Echoing its title, Something in the Air is, first and foremost, a work of atmosphere, as Olivier Assayas’s latest is most successful at steeping itself in the look and feel of 1971 Paris, where youthful revolutionaries, spurred by the events of May 1968, seek to find meaning and make an impact through their own radicalism. Harkening back to his 1994 gem, Cold Water, in terms of subject matter and the names of his protagonists, Assayas’s film most closely pivots around Gilles (Clément Métayer), a wannabe painter and filmmaker—and, thus, autobiographical Assayas proxy—who sells underground newspapers outside his school, attends raucous meetings where talk of opposing police policy is hotly debated, and prints flyers and posters touting various anti-establishment causes. When a graffiti attack on the school by Gilles, his girlfriend Christine (Lola Créton), and his mates lands one of them in potential legal trouble, and a subsequent Molotov-cocktail attack on the school’s security-guard outpost results in one man being seriously injured, the mini-revolutionaries scatter for the summer. Along with their friend Alain (Félix Armand), Gilles and Christine head to Italy, where Alain hooks up with a redheaded American, Leslie (India Salvor Menuez), and where further aimlessly creative and insurgent efforts—as well as much partner-swapping—occupy their languorous time.
Assayas grew up during this period and milieu, and as such his attention to detail is sharp: glimpses of mimeographs being used to create flyers, posters being put up at lightning speed with brushes, and people flipping through record collections featuring albums from Cream, Jethro Tull, and MC5. Such elements are wedded to a larger, evocative portrait of teenagers in search of direction and purpose, which here drives them to engage in insurrectionary behavior, casual philosophizing, and haphazard attempts to hew to principled stances that, as time goes on, seem less noble than simply indulgent and impractical.
Before disillusionment sets in, though, Something in the Air is content to comfortably coast along the directionless courses charted by its characters. Assayas’s roaming, inquisitive camera glides beside Gilles as he and Christine fall in with a group of filmmakers whose activist works are questioned for utilizing traditional (and, thus, bourgeois!) aesthetic standards and structures, and then as they drift apart once Gilles, through a mixture of jealousy and waning interest, leaves Christine and her new crew to return home to a somewhat more solitary and conventional existence working for his movie-producing father.
If that final path for Gilles seems like a compromise of once-cherished ideals, it’s also a welcome bit of decisiveness after so much rambling. Something in the Air may capture the spirit of an era and movement, but that also, unfortunately, extends to many of its participants’ self-important pontificating and grating narcissism, a problem compounded by the fact that Assayas seems so blindly smitten with his characters that he forgets to give them any nuance or depth, and to fully flesh out their various, divergent developments.
Gilles and Christine are relatively bland, albeit pretty, ciphers, and their amour is as wan as both Gilles’s competing romance with drug-addicted Laure (Carole Combes) and Alain and Leslie’s relationship, which is complicated by abortion. Though ostensibly militants, artists, and lovers, the story’s players instead come off as fashion models trying on their elders’ revolutionary clothing—surely part of the point, given where Gilles and Christine eventually wind up, but nonetheless a state of affairs that’s never given the proper complexity that might make one engage with their plights. Despite a fixation on fire as a cleansing agent (explosions, burning paintings, or a blazing house), the film, enveloping as it is, proves woefully short on burning dramatic or thematic intensity.