Directed and written by: Oliver Assayas
Content Warning: Drug use, police brutality.
Something in the Air is a French film that follows about a six-month period in the lives of several radical high school students. The film—which was originally titled Après Mai in French (“After May”)—is set in 1971 and is primarily concerned with how the students negotiate the decline of the political movement following the May 1968 events. In viewing it, you get the sense that it isn’t just about the characters in the film, but rather is a broader commentary on May 1968, its aftereffects, and even the decline of revolutionary movements more generally. For me, it was worth watching on that level alone and the plot seemed somewhat incidental, although it definitely helps that the story is interesting and is far from being just a political essay converted to film.
The film does a good job of capturing both the political revolt of the times, as well as the counter-cultural currents of rock music, drugs, and non-conformist lifestyles.
The students at the center of the plot are anarchists who engage in a variety of political activities characteristic of the time: they distribute leaflets, attend assemblies, write for radical publications, and engage in street conflicts with the police. They read Situationist literature, are skeptical of the institutionalized Left (who played a major role in compromising with the state to end the May events), and support militant demands along the lines of the famous graffiti, “be realistic, demand the impossible.” They utilize circled-A symbols, reference anarchist martyrs like Makhno and Durruti, and support militant actions.It’s a reasonably accurate representation of the times and while the main event at the center of the film is a bit unlikely, it works when considered within this broader context. The film does a good job of capturing both the political revolt of the times, as well as the counter-cultural currents of rock music, drugs, and non-conformist lifestyles.
The first third or so of the film centers on the anarchist students and the consequences of a particular militant action. The remainder of the film is relatively slow, as it largely explores the students’ individual experiences and struggles coming to terms with both the particular action, but also the decline of the political movement. It involves a lot of slow dialog, self-discovery, political debate, and exploration. In a lot of ways, the various events in the film parallel the paths that many took in the post-May 1968 era, retreating into leftist sects, the counterculture, drugs, art, or militant underground groups. There’s a lot of detail in the conversations, much of which makes more sense if you have a broader historical context to put them into. The story is relatively intense and somewhat depressing, but individual reactions will likely vary depending on the knowledge and experience that the viewer brings. In terms of technical aptitude, the film is shot very well, the music fits in nicely, and the locations are well chosen. The film is entertaining to look at, although for those who watch it with subtitles, it may be hard to notice some of the details as you are reading the text. Viewers interested in radical history will also appreciate the rich visual references to May 1968 and the Situationists.
…there’s a lot of nuance in the film as it explores how people transition from short bursts of revolutionary intensity and how they attempt (or don’t attempt as the case may be) to carry their values and politics with them.
While I enjoyed the film, I did find myself wondering what people who had no previous knowledge or understanding of the May events or radical politics more generally would get out of it. Would the politics even be clear or would a viewer just think the students were naïve? Would the politics just be seen as a backdrop to a confused teenage love story? Would the digs at the Trotskyists be as funny to folks who hadn’t experienced their activities in real life? I’m of the opinion that the film would probably come across as another cautionary tale about the 1960s and the failure of militancy, as well as the weakness of the counterculture. However, for those with a little bit more background, there’s a lot of nuance in the film as it explores how people transition from short bursts of revolutionary intensity and how they attempt (or don’t attempt as the case may be) to carry their values and politics with them. As it was with many who experienced the May events and even those of us who have experienced smaller, less dramatic political events (such as the summits and occupations of more recent times), dealing with the decline in activity is often difficult. Like the characters in the film, many people have pursued the paths of formal Leftist organizations, artistic movements, the counter-culture, armed militant groups, or substance abuse as a way of coming to terms with this decline. Each of these choices are at best just distractions and avoid the underlying question by masking them with other pursuits.
At its conclusion, the film doesn’t make a specific statement or recommendation as to how we negotiate the decline of radical moments, instead choosing to stay in the realm of uncertainty. The choice of the militant characters who dedicate themselves to clandestine armed struggle or the party are clear, they—however misguidedly—dedicate themselves to “the revolution” and march lock-step as if nothing ever changed. The choice of counter-culture abandonment is also clear, as the characters pursuing those paths leave their politics behind. Most ambiguous is the choice of the protagonist, who pursues his love of film through mainstream productions, yet continues to read Situationist literature. None of the characters, or the film as a whole, provide any real resolution. While it is clear that some of the approaches (counter-cultural pursuits and underground militancy) are at least somewhat frowned upon, it is the ambiguity of the protagonist that encourages the most reflection. How do people stay involved beyond the moment of excitement? How do political movements sustain participation beyond these short-term bursts of activity?Are radical politics just a youthful pursuit? I came away from the film reflecting on my own experiences, my understandings of historical movements, and the ways in which the broader anarchist space sustains (or doesn’t sustain as is more often the case) participation over the long haul.
In the end, I recommend this film, both for its portrayal of French politics in the late 1960s/early 1970s, as well as the larger questions that it raises about the trajectory of political movements.