Film Review: Something in the Air (16, limited release, 122 minutes) 5 STARS
Director: Olivier Assayas Stars: Clement Metayer, Lola Créton, Carole Combes, Felix Armand.
Rioting has been a much-loved French pastime for generations, enjoyed with gusto by agitators and law enforcers alike.
And at the start of Olivier Assayas' semi-autobiographical drama, we watch the dreaded CRS riot police enforcing the law with murderous efficiency. It's 1971, and middle-class teenagers are still trying to emulate the radical heroics of May 1968. Seventeen-year-old Giles (Clément Métayer) has come in to Paris from its near suburbs with his Trotskyite friends to have a go at the forces of fascism. In a gripping opening sequence, they are given a sound beating by the CRS.
Giles is part of an underground cell of Marxists who print leaflets and posters, spark the odd riot and engage in orchestrated graffiti campaigns against their country's Gaullist government. Heated arguments regularly erupt between Trotskyites and Maoists, and one is left in no doubt that here is a group of youngsters who take themselves terrifyingly seriously.
But Giles is not quite as committed to his far-left politics as the rest of them. He's a painter, and is torn between his radicalism and a strong desire to become an artist. He's also in love and, though he's devastated when his lanky, languid muse Laure (Carole Combes) moves to London, he soon relocates to the arms of a pretty young Marxist called Christine (Lola Créton). When Giles and Christine take part in a graffiti attack on their school, a security guard gets seriously injured. And when they escape to Italy to lie low for a while, Giles begins to question his commitment to an increasingly dubious cause.
Assayas' drama is powerfully autobiographical and based in part on a 2005 memoir called Aprés Mai. Like the young Mr Assayas, Giles's radicalism is slightly contradicted by his comfortable background: his father is a screenwriter and, in a key scene, the boy openly mocks his dad's work on the Inspector Maigret TV show. But while Giles might be a pampered radical, he's also an intelligent one, and at one point is criticised by a Maoist superior for reading a book about the atrocities committed during the Cultural Revolution.
Assayas gently mocks these would-be revolutionaries, but he also nostalgically celebrates an era where young people were still politically engaged. His film brilliantly combines the personal and the general, powerfully evoking the past while never losing sight on one young man's crucial dilemma.
First-time actor Clément Métayer's unpolished performance makes Giles seem all the more real, and Something in the Air is beautifully constructed and brilliantly executed. In tandem with his cinematographer Eric Gautier, Assayas pulls off some breathtaking moments, particularly a memorable tracking shot through a party at a crumbling chateau. In fact, Assayas' film is so good it reminded me of Truffaut's Les 400 Coups, high praise but not entirely unjustified.