If you don’t know him already, Olivier Assayas is a name to remember when you’re in the market for an interesting, unpredictable French film. Like his countryman François Ozon (whose “In the House” recently screened in Atlanta), Assayas never likes to repeat himself.
Assayas celebrated the grand chaos of filmmaking itself in “Irma Vep,” starring Maggie Cheung, whom he married. A few years later, after they divorced, he again directed her to the top acting award at the Cannes Film Festival in the hard-edged valentine “Clean.” He’s taken on the theme of cyberporn in “Demonlover” and the erotic thriller genre in “Boarding Gate,” made the riveting, fact-based crime epic “Carlos” and delivered a bittersweet family drama with “Summer Hours.” You never know what you’re gonna get with this writer-director. As for his latest . . . well, unfortunately I can’t say I’d rank it among my favorites.
“Something in the Air” is a purposefully formless movie about the ragged tail ends and uncertain first starts of people leaving high school behind and trying to figure out what’s next. In this case, they’re doing so in 1971, three years after the French civil unrest and strikes in the spring of 1968. (The movie’s original title translates as “After May.”)
As of 1971, the grand future promised by those heady days has not yet arrived, but these idealistic kids won’t believe that it can’t still come. So Gilles (Clément Métayer) and his painfully earnest classmates plaster their suburban Parisian school with posters and anarchy symbols, meet in dim basement rooms to discuss strategy, and smoke a lot. They sleep around, too, battle security guards in the night, duck school authorities and head off to Italy for a change of scenery when the heat turns up.
A fair amount of their time is spent around older, bearded comrades (you can almost whiff the patchouli wafting off them), who seem mainly intent on one-upping one another with their political fervor. It’s mainly talk. They can argue day and night, just so long as a pretty, available girl is around to tend to their other needs, in the kitchen and the bedroom. (The lovely but emotionally blank Lola Créton, star of “Goodbye First Love,” fills that role, while also serving as Gilles’ sometime girlfriend.)
Assayas keeps a level tone and avoids easily satirizing what in retrospect could be a sitting-duck era. Adults — real adults, the sort of people these kids would label petit bourgeoisie — are rarely seen. One exception is Gilles’ father, a scriptwriter for a French TV series based on Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels. He’s the one who gives his son a tangible nudge onto a more tangible life path. That we last see Gilles working as an assistant on a movie being shot at England’s Pinewood Studios confirms what you’ve suspected: that he’s based on Assayas himself.
The writer-director delivers his semi-autobiographical story with an aimlessness that reflects the unknowing day-to-day of youth. That’s an admirable artistic choice, but a risky one for moviegoers who like a little more structure to hang onto. For American viewers who aren’t well versed in French politics of the 1960s and ’70s, watching “Something in the Air” can at times be baffling. But even an unsuccessful Assayas film is rewarding to watch.
“Something in the Air.” With Clément Métayer, Lola Créton. Written and directed by Olivier Assayas. In French with subtitles. Unrated. 116 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.