Gliding through turbulent revolutionary times with an air of inquisitive detachment, and with a sheaf of his latest drawings under his arm, young Gilles, played by newcomer Clement Metayer in "Something in the Air," is the latest screen portrait of an artist as a young man. It's a good one too, rich and assured, even if writer-director Olivier Assayas is more successful at creating atmosphere than at making his romanticized younger self a three-dimensional being.
Still, a major filmmaker can achieve a lot in two dimensions. Assayas is best known in the U.S. for "Summer Hours" and "Carlos." A strong early feature, "Cold Water," included an authorial stand-in, also known as Gilles. Assayas has explored the recesses of his own adolescence and early adulthood throughout his filmmaking career, even if the personal elements were often confined to remixing elements of the movies he grew up loving. (Assayas worked as a critic for a time.)
His films have been stimulatingly all over the place: some nutty genre exercises, some docudramas, some Chekhovian reveries. "Something in the Air" has trappings of all three, but mainly — like the recent David Chase rock 'n' roll cine-memoir "Not Fade Away" — it's an attempt to recapture a roiling period of change. Assayas starts in 1971 when Gilles, graduating high school and living in a leafy Paris suburb, has become radicalized (up to a point) by the hunger strikes, the police riots, the revolutionary fervor in the air. Within minutes the director throws us into the thick of an excitingly staged melee involving student protesters and police.
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The stakes rise. Gilles and his fellow student revolutionaries graffiti-bomb their school and, pursued by civilian guards, one of their pursuers ends up seriously injured. Assayas puts all this into place and then allows Gilles, the sometime firebrand, to redirect the story's focus toward love amid the ferment.
Gilles' first love, Laure (Carole Combes), leaves for London and calls off the budding relationship. Enter Christine (Lola Creton), part of the student collective laying low after run-ins with the police. Gilles joins them in the sunny climes of Italy for a summer. Christine likes this boy, but he's a tough one to read. "Sorry, but I can't tell if you love me," she says in a line destined to get roughly 50 percent of any audience nodding in recognition.
As Gilles' friends navigate their half-formed lives, the filmmaker-to-be (the son of a screenwriter, as is Assayas) goes his own way. Assayas never lets "Something in the Air" (initially titled "Apres Mai," meaning "After May," meaning after May 1968) become too messy. The filmmaker favors the discreet fade-out or cutaway just when things between friends, or lovers, grow a little heated or confrontational. Even when you want more from it, "Something in the Air" is extremely accomplished. "I'm afraid to miss out on my youth," Gilles says at one point, in a reunion with the one that got away. She envies his career focus; his guarded heart, meantime, still twinges when she's near. At the start of Assayas' remembrance, Gilles is a sponge, ready to take on the juices of the world around him. By the end, he knows what he wants. Even if he doesn't yet know whom.
'Something in the Air' -- 3 stars
No MPAA rating (nudity, some violence, sexual material, language)
Running time: 1:56
Opens: Friday. Also available VOD via Sundance Selects.