While there are many accounts of what happened to the revolutionary fervour of the 1960s, few are as memorable as the one delivered by Johnny Depp in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas; that image of a wave that rose and rose and rose before finally breaking and rolling back down the beach, leaving thousands stranded behind it. Set in 1971, Olivier Assayas’s Something In The Air is an account of what happened to a group of stranded teenagers and why the wave is still rolling back today.
The film opens with images of French riot police beating protesting students into unconsciousness. Hours later, a group of students meet while still nursing wounded prides and cracked skulls; they are all furious about what happened at protest but none of them can agree on what to do and that sense of frustration is beginning to blossom into mutual recrimination and wariness. Sure they hate the police… they just hate each other just that little bit more. One of these students is Gilles (Clement Metayer) an aspiring artist who slavishly reads all the right books, all the right magazines and listens to all the right music. Aware that their time in high school is nearing an end and that something needs to be done, Gilles and his friends decide to vandalise the school only for their political gesture to escalate into actual violence and a hospitalised security guard. Fearful for their liberty, Gilles and his friends decide to flee the country and spend the summer ‘finding themselves’ whilst travelling round Europe. Something in the Air is the story of what it is that they actually found.
Despite functioning at an incredibly high level or intellectual and political engagement, Gilles and friends drift from one doomed relationship to another whilst either embracing or rejecting the opportunities that come their way. One of them is dragged into the orbit of a bunch of aspiring terrorists while another joins a commune only to find herself doing all the washing, cleaning and shopping for a bunch of men who are anything but radical in their attitudes to women. Indeed, while some critics have made a lot of the similarities between Something in the Air and Assayas’s earlier film of ill-fated teen revolt Cold Water, a much better point of comparison would be a film like Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused as while Assayas’ teens may be living the revolutionary life in a series of beautiful European locations, the decisions they make are ultimately no different to those of Linklater’s suburban Texans.
Beautifully made but ultimately quite minimalist when it comes to matters of plot and character, Something In The Air is best read as an exploration of how little impact radical politics actually have on the structure of people’s lives. Judging by the characters in Assayas’s film, radical politics are a useful way of finding like-minded people and building a sense of community but whenever the interests of a particular community enter into conflict with the interests of an individual then you can be certain that people will put themselves first and so the great wave of solidarity and togetherness that crested with the general strikes of May 1968 broke and rolled back, splintering communities again and again until all that was left was a generation of divorced parents, chartered surveyors, tabloid journalists and left-wing firebrands who traded in their principles for a shot at high office and a chance to dismantle the welfare state.
Something In The Air may do an excellent job of creating the look and feel of 1970s radical lifestyles but its portrayal of those lives is ultimately unsympathetic. By associating the abandonment of radical politics with the process of growing up, Assayas presents the urge to change the world as a sign of emotional and intellectual immaturity. Under this view, the 1960s failed because humanity stayed the same… it flirted with the idea that things could be different, that we could be different and then the summer ended and everyone went back to work. Assayas’s Carlos The Jackal looked at one of the most feared and celebrated political revolutionaries of the 1970s and reduced his career down to a series of personal relationships; Something in the Air is obviously part of the same political project. As one of the characters in Dazed in Confused might put it: People joined the radical underground in order to meet girls but they could just as easily have met girls by playing in a band or being in a football team. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with Assayas’s views on radical politics, there is no doubting that this is a beautiful and substantial film about a period in recent history whose influence continues to be felt.