Something in the Air: Radical youth of 1971 act out, then wander aimlessly

B Period drama

  • Written and directed by Olivier Assayas

Youthful innocence takes strange forms. For many in 1971, it took the conflicting forms of sex-and-drugs hedonism and radical leftwing activism. They didn’t always work well together.

In Olivier Assayas’ loose tale of French youth, the characters spend much of their time fighting the establishment and arguing esoteric bits of Marxist dogma. (In this world, Trotskyists and Maoists hate each other like Protestants and Catholics in the 16th century.) They’re also, to one degree or another, artists, and their artistic instincts don’t always mix with their political beliefs. Of course, because they’re young, they fall easily in and out of love, as well. That doesn’t always match their political theories, either.

The story centers on Gilles (Clément Métayer), a high school radical and a budding painter and want-to-be filmmaker. He seems quiet and shy, a watcher, although he’s actually quite active. He sells a radical newspaper to other students. He takes part in a protest that becomes a police riot, and then, with comrades, commits a couple of very serious acts of vandalism. After a security guard is seriously injured, Gilles and his companions decide it’s best to spend the summer laying low.

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The rest of the film follows his wanderings, and that of a handful of his friends. He falls in love. They travel a bit with a Communist filmmaking collective. He sells some of his work. He visits an ex-girlfriend in England who has slid into a dangerously hedonistic lifestyle. He works for his father–a more commercial and conventional filmmaker.

Something in the Air doesn’t grab you like a great film (or even like an entertaining movie). You often have to force yourself to stay involved. But the effort is worthwhile. As Gilles grows beyond his radical idealism–even if he never quite renounces it–you’ll find yourself appreciating how we all mature and find ourselves.

Like Gilles, I was in high school in 1971. My idealism ran more in the hippy artist direction, but I had plenty of friends who proudly carried their little red books. The political arguments in Something in the Air ring very true for the time. Yet the film wisely avoids nostalgia. There’s plenty about the early ’70s to be nostalgic about; spray painting schools and arguing Marxism aren’t among them.

I saw Something in the Air on a screener DVD before it’s showing at the 2013 San Francisco International Film Festival.