It’s early seventies France, and anarchy and political ferment are the “ something in the air” of the title, in this absorbing film which explores the lives of a group of young students at sexual play and at anarchic protest.
Political action means street battles with the cops, or a midnight raid in which they comprehensively spray the walls of their school with graffiti, and bombard the grounds with sheaves of political fliers as they leave. A security guard ends up in a coma and cannot speak after one of their assaults.
The small band of students in this ensemble piece are reasonably prosperous middle-class kids and intelligent to boot, so it is difficult to feel sympathy for them if the results of their political beliefs are such actions. One isn’t expected to feel it either, even if the film is a semi-autobiographical account from writer and director Assayas.
As in Mike Leigh’s Land and Freedom, there is a fair bit of scene-setting at the start, with smoke-filled rooms and heated debates about the proletariat, feverish xeroxing and an obsessive, unsmiling commitment to protest.
Director Assayas isn’t particularly interested in exploring the roots of this student disaffection, or why there was a network of students across France and Italy who appear to have a natural sympathy with the oppressed citizens of a distant, land-locked Asian country called Laos.
Suffice to say that the story has its background three years earlier, in Paris, and the evenements that began in March 1968, when a group of Nanterre University students mounted street protests against conditions at the university.
By July, workers had crippled Paris with a general strike involving ten million employees, who occupied factories and marched in sympathy with students who had occupied the Sorbonne. The aims were self-management by workers, decentralization of power and a more democratic approach in factories and universities. By the end of July, Charles de Gaulle’s government was serioulsy damaged.
The movie begins in February 1971 with a demonstration at the Place de Clichy in Paris and the beating by police of student Richard Deshayes. Deshayes loses an eye in the assault, and the poster of his severely-injured face becomes an image of resistance.
It’s a tricky business trying to recreate a period without being too self-conscious. For one second early on I wondered was this going to be a pretentious movie that would wear its references to Syd Barrett and Beat poet Gregory Corso on its cheesecloth sleeve.
But Assayas sidesteps any such pitfalls and the amorous relationships conducted in a woozy cloud of hash smoke are handled deftly and convincingly. Young lovers fall in love with each other and act upon it very quickly – there’s a lot of running into the trees - they part; they travel to Italy, or return to their native New York; they want to pursue art in Kabul. They dabble in heroin, two of the girls get involved with older men.
It sounds pretentious that likable art student Gilles (Clément Metayer) around whom the film pivots should light candles at a tree and tear a poem of Corso from a book and burn it. But somehow that scene works, as do many other similar scenes that are undeniably of a piece with the spirit of the times. The period soundtrack includes Nick Drake, The Soft Machine, The Incredible String Band, Amazing Blondel, Irish band Dr Strangely Strange, Kevin Ayers, Booker T and the MGs’ classic Green Onions.
Pastoral songs and menacing musical work-out drive the atmosphere of febrile, risky and louche romance. Something In the Air may be short on a single story-line, but for its exploration of a period it is, in its own way, as convincing as Withnail And I, though vastly different in one important regard: there are practically no laughs.