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Something in the Air [Blu-ray]
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1970: Gilles, a young Parisian student, is taken in by the political and creative turmoil of the times. Through a haze of wild parties, social activism and romantic encounters he and his friends will partake in some of the most defining moments of the post-war period.
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Gilles is in his final year at the lycée with ambitions to be an artist, also caught up in street protests, demonstrating against the police and pasting up militant posters. We gain a vivid sense of being young in the 1960s, the sudden sense of freedom to question and attack the accepted values of society, to travel, drop out, and play with fire - a constant theme in the film - experimenting with drugs at the risk of self-destruction. It shows the uncertainty and fragility of first relationships, which one may come to value when it is too late, or, in the case of the women in the film, even when thought to have been freely chosen, prove to be a trap into some aspect of stereotyped or conventional behaviour
The film is visually very beautiful - the view over the valley where Gilles meets his first girlfriend, the apparently liberated artist he would like to be. It is also very French in portraying the heated philosophical debates and the ambience of the dry, traditional approach to teaching in school, the chickens running along the street past the old stone houses, the leafy courtyard gardens with paint peeling on the sills as the men discuss making films to show soldarity with the workers. It is well-acted and most of the main relationships are quite sensitively developed.
On the downside, apart from being about thirty minutes too long with a clear need to edit some scenes sharply, the storyline is too fragmented and meandering, at times hard to follow. Some of the political discussions to do with say, relationships between students and workers, or between workers in different countries, or the issue of how to use film to promote ideas, are presented in a rather oblique or rushed and unclear way. I also agree with reviewers who have criticised the glossing over of the irony that most of the young people clearly come from unusually wealthy and privileged backgrounds.
I left the film irritated by the sense that potentially fine ingredients had been scrambled into a dog's breakfast. On further reflection, I am left with a growing sense of the beauty of the film, some highly amusing scenes and the portrayal of the uncertain nature of youth, half-drifiting, half-striving in search of a goal, which may end in success, annihilation or nonentity.
Certainly, Assayas sets up the film’s ‘revolutionary bohemian’ milieu very thoroughly. No sooner has Gilles and his fellow dissenters suffered vicious beatings at the hands of the CRS and copiously graffitied their school (in fast-moving, highly engaging sequences), than Assayas’ protagonist is doing his 'budding Jackson Pollock’ on the floor of his pad, picking out Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs for a spin on the record player and his girlfriend, Carole Combes’ Laure, is quitting him for London (and Notting Hill) where her step-dad has secured a 'gig’ as a roadie for Soft Machine!. Thus, in terms of era evocation and engagement, the film scores well. In terms of character engagement, it’s much more of a slow-build. This is (at least) partly down to (film debutant) Métayer’s understated performance and some rather superficial character development elsewhere. Gradually, though, as Gilles begins to resolve his own personal dilemma, having left Lola Créton’s ‘girlfriend no. 2’, Christine, in Florence, I found myself being drawn more and more into Gilles’ world and sense of purpose. There is a particularly memorable reunion scene between Gilles and Laure, enhanced by the film’s evocative period soundtrack, which includes the likes of Syd Barrett, Nick Drake, Kevin Ayers and Captain Beefheart. And, despite one or two odd (or inconsequential) plot twists, Assayas’ nod to cinema via the introduction of Gilles’ screenwriting father and then Gilles’ 'ironic compromise’, finding himself working on a ‘dinosaur and Nazi spectacular’ in London, did raise a grin from this viewer.
For me, therefore, certainly not an unqualified success, but Assayas’ level of ambition and evocation of the period makes Something In The Air worth catching.
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