‘Between us and Heaven or Hell there is only life, which is the frailest thing in the world’. It is with those few words by French philosopher Blaise Pascal that Olivier Assayas opens his fourteenth film, a brilliant tale of love, art and revolution in the province of Paris three years after the events of Mai 68. And it is precisely a movie about life, about its frailty, its beauty and its doubts, that which ultimately holds together those three ideas and ideals, which the director proposes.
Through the story of Gilles, a young artist wavering between his desire to belong to the petit bourgeois world of art and cinema and his attachment to the ideals of a wilted revolution, Assayas delivers a sumptuous semi-autobiographical narrative of youth. Between clumsy lovemaking and violent political action, between a furtive moment of bliss stolen on board of a train to Italy and the brutal beating of protesters by the special brigades with which the movie opens, Assayas weaves a beautifully loose narrative portraying the struggle of a youth faced with the aftermath of a fight it knows to have lost before it truly began.
But beyond a simple political film, what Something in the Air truly attempts is to catch, as its English title indicates, the spirit of an age. Reminiscent of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up or, more recently, of Philippe Garrel’s Regular Lovers, Assayas’s movie unfolds like a beautiful cinematographic poem, a voyage through time, a meandering caught between the committed song writing of Phil Ochs’s ‘The Ballad of William Worthy’ sang by an American hippy Gilles and Christine meet in Florence, and the nihilistic poetry of Gregory Corso which Gilles recites to Laure in the woods on the Parisian outskirts.
Like the Afghan tapestry which inspires one of Gilles’s friends, Something in the Air interlaces so many moments of ordinary life rendered extraordinary by Eric Gautier’s beautiful cinematography and the subtle and often clumsy realism with which the young amateur actors deliver Assayas’s powerfully honest dialogues. Supported by a wonderful cast of beginner actors, Something in the Air feels like a breath of fresh air which lingers long after the credits finish unrolling.
A more than welcome addition to the canons of a French cinema often characterised by its relative heaviness and often painstakingly intellectual pretentions, Assayas’s film succeeds where so many others have failed in merging an existential tale of love, art and politics with the vivifying lightness of a youthful innocence.