Something in the Air
Something in the Air, the suggestively vague title given to the English-language release of Olivier Assayas’s film Après Mai, brings to mind Thunderclap Newman’s 1969 hit of the same name (perhaps as an inescapable earworm, for persons of a certain age). Very much of its time, the song wanly if not complacently urges its listeners to “get together,” because the revolution is “here” and, assuredly, “right.” “Revolution” was an omnipresent concept in the Western world for several years beginning in 1968, although it could mean anything from an imminent sociopolitical event of considerable magnitude to the certainty that the under-thirty demographic was in the process of imposing its consumer preferences upon the world.
If the latter meaning was prevalent in the United States, especially after 1970 or so, matters were quite different in France, to the extent that a film titled After May needn’t specify a year for most people, including those born much later, to identify it as 1968. The events of May 1968, when a series of spontaneous uprisings by students in and around Paris were joined by workers at several large industrial complexes, came tantalizingly close to revolutionary conditions before being undermined, ironically enough, by the Communist Party and the trade unions. For years afterward, idealistic youth sought to regain that momentum or at least recapture that fleeting instant of liberation, that sense that life could be reinvented, that every road was open to them. A film called Something in the Air is a promise; a film called After May, on the other hand, would seem to advertise a comedown.
A recurring if fleeting image in the early part of Assayas’s movie is a crude graphic from a Youth Liberation Front leaflet: an upraised arm holds a rifle, but it also holds a flower, and it is emerging from the neck of an electric guitar. That sums up well enough the menu of contradictions on offer to the youth of 1971, those too young to have experienced the events of 1968 except as distant spectators, who wanted fun as much as they wanted revolution—much to the disgust of their older siblings, who either considered revolution to be a potentially hazardous annoyance or fun to be a petit-bourgeois distraction.
The movie is intended as a portrait of that microgeneration (which also happens to be mine; I’m older than Assayas by eight months). The story is semi-autobiographical, based on a book-length essay he published in 2005, Une adolescence dans l’après-Mai, which in turn began as a letter to Alice Debord, widow of Guy Debord, founder of the Situationist International. Assayas had been helping Alice prepare the rerelease of her husband’s films, and she seems to have asked him to account for himself.
Assayas’s movie follows a group of teenagers as they try out various roads that might lead…
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