NEW YORK — To French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, contemporary movies about the 1970s tend to be either sentimentalized evocations of the era or mocking rebukes that caricature the naive idealism, fractious politics, and curious cultural artifacts of the decade. But with his freewheeling new film, “Something in the Air,” a semi-autobiographical work based on his own artistic and political coming-of-age in turbulent early-1970s France, Assayas feels neither nostalgic about the faded era of his youth nor dismissive of its idealistic hopes and dreams.
“People really believed in the future. They really believed in the fact that one generation could transform society and build a new world, which is a crazy utopian idea to think about today,” said Assayas, in an interview last fall while in town for the New York Film Festival premiere of “Something in the Air,” which opened in Boston on Friday. “But I think it’s very difficult to be nostalgic about your own youth. Because youth is frustrating. You’re not exactly sure of your place in society. You’re not sure where you’re going. You have so many doubts and insecurities.”
Not only does the director of such acclaimed films as “Summer Hours,” “Clean,” and “Irma Vep” possess little wistfulness about his own teenage years, but he is also cleareyed and unsparing in his views of the ’70s French political landscape, which formed in the wake of the seismic May 1968 uprising that offered the promise of a revolution. (“After May” is the French title of the new film.)
“As much as there was something respectable about the energy, the idealism, and the hopes of that time, the politics of the ’70s were very ugly,” said the fast-talking, gray-haired director, who, at 58, still has a sprightly, boyish mien. “In France the dogmatic leftism of the mid-’70s had become more and more disconnected from reality, from modern society, until the whole thing crumbled.”
In “Something in the Air,” which captured the award for best screenplay at last year’s Venice Film Festival, Assayas stand-in Gilles (Clément Metayer), a high school student with a talent for drawing and painting, gets swept up in the wave of revolutionary energy engulfing France in the early ’70s. The film opens in 1971 with a student-led demonstration that leads to a violent clash with riot police. Soon, Gilles gets pulled into illicit and ever more dangerous protests with his radicalized friends, including a covert nighttime graffiti raid on school grounds. But when a security guard is seriously injured in a protest incident gone horribly wrong, Gilles and his bohemian friends flee to the Italian countryside for the summer. There, they meander through a haze of sex, drugs, parties, protest rallies, romantic trysts, and impassioned political debate.
Along the way Gilles falls for Laure (Carole Combes) and then Christine (Lola Créton), and new possibilities for counterculture exploration seem to lie around every corner. But the laconic Gilles finds himself increasingly alienated by the strident, oppressive political dogma of the Maoist lefties and his interests drift towards the revolutions happening in music, art, and film.
After viewing a conventional agitprop documentary about workers’ rights, Gilles wonders, “Shouldn’t revolutionary cinema employ a revolutionary syntax?” And he struggles to carve out his own individual path in the face of ideology that preaches against pursuing personal expression over the collective message.
“When you’re a teenager, what you are trying to do is basically become yourself. And part of becoming yourself is rejecting the hive mind of your generation. That’s how you grow up and become your own person,” Assayas said. “But in the ’70s, it was even tougher because that generation was connected by this responsibility towards revolution. . . . So it was betraying the political beliefs of your generation.”
In 2005, Assayas penned a short memoir of the era, “A Post-May Adolescence,” which was published in English last year. But the roots of “Something in the Air” can be traced to Assayas’s 1994 film, “Cold Water,” also set in the 1970s and centered on a troubled young teenage couple with the familiar Gilles and Christine monikers. While “Cold Water” tapped into the emotions Assayas experienced growing up in the ’70s, he contends that “Something in the Air” sketches in the all the countercultural details and atmospherics of the era that were largely eschewed in the earlier film.
“When I finished ‘Cold Water,’ I was conscious that a lot of what was fascinating about the ’70s was missing from the film — and that one day I would have to deal with what was missing,” Assayas said. “ ‘Cold Water’ was like the poetic version of the ’70s, so I then had to make the novelistic version, where I would really deal with the ambience that my generation grew up in — the attraction of the Orient; the attraction of demented, radical politics; and the obsession with abstract, overlong prog rock.”
Since that 1994 film, Assayas has largely avoided the ’70s. That is until he was tasked with directing the sprawling and kinetic “Carlos,” about the rise and fall of the notorious globe-trotting guerrilla-terrorist, Carlos the Jackal. Assayas acknowledged that the Golden Globe-winning 2010 miniseries was connected to “Something in the Air” “in subterranean ways.”
“ ‘Carlos’ is like a historical movie seen from the perspective of today, which kind of deconstructs the politics of the 1970s. Whereas [”Something in the Air”] is seen from inside the ’70s.”
While Gilles is the central character, Assayas often leaves him behind to glimpse the stories and fates of the other young people as choices are made, goodbyes are said, and life carries them in separate directions, sometimes to reunite again later.
“Ultimately his story makes no sense on its own. If you’re trying to describe your teenage years, they only make sense through the parallels of what you, your friends, and everyone around you was doing,” Assayas said.
Capturing the specific counterculture details of the time was paramount. We see Gilles thumbing through racks of LPs, making illustrations and art for a leftist student newspaper, and watching agitprop films about workers’ rights. The soundtrack includes music by Syd Barrett, Soft Machine, Captain Beefheart, and Nick Drake.
“It was a pre-information age, before the Internet. You did not trust bourgeois media. So it was important to feel connected to what was summed up as the counterculture,” Assayas said.
When Assayas came to New York for a brief visit in the fall of 2011, he traveled down to Zuccotti Park to visit the protesters manning the Occupy Wall Street encampment. Not only was he deeply inspired by what he saw, but the entire scene felt like a memory emerging from the mists of his own past.
“For anybody who lived through the ’70s, there was something very moving about it — the energy, people’s sense of the collective and doing things as a group, and finding new ways of democracy within that group,” he said. “I don’t know where it’s heading or what will become of it. But for the first time in a very long time, there was a sense that here is a generation that is asking the right questions.
“We have lost something that was very important in those years, which was the belief in the possibility of transforming the future,” Assayas continues. “But now we are so cut off from the idea that we can have any kind of radical effect on the transformation of society. So it’s worth remembering that not so long ago people believed it could really happen.”