“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!” sayeth William Wordsworth of the French Revolution (and quoted by all half-educated sentimentals when they want to make a point about youth). Well 2Pac said “Heaven ain’t hard 2 find,” so I don’t know what to think! But going into Something in the Air (2012), I had but one requirement—show me life in Europe of the 1970’s. If you have such desires, then I tell you without hesitation or fear of contradiction that you will be wholly satisfied.
A young French high school student, Gilles (Clément Métayer), is an anarchist and advocate for the revolution. He is friends with a strong cadre of roughly like-minded people close to him. He sells leftist papers, distributes leaflets, attends riots where the police viciously beat rioters, and also joins student meetings where they out-radical each other into action. One night, he and his crew, including Christine (Lola Créton), Jean-Pierre (Hugo Conzelmann), and Alain (Felix Armand), like children will, vandalize their own school with posters and spray-painted slogans calling for the abolition of the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS), which are the police who put down riots with extreme brutality. But Gilles is really a middle-class boy who falls in love and wants to be a painter or possibly a film-maker. He attempts to bridge the two worlds, but the political advocates will always be pulling for exclusivity.
It pains me as you may never know to applaud the French, but I do so now for writer/director Olivier Assayas without any real complaints. It was thoroughly satisfying for content and for style. There were no unwelcome diversions, which is exceptional since this movie is without a strong, goal-oriented plot. The movie is about establishing goals, not about achieving them. It is a coming-of-age tale in a foreign land filled with first world problems felt by the characters like third world tragedies. That is to say, it is about teenagers. French teenagers sounds like exactly the worst protagonists imaginable, but are entirely sympathetic due to the perfect draftsmanship of Assayas and, being in French, my inability to distinguish mumbling from usual speech. This is a moment in the lives of young people in transition where they either relax in their politics or ossify and their place in the world is slowly adopted.
The writing made them real in a way French people almost never are to this American viewer. These kids are no different from the people I grew up with except that our sense of “cool” was different and politics were dead. On its face, this is no grand revelation, but to see it played out so charmingly on screen is terrific. But this was the welcome dessert. The main course was politics and the people who vomited it. This was done to perfection and seasoned with the best irony available. Severely earnest revolutionaries discussing what they’ll do over the summer holidays is just so funny.
One of my favorite bits is where an old revolutionary comes down to see the young ones using his mimeograph. He approves of this until he sees that it’s sexually graphic and scolds them for this. A girl says “What about sexual repression?” The old revolutionary responds, “We’re working on that issue.” In another scene, an older revolutionary sees that Gilles is reading Chairman Mao Has No Clothes, which details the gruesome effects of the Cultural Revolution and reproves him for this saying the book is written by a CIA agent—which Gilles refutes—and says “You are young, but watch what you read.” That’s wonderful. It’s like Chekov or Maupassant good.
It isn’t that the movie is antagonistic to the moment or the left, but these are the moments I remember best. One could claim a disappointment that the only view of right wing politics is in the form of the thuggish police and the centrists, if you can say such a thing, are simply ignorant or preoccupied with contentedness. However, the movie is more about these young people and their relationships which carry through the medium of politics. The lefties aren’t caricatures. They disagree about certain things and are thoroughly disillusioned by the Soviets (if not the Maoists). But it would be misleading not to mention that all but two adult characters are manipulative and slightly dark. This captures my perception of the time and the people.
Through and through, I could never ask for better. See it when you get the chance and enjoy. But the poster is quite dreadful.
There is another apt quotation from Wordsworth’s French Revolution as follows:
Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us,–the place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all!