Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Something in the Air

"Jackal" director Olivier Assayas sets his semiautobiographical new film "Something in the Air" in 1971, when the French counterculture is dawning just as the American scene sets.
Newcomer Clement Metayer stands in for Assayas as Gilles, a tall, dark-haired high school senior who reads every left-wing broadsheet he can get his hands on and sells them too, on the school steps each afternoon. He and his fellow budding activists engage in riots that end with tear gas and batons and, when night falls, graffiti- and poster-bomb police headquarters. They congregate in caf├ęs and clandestine corridors and debate slight differences in ideology with an almost absurd ardor. There are long chases on foot and petty internecine intellectual squabbles, and I liked that the movie treats their interests as seriously and earnestly as they do. (I almost did a Danny Thomas spit take trying to imagine one teacher's philosophy lecture - contrasting Stirner with Trotsky - being replicated in an American high school classroom.)

When a more bourgeois boy is badly hurt in a rock-throwing confrontation shortly before the school year ends, the group decides to fan out across Europe for the summer to let passions subside. It's during this summer of self-discovery that their individual passions will come to inflame. For some, it's a redoubled commitment to the purity of their particular doctrines or the quest for social justice; for others, it's a dedication to art, or just to the freer love of the time. Gilles' father wants him to work in the family business publishing commercial novels, and at first Gilles rebels, but when he gets a job as a gofer on a B-movie set (a moment from Assayas' early career), he too begins to find matters more compelling than the life of the mind.

"Something in the Air" doesn't follow a conventional story arc. It picks up with Gilles, but Assayas happily shifts his focus for periods of time to other characters, including several well-drawn young women, such as Leslie (India Salvor Menuez), an American who looks every bit the French flower child but knows just when she wants to debark the Vanagon and get back to her life of privilege. The movie doesn't build up to an epiphany. At the end, Gilles is some months older and a bit wiser, having known the pleasures of painting and love and camaraderie and sex. Perhaps his most profound realization comes when a leader of one group cautions him that a book he's reading is in intellectual disfavor: "You're young, but be careful what you read." The look on Metayer's face tells us that's one thing neither Gilles nor Assayas will ever be.

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