Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Young, radical and French, circa 1970

There's something inherently absurd about watching privileged French high school students arguing about whether they should be Maoists or Trotskyites. But such are the questions debated by some of the characters in director Olivier Assayas's Something in the Air, an appropriately discursive look at radical student life in France during the years following the student revolutions of 1968. Story is not Assayas's strong suit; his strengths have more to do with the way in which he recreates a moment that seems to have history-making momentum, but which (as we know) ultimately fizzled. The story revolves around Gilles (Clement Metayer), a young man at loose ends. One minute, he's throwing Molotov cocktails at his school; the next, he's mooning over a girlfriend (Carole Combes) who won't commit. Gilles's father works in movies, and it's clear that a path in film is open for the young man if he decides to focus on cinema. Gilles may do just that, once he gets over some of the political and romantic turmoil in his unformed life. Christine (Lola Creton), another of Gilles's romantic interests, wants to devote her life to making Marxist films. We also meet Alain (Felix Armand), a student who aspires to be a writer and who has taken up with an American girl (India Salvor Menuez). There's something loose and insubstantial about all these relationships, a sense of youthful transiency. Assayas -- who directed Carlos, the remarkable three-part series about Venezuelan revolutionary Ilich Ramírez Sánchez -- never imposes a compelling structure on a movie that ultimately needs one. Still, insights accumulate as the story unfolds. Although these kids fancy themselves as revolutionaries, it's never entirely clear what grieves them. And you can't shake the sense that just about everyone in the movie will "mature'' into lives in which they're amply rewarded by the system they so vehemently oppose. Not entirely satisfying and often frustrating, Something in the Air, nonetheless, brings a fleeting, youthful moment to life without sentimentalizing or lionizing the people who lived through it.

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