In George Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia, his 1938 novel detailing his personal experiences in the Spanish Civil War, the author memorably wrote that bombs were impartial and that, “they killed the men they were thrown at, and the men who threw them.”
This grayness permeating through the cracks and crevices of political frustration creates a thoughtful mediation on the personal and pubic effects of social upheaval in director Olivier Assayas’ latest film Something In The Air.
The story opens on a 1971 demonstration at the Place de Clichy in Paris by Le Secours Rouge, an organization stemming from the Maoist communist movement demanding political status for some of its imprisoned party leaders.
One of the young students involved is Gilles (played by Clement Metayer). Although an aspiring artist, Gilles is caught up in the political fever of the time, and along with his friends Alain (played by Felix Armand) and Christine (played by Lola Creton), begin participating in a series of demonstrations and protests throughout the city.
Soon, the nature of the demonstrations begins to escalate, moving from distributing flyers and simple graffiti, to trespassing and arson, eventually leading to a security guard being hospitalized.
With authorities rounding up members of the party, the three take off for summer holiday in Italy, where they watch their political ideals changing, and instead begin to embrace the passions that will propel them out of adolescence.
Assayas has been fascinated with the French underground community of the 1970’s ever since his 1994 film Cold Water, and had been interested in expounding on those initial explorations. He says, “I had a feeling that I had, in a moment of haste, caught a sense of the poetry of those days, of my teenage years-the early 1970’s. And then that also gave birth to a sense that this could well be the setting of a bigger film about this unknown and fascinating period.”
Revolution is everywhere in the film, in both a political sense and a deeper maturation of the self, from motorcycle riot control forces beating demonstrators down with batons, to the main characters experiencing growth and awareness through loss, it’s all a sort of blossoming out of the burnt embers of destruction and heartbreak. Assayas goes on to say, “In the 1970’s we were against the very thought of government. No one wanted to be included, the plan of action was to be among the excluded.”
Allowing the spirit of the time to wash across the screen in such vividness is Eric Gautier’s cinematography. Gautier, who previously worked with Assayas on Summer Hours and who’s credits also include On The Road, Miral and Into The Wild, uses light and shadow as the ultimate tool of concealment, transporting characters through confining corridors of darkness and guiding them to a surface of radiant light, their bodies and thoughts floating in warm swirling pools of wonder, fear and curiosity.
Perhaps more than revolution though, the film most exudes the elements of anarchy. Our characters seem to relish in the idea of complete freedom and absence. On the surface, we mainly see the attraction to the physical absences of authority and order, but the characters are also searching for the more abstract and undefinable properties of existence that will fill the uncomfortable voids lingering largely in their minds and flesh, replacing them with a pulse jolting them out of uncertainty, and allowing their true passions to guide them into stability.
Anarchy often appears as a potent catalyst in the generation of art, and here is no different as we watch Gilles’ illustrations move from the realism of nudes to the abstraction of drip painting, his moist lines of color drawing holes in his canvas, allowing figures to metamorphosize into the blurred desires of his future.
The motif of fire is quite prominent in the film, a destructive and life-giving force illustrating the strong consumptive power of youth. Assayas says, “There is something precious about the naivety, the candor, the idealistic outlook on the world we have when we seek to be a part of it, to find our place and to confront it as well, without reflecting on the consequences.”
It is this youthful excitement that often allows the film to burn brightly.