leads in the two films notably share the same first names, Gilles and Christine, while the most blatant visual cue each share is that of unwieldy flames in an extended party sequence. While the bonfire in Cold Water offers a suggestion of warmth amidst the decadent freedom its characters pursue, the party fire in Something in the Air causes destruction and seemingly erases one figure from the narrative. That character is later reborn, or rather able to live on, through cinema; perhaps a comment on the nature of autobiographical filmmaking itself.
Something in the Air can be viewed as a contemporary of Almost Famous (2000), in which the main character – an aspiring teen journalist in the 1970 who follows his favourite band on tour for a Rolling Stone article – is a direct stand-in for writer-director Crowe, who looks back 30-ish years to his own formative steps. The two films differ in that Crowe arguably flaunts the experiences he documents even while commenting on the flaws of the rock-and-roll lifestyle. That film tends to romanticise its protagonist’s journey as valuable self-discovery even though people around him end up suffering.
Assayas does not inject sentimentality into the nostalgia of his film, though he also refrains from critically judging any of his characters’ misguided notions. Part of the film’s success can be attributed to how he avoids being condescending towards Gilles and company. At every point in the narrative, the viewer is called to experience events as the characters do, rather than witness them through smugly critical goggles, aware of any forthcoming downfalls afforded by hindsight. No plot beat or character shift is ever loudly pronounced, nor any success or failure overstated.
At the time of the film’s initial release, this caused some to label it as distant, but its methodology is warm in its own way. With Assayas avoiding the imposition of obvious importance and weight to events as they happen, the characters are free of feeling meticulously guided and steered through a set narrative. This may cause them to exist at a perpetual remove for the viewer, but in this way the film presents a more natural progression of change and personal growth; more recognisable and relatable as how progression actually occurs in our own lives. Through distance, the film actually projects a more honest-feeling evocation of the era than one might find in a film of more overt reverence or disdain for its characters’ actions.
Something in the Air is now available on MUBI UK, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription.