Sunday, September 29, 2013

Fading flowers in her hair / She's suffering from wear and tear / She lies in waterfalls of dreams / And never questions what it means

         Olivier Assayas returns to his formative years for the second time with Something in the Air (2012, better French title: Apres Mai). What distinguishes it from his first go-round with the era, Cold Water (1994, maybe his best movie), is first a more direct countenancing of the political situation in France in the aftermath of May '68, kept mainly implicit in the strained relationships between the generations in Water, and second a diffusion of focus. The main thread is the evolution of the Assayas surrogate Gilles (Clément Métayer, a dead ringer for Ziggy from The Wire if there ever was one) from high school radical to politically disengaged artist, but the movie roams promiscuously into the lives of various other characters in Gilles's orbit, and Gilles's own path takes a few detours. If Water is akin to a tightly constructed short story or novella, Air is more like a discursive memoir, and indeed Assayas has also written a memoir of sorts about this period in his life, A Post-May Adolescence. This has led some to complain that Air's second half is too scattered, but the scatter is what Assayas is going for. The movie is very much about how the collective dream of revolution went to pieces and left many of its young proponents chasing individualized dreams of self-actualization. A more legit complaint you could lodge is that Gilles as Metayer plays him is a little too recessive and inward for the movie's own good. Assayas's best films tend to pivot on a great performance, from Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep (1996) to Edgar Ramirez in Carlos (2010) to Virginie Ledoyen in Water; Métayer is just kind of there. But Assayas's ability to pull his viewer into an entirely plausible world, through a combination of dead-on detail, masterful orchestration of space and movement, and brilliant soundtrack cues, is undiminished, nor is his intellect.  He's clear-eyed about the failures of his characters, the naivety and arrogance underlying the Marxist rhetoric they routinely spout, yet gazes on them with great tenderness, and in the coda, set to Kevin Ayers's "Decadence," imparts to them a kind of grace.

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