Something in the Air

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

30 May

Charles de Gaulle dissolves the National Assembly, 1968

On this day in 1968, French President Charles de Gaulle, in the face of increasing street protests against his government and his personal style, dissolved parliament. The previous day he had fled the country, telling his prime minister, Georges Pompidou, “I am the past, you are the future. I embrace you.” No one knew where he had gone. With strikes breaking out all over the country and running battles taking place on the streets of Paris, revolution was in the air. Government officials were burning documents and ministers were arming themselves in their ministries. De Gaulle had in fact gone to Germany, to Baden-Baden, where he met with the head of the French military, Jacques Massu, who told the president that he had the support of the armed forces. Reassured, De Gaulle returned quickly to France and scheduled a meeting of the Council of Ministers. As up to half a million anti-Gaullists marched through Paris, De Gaulle took to the airwaves – all very reminiscent of his wartime broadcasts as leader of the Free French – and told the country that he was refusing to resign. Instead he dissolved parliament, called new elections and told the marchers that the army was outside Paris waiting for De Gaulle’s orders. Simultaneously a rally of around 800,000 De Gaulle supporters took to the streets. The revolutionary momentum faltered. In the elections of June 1968, De Gaulle’s party won its biggest ever victory.

Something in the Air (2012, dir: Olivier Assayas)

You don’t have to be in your mid 50s and familiar with the music of The Incredible String Band to enjoy Something in the Air. But it certainly helps. Director Olivier Assayas was – mid 50s, I mean – when he made this film, and his movie (called Après Mai or After May translated into English) is about what it was like growing up in the immediate aftermath of something momentous.

A companion piece in many ways to Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, it follows the story of a bunch of people who were just too young to be involved in “the events” of May 68, but whose attitudes to everything bear their imprint. The revolution, they believe, is still just around the corner.

It’s 1971 and Gilles (Clément Métayer) is balancing his aspirations to become a film-maker or painter with his street activism – distributing political newspapers, painting graffiti by night on the high school he attends. After his hot but not politically engaged girlfriend (Carole Combes) leaves him to pursue the good life in America, Gilles takes up with youthful firebrand Christine (Lola Créton), and together they explore each other, the zeitgeist and the very fact of being young – all of which seem in some way to be the same thing. They’re not, and that’s why Assayas’s film has universal currency. Because, as he tracks Gilles and Christine – first on an extended holiday to Italy, also seething with political possibility, then into getting jobs which slowly but surely incorporate them into “the system” – he teases out these differences.

Assayas’s grasp of the period is total, whether it’s in his choice of the sort of music that doesn’t get onto the playlists of oldies stations (Dr Strangely Strange, Amazing Blondel, Kevin Ayers, Syd Barrett), or his catching of the mood of spooked optimism that haunted the 1970s. And he’s extremely generous about an era that a lot of people just mark down as the hangover after the party of the 1960s, noting that the loosening of shackles in the 1960s had encouraged a great flowering of experimental art and a genuine examination of fixed “certainties”.

It’s a remarkably nuanced film which avoids rose-tints and is aware of the fact that “the coming revolution” was mostly a rebellion by nice kids who could fall back on their bourgeois parents when the going got tough. Something in the Air (a line borrowed from the Thunderclap Newman song of the same name, which proclaimed that “revolution’s here”) is a modern Barry Lyndon, a picaresque adventure that doesn’t end in triumph but is so textured it’s mesmerising.

Why Watch?

  • Another “you are there” historical drama from the director of Carlos the Jackal
  • The soundtrack including Nick Drake, Soft Machine, Captain Beefheart
  • Lola Créton’s performance
  • DP Eric Gautier’s sun-drenched cinematography

Something in the Air – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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