Olivier Assayas’ new film, Something in the Air, opens at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, May 17
opens at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, May 17

I was too young to be aware of the political ferment of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Blissfully ignorant, I’d walk to school each morning in my English schoolboy’s uniform (cap, tie and shorts, regardless of the weather), and return home each afternoon to watch Blue Peter, Crackerjack (“It’s Friday! It’s 5 to 5! It’s CRACKERJACK!”), or Doctor Who. Why worry about Daniel Cohn-Bendit when Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee were being threatened by Cybermen and Daleks?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the English Channel, French students were on the verge of toppling their country’s government. The fallout of this fraught moment in history is the subject of Olivier Assayas’ new film Something in the Air (more appropriately titled Après mai in France, in reference to the fateful month when De Gaulle’s government almost fell), opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, May 17.

Set in 1971, Assayas’ semi-autobiographical feature stars newcomer Clément Métayer as Gilles, a high-school student less interested in learning about Blaise Pascal than he is in a carving the perfect anarchy ‘A’ into his desk. Bored by his teacher’s insights into the ‘Pensées’, Gilles’ idea of after-school activities is distributing left-wing agit-prop to his fellow students or engaging in various forms of direct action.

He’s not alone, of course. Along with Youth Liberation Front pals Jean-Pierre (Hugo Conzelmann), Alain (Felix Armand) and Christine (Lola Creton), Gilles spends much of his free time fighting pitched street battles with the police and spray painting political graffiti on school property. Oh, and smoking. It seems all French high-school students smoked like chimneys in 1971.

Things go horribly wrong on one such misadventure, however, when the gang drops a rock on a school security officer, leaving the man in a coma. Unwilling to face up to his complicity in the attack, Gilles heads off first to Italy, where he spends the summer wooing Christine and working as part of a Marxist film-making collective, and then to London, where he gets a job on a dinosaur movie.*

The film brilliantly recreates the feverish political atmosphere of early ‘70s Europe, but is less successful in engaging our interest in its characters. Though it’s obvious Gilles and co. have been inspired by the events of May 1968, there’s no mention of that momentous occasion in Assayas’ screenplay, and audiences unfamiliar with the history are left with no back story.

In all other respects, however, Something in the Air hews fairly closely to bourgeois film-making conventions. There are romantic subplots aplenty and even one instance in which that old counterculture reliable, drug addiction, rears its ugly head. There’s also a first-rate soundtrack, including worthy selections by Syd Barrett, Dr. Strangely Strange, The Soft Machine, and Kevin Ayers, though Thunderclap Newman’s Something in the Air – so prominently featured in the 1970s revolutionary classic The Strawberry Statement – is shockingly absent. Oh, and there no Daleks — more’s the pity.

* The film Gilles is working on in London appears to be Kevin Connor’s Edgar Rice Burroughs’ adaptation The Land That Time Forgot — the monster models used in both films appear to be identical.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more Big Screen Berkeley reviews here.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...