Director Olivier Assayas flicks through his own back pages in Something in the Air, a fictionalised memoir of youth in revolt. Clément Métayer plays 16-year-old Gilles, a highschooler in suburban Paris who's just catching on to the spirit of an age reverberating from les evenements of spring 1968 (Après Mai is its original title).
Now it's 1971, and the air is blue with Gauloises. The exhilaration of street riots and being chased by the police leave their mark on Gilles, a budding painter who joins his friends in a guerilla war of graffiti-daubing, underground newspapers and Molotov cocktails. One night, during a skirmish, a security guard is seriously injured, so Gilles and his friends run off to Italy to cool their heels.
But revolutionary fervour must vie for accommodation with the quest for personal fulfillment, and we sense the latter eventually gaining the upper hand. For Gilles is a romantic before he's a radical, and he's an artist before he's a romantic. His first love is Laure (Carole Combes), a solemn pre-Raphaelite beauty who forsakes him; then he find himself involved with fellow activist Christine (Lola Créton), who can see Gilles for the egoist he is to become ("You'll do what you want, as usual").
Assayas is good on atmosphere, less so on plot and character. Gilles's close friends – fellow artist Alain (Felix Armand), true believer Jean-Pierre (Hugo Conzelmann) – hang around the margins, nearly coming into focus before fading out again. An American flower child named Leslie (India Salvor Menuez) will be remembered only for her pale skin and shock of red hair.
The film's vagueness could be seen as a deliberate strategy, since this is Assayas writing his own melancholy Temps Perdu of 1970s idealism. In this era it's usually a safe bet that the characters have smoked so much weed that no one remembers anything very clearly.
Already filtered through Gilles's self-centred gaze, his contemporaries register more as figures in an ongoing fresco than characters in their own right. The energy of those early riot scenes gives way to a strangely impersonal and plotless amble through shaggy-haired politicking ("We're breaking with the Trotskyites") and romantic dithering.
The film drifts at times, not quite prepared to admit it's a one-man show, that man an increasingly close fit with the director (b.1955) himself. Gilles struggles to break free of his demanding father and starts to hang around film sets, just as Assayas once did. We can almost feel the hero's urge to change the world begin to flake and crumble; his god is art, not revolution.
Something in the Air remains true to its impressionistic vision of youth, but I kept hoping it would be tighter in its storytelling, and a little less forgiving in its self-portraiture.