‘Something in the Air” is deceptively calm for a movie about the death of the ’60s. Even the English-language title — an oblique reference to a 1969 Thunderclap Newman hit that isn’t even heard on the soundtrack — gives nothing away. The original French title is more on target: “Apres Mai,” or After May. As in May 1968, when student protests boiled into the streets of Paris and the government nearly fell. In this context, “After May” refers to the early 1970s, when revolutionary ideals are still on everyone’s lips but the moment and the momentum have slipped away on a slow tide of drugs, self-absorption, and entropy.
Yet the movie’s anything but a downer. Instead, it’s a clear-eyed — if largely plot-free — memory play from writer-director Olivier Assayas, whose previous films have veered from the bizarre (“Demonlover,” “Boarding Gate”) to the poignant (“Summer Hours”). The year is 1971, and the director’s stand-in is Gilles (Clément Métayer), a lanky adolescent in his final days of high school. He’s a talented artist, but his energies when the film opens go almost completely into radical politics and raising the consciousness of any proletariat within earshot. He hawks leftist newspapers that his friends print in basements, tangles with riot police in the streets, goes to meetings where no one agrees on anything, and covers his school’s walls with graffiti and broadsides.
Still, he’s more of an observer than a talker: Gilles’s are the eyes through which “Something in the Air” sees the gradual deflating of the revolution into empty gesture. The movie’s alive to the all-encompassing seriousness of youth, but it stands just far enough back to marvel at the characters’ naivete, too. Drugs are everywhere, and terrific trippy music from forgotten psychedelic-folk bands (the soundtrack isn’t available in this country, but it should be), and sex that isn’t so much sex as a constant generational interlocking.
Some of Gilles’s friends fall off the map: Laure (Carole Combes), his girlfriend when the movie begins, drifts off into a commune and comes to grief, one more seeker burnt by the flame. Alain (Felix Armand) falls for Leslie (India Salvor Menuez), a redheaded American who’s rich and spiteful toward the privileges she’s fleeing; Alain can’t see the class warfare in their own relationship.
With a minimum of melodrama and a fluid camera style that weaves restlessly in and out of the throng, “Something in the Air” is attentive to the users and the used in this generation of supposed equals. There’s no anger to the film, though, and what sometimes feels like passivity is really just the fond, unromantic gaze of an artist carefully considering his younger self.
Assayas’s filmmaking is often breathtaking: the street fights of the early scenes, the commune sequence that uses Soft Machine’s “Why Are We Sleeping” to build toward hippie apocalypse, an image of Leslie standing before a painting of 17th-century Dutch burghers and not realizing she’s looking into a mirror. Filmmaking itself — a way of turning the act of watching into art — is a secondary topic of “Something in the Air,” with Gilles’s screenwriter father (Andre Marcon) urging his son into the business while a radical documentary group goes out to capture images of exploited workers. Which way will the boy go, into commercial lies or verite truths?
A look at Assayas’s filmography suggests he found a third way, in an artful surrealism that can yield weird nuggets of meaning while masking a growing empathy for other people. “Something in the Air” feels at times like a poetic French response to last year’s “Not Fade Away,” in which director David Chase (“The Sopranos”) fictionalized his own ’60s adolescence. If Assayas uses politics rather than rock ’n’ roll as his hero’s primary passion, both films understand that cinema is the canvas waiting in the wings.Ty Burr can be reached at tburr