The concept of the “art house film” has been stretched so much in recent years that, for some audiences, it covers almost anything that does not contain CGI effects, whose stars speak with an accent or that was inspired by a book.
By that measure, popular films likes “The King’s Speech,” “The Great Gatsby” and “The Life of Pi” find homes in independent movie houses, but their stars and budgets also save them a place in the big mall multiscreen cinemas.
That will not happen with “Something in the Air.” This is “art house” at its Woody Allen-esque best, full of shaky camera work, budget-saving filming techniques and beaucoup de sous-titres (lots of subtitles, in French). And because it is French, there are also dashes of casual Euro-style nudity and unconventional wardrobe choices.
And yes, it is a coming-of-age story, with writer/director Olivier Assayas reimagining his youth during the heady post-’60s years of political unrest. The movie opens in 1971 outside of Paris. Former President Charles de Gaulle is barely dead and not yet an airport; the student protests that erupted in the 1960s have been dialed back to a simmer, and long-haired teens in ponchos and peasant dresses are trying to make their voices heard – even though they are not quite sure what they want to say.
Clément Métayer stars as Gilles, a high school activist and would-be artist who leaflets his classmates, tosses Molotov cocktails and does nude sketches of his girlfriends. Like Romeo and many others before him, he begins the movie in love with one girl and, when she moves out of reach, quickly transfers his affections to a new Juliet.
Unlike Shakespeare’s lovers, though, none of the young rebels/lovers here are interested in dying for their cause.
Assayas has created an appealing and appealingly truthful version of what it was like to be young at a time when more doors were open than ever before - and when deciding which way to go was harder. Do we join the workers’ movement in Italy? Or move to Notting Hill with mom? Go to Nepal to learn native dance, or head back to college, since Dad is paying? Do I want to be a bomb-thrower or a filmmaker?
As Gilles and his group begin to learn that actions can have unintended consequences – a security guard is injured in one protest, a free-spirited friend falls victim to drugs, there’s an unwanted pregnancy – they also begin to grow up. It happens here like it happens in life.
Assayas has a nice touch with the natural development of his characters, not pushing the “ah ha!” moments, no underlining soundtrack cues.
The soundtrack does include some quirky touches: our French teens listen to American folk and protest songs while other moments have that peppy, jazzy score of a 1960s heist comedy.
No, “Something in the Air” will never make it to the Cineplex 16, but its funky arty style makes it an entertaining trip to another time in more ways than one.