"Something in the Air" is deceptively calm for a movie about the death of the '60s. Even the English-language title -- a reference to a 1969 Thunderclap Newman hit that isn't even heard on the soundtrack -- gives nothing away.
The original French title is more on target: "Apres Mai," or After May. As in May 1968, when student protests boiled into the streets of Paris, and the government nearly fell. In this context, "After May" refers to the early 1970s, when revolutionary ideals are still on everyone's lips, but the moment and the momentum have slipped away on a slow tide of drugs, self-absorption, and entropy.
Yet the movie's anything but a downer. Instead, it's a clear-eyed memory play from Olivier Assayas, the writer-director whose previous films have veered from the bizarre ("Demonlover") to the poignant ("Summer Hours").
The year is 1971, and the director's stand-in is Gilles (Clement Metayer), a lanky adolescent in his final days of high school. He's a talented artist, but his energies when the film opens go almost completely into radical politics and raising the consciousness of any proletarian within earshot.
Still, he's more of an observer than a talker: Gilles' are the eyes through which "Something in the Air" sees the gradual deflating of the revolution into empty gesture. The movie's alive to the all-encompassing seriousness of youth, but it stands just far enough back to marvel at the characters' naivete, too. Drugs are everywhere, and terrific trippy music from forgotten psychedelic- folk bands and sex that isn't so much sex as a constant generational interlocking.
With a minimum of melodrama and a fluid camera style that weaves restlessly in and out of the throng, "Something in the Air" is attentive to the users and the used in this generation of supposed equals. There's no anger to the film, though, and what sometimes feels like passivity is really just the fond, unromantic gaze of an artist carefully considering his younger self.
Filmmaking itself -- a way of turning the act of watching into art -- is a secondary topic of "Something in the Air," with Gilles' screenwriter father (Andre Marcon) urging his son into the business while a radical documentary group goes out to capture images of exploited workers. Which way will the boy go, into commercial lies or verité truths?
A look at Assayas' filmography suggests he found a third way, in an artful surrealism that can yield weird nuggets of meaning while masking a growing empathy for other people.
'SOMETHING IN THE AIR'
* * * 1/2
Rating: Not rated
Cast: Clement Metayer, Lola Creton and Carole Combes
Director: Olivier Assayas
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes. In French with subtitles.