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Entries in Something in the Air [2012] (1)

Friday
May102013

Something in the Air (2012)

The Air That I Breathe

Yesterday, I worked thirteen-and-a-half hours at my day-job. Artist by trade, film critic by night, mine is a life the eighteen-year-old version of me would have probably loved--unless I were to map out the gruelling realities of making it in the professional (i.e. corporate) world.

Long ago, I traded acrylic-paints for e-mails, and day-long ink-drawing sessions for meetings about projects I won't remember next month--let alone on my death bed. I'd never share this information with him/me, if given the chance, because he/I probably would jump in front of a city bus mid-discussion.

There's nothing romantic or world-changing about what I do every day, unless you want to get all Dr. Phil on me about little differences amounting to big things. I suppose that's true, but it's little comfort when I stumble home, exhausted, five minutes after my son goes to sleep.

What does any of this have to do with Something in the Air? Everything. Olivier Assayas' casually moving, beautiful film about French high school students/revolutionaries in 1971 breathes the fire of creative youth. Gilles (Clement Metayer), a sullen, shaggy-haired artist, falls in with the activist kids in his class. His ideals aren't so much political as they are expressive: by raging against Communism, Fascism, and every other vague "ism" that his more bookish compatriots think will look sufficiently menacing on the front of their mimeographed underground paper, Gilles finds the inspiration to paint wild pictures and bed social-conscience groupies.

The movie opens with a protest that descends quickly into a horrifying episode of police brutality. The police don't just warn the teens to disperse. They run each of them down, doling out gleefully savage beatings with big, black clubs. Gilles and his friends Alain (Felix Armand) and Christine (Lola Creton), escape the mayhem, but conspire to pull off a grand act of vandalism in retaliation. The next evening, they deface the front of their school before being run off. On returning for yet another round of graffiti art, one of their pursuers is accidentally knocked on the head and lapses into a coma.

Another student takes the blame, but the three friends decide to lay low in Italy over the summer. Christine runs off with the head of a documentary film crew; Alain falls for spaced-out American hippie Leslie (India Menuez); and Gilles grapples with a romantic interest in Christine, a lingering love of his druggie ex, Laure (Carole Combes), and conflicted feelings about going to work for his TV-producer father after graduation. These events comprise Something in the Air, but I hesitate to call them "plot elements".

Assayas isn't interested in forward momentum here. In this way, his film is a perfect metaphor for the uncertainty most of us faced when transitioning from childhood to adulthood. Gilles and his friends find no easy answers to their problems; their Earth-shattering ideals are of little use in the real world. That's to say, it's far easier to dedicate hours to feeding starving children when your own needs are taken care of through no effort of your own. Adulthood is the necessary evil these characters must reconcile with, and they are in no hurry to do so.

Please don't mistake this for a heavy European art film. I mean, it kind of is, in theme. But in execution, Assayas captures the easygoing luxury of long afternoons spent painting, screwing, and listening to great music--all the while knowing that lively conversation and beautiful French countryside views are just a window-crack away. He punctuates this with moments of great drama and consequence: the riot, an exploding car, and one of the greatest mind-fuck house fires I've ever seen. These jarring scenes create empathy with the characters, who just want to escape the noise the real world keeps blasting at them.

Had Something in the Air not made me question a number of decisions I've made in my own journey from wide-eyed world-conqueror-in-training to a manager of artists, I'd probably proclaim my love for it. But the movie depressed me a great deal, precisely because it's so spiritually uplifting. Yes, Gilles and his friends wind up tiptoeing into adulthood (and it's unclear how many of their ambitions and creative ideals will survive the long haul) but Assayas leaves us with hope for them and for ourselves.

Our passions, the writer/director argues, may flicker, fade, or even change color. Sometimes, they'll swell beyond our ability to control them. It's a refreshing message. And despite these long, hard, seemingly unrewarding days, I'll never stop tending my fire.

Hey, Chicagoans! If you'd like to experience the mood and magnificence of Assayas' film on the big screen, head on out to The Music Box Theatre on Southport this week, where Something in the Air opens today!