There is fire everywhere in Olivier Assayas’ scorching new coming-of-age drama “Something in the Air.” It is in the passions, in the politics and in the sex roiling through the filmmaker’s vision of 1970s-era Paris. For this is a memoir of sorts of Assayas’ youth — the forces that pulled at him and the choices that shaped who he would become.
Coming off his acclaimed “Carlos,” a six-hour opus on the Venezuelan revolutionary known as Carlos the Jackal, Assayas hasn’t left those themes as much as gotten more intimate in exploring them. His screenplay, which won the Venice Film Festival prize last year, is so adept at moving between the mood swings of the talented and torn central character, Gilles (Clément Métayer), that you feel as much as watch this film.
Gilles is just finishing high school but already he’s deeply in love with his art, a girl named Laure (Carole Combes), and a cause, the incendiary leftist resistance fermenting in Paris at the time. Before the movie ends, they will all break his heart.
Laure, a breathtaking beauty who looks as if she were born to run barefoot through the fields, which she does, or crawl into Gilles bed, which she also does, is the first to leave him. She is the lingering ache of that unattainable idealized love that never truly disappears. Laure will resurface in many ways at critical times in Gilles’ journey.
The cause puts him on the front lines from the beginning. He and a tight circle of equally committed young anarchists are the foot soldiers of the revolution, plastering Paris with posters, spraypainting their outrage on school walls, filling the ranks of protesters running through streets, tossing Molotov cocktails in their wake. It will also bring Gilles a different sort of love in Christine (Lola Créton), whose affections are forever torn between the movement and the boy struggling to grow into a man.
His artistic inclinations keep Gilles forever divided. As much as he tries to make his painting and filmmaking bend to the needs of the revolution, there is a clash that leaves him constantly making compromises. In watching Gilles experiment with various mediums, you get a sense of how Assayas himself goes at the creative process.
Though the central story of “Something in the Air” is a personal one, politics push the action from the beginning, with Gilles serving as the messenger. As soon as school ends each day, Gilles rushes to hand out fliers to his passing classmates. From there, we follow him into the heart of the revolutionary underground — as the tracts are designed and printed, strategies are debated, philosophies reexamined. Assayas is terrific in creating the details and the emotional crosscurrents of the counterculture and the heady mix of drugs and sex experimentation.
Involvement in any kind of insurgency comes with risks. It is easy, if not inevitable, to get caught in the crossfire when going up against the establishment. During one particularly explosive plan gone wrong, Gilles, his best friend, Alain (Felix Armand), and Christine end up on the run. The East, where opium is plentiful and meditation vies with politics for the mind, is their destination.
Though the film is mostly focused on Gilles’ evolution, there is so much ground Assayas wants to cover that he takes a few intriguing detours into the lives of others. One of the more interesting is Alain. Like Gilles, he’s a creative sort and soon begins to favor the notion of dropping out completely to spend his days with a red-haired girl from the States who finds his artistic leanings exotic. Leslie (India Salvor Menuez) represents that kind of innocent optimism of the young, quick to embrace love and life, easily hurt when reality clashes with the dream.
Gilles is soon drifting too — away from the politics that consume Christine and toward what will be his life’s work. His father makes films that in Gilles’ estimation are sellouts. Yet he’s soon learning the trade from the ground up, carrying coffee on sets, copying scripts for B-movies instead of political propaganda.
Beyond Assayas’ strengths as a storyteller, he has assembled an exceptionally fine cast of young actors. Créton gives Christine an easily crushed toughness. Menuez infuses the free-spirited Leslie with an innocent light. Combes is ethereal in portraying the muse, and Armand is excellent at capturing Alain’s growing disenchantment with activism. But Métayer is the standout.
In his acting debut, Métayer, a recent high-school graduate himself, lets us deep inside Gilles’ evolution. The young actor has a lean, haunting look that suits Gilles. But it is the way he moves — carrying both a bit of arrogance and insecurity in his bones — that is so charismatic on-screen.
Assayas has such a steady hand as a director, he knows precisely how to let all of Gilles’ inner angst play out. His nostalgia for those past days can be felt in the affection and forgiving way the indiscretions of youth are portrayed.
In creating a mashup of a Paris rocked by political storms and a young man in just as much turmoil, the director has given us a glimpse of an imperfect moment and an imperfect life in a slightly imperfect but wonderful film.
‘Something in the Air’
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes; French with English subtitles
Playing: At Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles