Olivier Assayas on Revisiting the Passions of Youth With ‘Something in the Air’

In the January 1969 issue of Life, the magazine takes a look back on 1968,  focusing on everything from space exploration to the student dissent occurring internationally that would shake the foundation of youth culture and the political system. The article on the latter opened with a two-page photo spread featuring a French university student called “Danny the Red” aka Daniel Marc Cohn-Bendit—a young man who led fellow students in rebellion and “earned his nickname as much for his nihilism as his red hair.” He and those around him were demanding to be heard, claiming “it’s the system we’re fighting against,” as they continued to riot in the spring of ’68. At that time, French filmmaker Olivier Assayas was just thirteen years old, but he, like so many of his peers, felt the effects of the unrest, living in the wake of what came before him, and hoping for a revolution.

Opening with the Blaise Pascal quote: “Between us and heaven and hell there is only life which is the frailest thing in the world,” Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air takes us into a world of youth committed to the present. Going back to the year 1971, which he first explored with the poetic Cold Water (1994)—a film about the emotions of being a teenager—Assayas draws direct parallels between the two, yet where the former dealt in the abstract, Something is a more direct autobiographical look at his own memory of coming of age in that time. Paying tribute to those who inspired his own sensibilities as an artist, the film merges the person with the political, exploring the identity of youth in the aftermath of the May ’68 and the choices that inform our maturation into adulthood.

It’s a film about the intersection of creative passion and ideological inclination, where self-discovery for the teenagers in the film, comes through their devouring of films, books, music, and art of the time—from the poetry of Gregory Corso to the music of Syd Barrett. As representation of his own youth, Something in the Air tells the story of Gilles (played by Clément Métayer), a high school student in Paris who finds himself swept up in the political fever of the times. However, his passion really lies in his art—painting, drawing, filmmaking—which becomes a struggle with the others around him. Heavily embedded in the countercultural movement, we follow Gilles through his various muses/love interests Laure and Christine (played by Carole Combes and Lola Créton), and the evolution of his maturity. And as Assayas is a believer that cinema is a place “where what’s lost may be found, where the world can be saved,” he recaptures his idealistic outlook on the world that he sought to be a part of.

Originally titled Après mai, or After May, the film exists in the echoes of chaos, yet feels idyllic and gorgeously cinematic—but without over-sentimentalization or nostalgia. Rather, Something in the Air exposes the “places and emotions that exist in the daylight,” showing an arcane world slowing unraveling as a youth countercultural rebellion take precedence.

Earlier this week, I caught up with Assayas to delve further into his interest in revisiting youth, the painful truths of being a teenager, and staying true to what sparked his love of cinema.

Last weekend I saw a double-feature of Cold Water and Something in the Air, which was amazing, and seeing them together you notice so many similarities but also what makes them distinct yet from one singular vision. Why now did yo choose to revisit youth in this time? What has timed allowed for you to change or see more clearly?
In many ways it goes back all the way to when I made Cold Water. That was the first openly autobiographical film I made, and the strange thing is that it happened to be a commissioned work. It came from a producer that was producing a series of movies by filmmakers from various generations who were supposed to narrate their teenage years. So somehow it opened the door for the possibility of going forward and using elements from my own memories in my films. It took me by surprise; I think I probably knew what I was doing when I made Cold Water and it turned out to be a very important moment for me, a defining moment in many ways. It put me on track for whatever I made after that because it’s just a movie I made completely outside of the film industry—I did it with non-professional actors, we shot it in 24 days, and I had this freedom, this sense of capturing something in the poetry of filmmaking that I had been looking for in my previous films. After finishing the film I felt a sense of having opened the door on a period I had forgotten about, meaning the ’70s when I was a teenager, my formative years. And I said, okay through this movie half-consciously I have dealt with the energy of it, with everything that was lurking under the surface but somehow there was something about the surface that was missing. I had not dealt with the politics, I had not dealt with the art, with the spirituality—all the elements that made those years beautiful. So I stayed with the notion that one day I would make a film to compliment .
Cold Water felt more as if it was dealing purely with the emotions of the time.
It has to do with the abstract energies that are more universal.
You’ve said before that your films happen by themselves, as if they’re fragments of one larger body. How did Something in the Air develop in that sense?
I often say that my movies happen by themselves in the sense that I write them and film them without any form of logic or strategy. I do them because they are the only thing I can make at that specific point. You’re drained and looking to somehow revive the desire to make a film, and all of sudden something pops up, and I just grab it and try to follow it wherever it leads me. But I’m so happy to be find it that I don’t question it too much.
With this film you merged both that emotional, personal side with the political landscape of the time. Gilles’ story was about his romantic obsession with his art and how he fit into the world but told through politics. Was there something you wanted to say about the relationship between those two elements?
Well it’s certainly something that was extremely specific of those years. The early ’70s in France—the way I experienced them—were obsessed with politics, it invaded the whole space. There was very little left for anything else, even when you were a teenager or a kid there were questions about your place in the world. Of course it has to do with France because of the aftermath of May ’68; because that was a historical event, it was something that exploded like a bomb within the fabric of French society and it echoed profoundly. It was a failed revolution in many ways in the sense that it didn’t overthrow the government, there was no major change overnight, so it was perceived as a failure. But again, there was a sense that a successful revolution would be coming. And although that revolution never happened, the echo completely changed the values in French society. Kids are extremely sensitive to change, sensitive to what is happening in the present, they are like echo chambers. So yes, now it seems crazy looking back how focused we were on politics and how much we knew about politics. We really were extremely educated in Marxist theology and we knew about the social history of the 20th century. I don’t think it was good or bad but an interesting factor, and I don’t think anybody really ever made a movie that even remotely tried to capture that.
It seems like political beliefs were also a strong way of defining oneself, and even if you weren’t that absorbed in it, it was a way in which to figure out your identity and where you stood in the culture.
I see those years through a prism, in a very specific way, which is the perspective of a teenager who wanted to become an artist. So my vocation was more of a painter and then eventually film, and so I had a serious relationship to the politics which were extremely present in everyday life and present in our imaginations. There was no contradiction with becoming an artist while also hoping for a major change in society, it all went together. There was a very deep connection between art and politics, which is something that is part of 20th century history.
Do you feel like young people today are outside of that?
I think they live in a very different world. Certainly the perspective of politics is very different. The political philosophy of the ’70s was very unique—it was utopian, it was in many ways very disconnected from reality. And today, there’s a lot of kids that believe the they can have an influence on the world and their generation.
But they don’t believe in such a grand spectrum of change?
They believe in amending things, they believe in fixing what’s wrong with society, they don’t believe in overthrowing society. Overthrowing and creating something new is exactly the kind of utopian thinking they do not want because it just sounds too abstract.
In both this and Cold Water you show the connection between youth and nature—whether they’re in the woods or in these empty homes in the countryside, nature is present around them.
I grew up in the countryside, so my teenage years were not urban, they are connected to nature—be it nature or spring, which is also one of the deep differences between the two movies, how much Cold Water is a winter movie and Something in the Air is a spring, summer movie. There is also something that has to do with nature that was so much the thought, dreams, and hopes of the 1970s. There was this idea of leaving the city and establishing communes in the mountains and establishing some kind of utopian, agrarian community and it was part of the fantasy world of that time. And that’s something that even echoes in the music. When we think of the 1970s we think of prog rock but there was also folk rock and going back to the traditional folk—but there is this very deeply pastoral strain in the music and in the culture of that time and it’s really something I wanted to have in the film because it’s really he brighter side of the ’70s. It had a dark side but in this movie I wanted to show something to do with the beauty.
How did you go about choosing the musical elements of the film?
On one side you have the music, and that’s really as autobiographical as it gets; it’s really the stuff I was listening to at that age. Some of it has remained part of the culture and some has faded, but I used both. Often it’s complicated for me to choose the music for my films but this was not so difficult because there was something extremely obvious, that all of those songs were time capsules for me and so attached to my experiences in those years.
Speaking of music, I have to tell you that the scene in Cold Water, the morning after the party, that long tracking shot across the countryside with “Janitor of Lunacy” playing is one of my favorite moments ever. I found a clip online and have been watching it non-stop.
Thank you. It’s really something that wasn’t even part of the screenplay initially, and at some point I realized that I needed that shot. So I wrote it having the song in mind and I just developed the shot around the song.
In both films there’s also a very present element of fire, which seemed to signifying the energy of youth. Was that your intent?
I’m trying not to question it too much. I was hardly aware of it when I was writing and then when I was shooting I realized, oh my god I’m using a lot of fire in this film, there’s a lot of stuff burning up. And of course it’s connect to youth; youth is what burns. So I suppose there’s something maybe heavy-handed about it, but it happened on its own and I kept it in the film. There was something about it that was very connected to the film and the way things self-destruct and how art is not really meant to stay, it’s meant to be lived and appreciated in the moment and then eventually destroyed.
I imagine there’s a large difference between filmmakers who grew up in this period of time and experienced what you did and then those who inherent this sense of chaos that was born out of it. Perhaps that accounts for the many romantic depictions of the era.
For some reason there’s a fixation with he culture in the late ’60s and early ’70s and you have so many different takes on it which fantasize those years. But as for myself, I was happy when the ’70s ended because the ideology, the utopian way, all this was completely cut off from reality and it was becoming oppressive. And yes, you have so many romantic versions of the period but you also have so much irony about it. I wanted to work simultaneously as a memoirist or a historian; my concern was really to try to get it right and hit the right note, which is a certain way of being respectful of the time and respectful of the hope. I was part of that story but I also did not want to erase the contradictions and what was ultimately wrong about the politics of those years. I think when you make movies about history and recent history, you have a responsibility because people will somehow trust you. People who were not there in the ’70s, their vision of the that time will be defined in part by how you are presenting it. So you have a responsibility to be serious about it and faithful. In the end, that’s why I use a lot of my own memories and details and anecdotes because I remembered them precisely and knew that it was solid and real and that in using them I could build something that was genuine.
Gilles moves from painting and drawing to film, which feels like a repression of this passion; was his entrance into cinema more about his personal change? 
The film can be seen as a the story of a kid who starts with throwing things on a piece of paper and finishes with the same kid who understands that art is about representing real life characters and reviving real life characters. This path takes him from graphics and visual abstraction to be able to understand how the reality depicted by movies can be meaningful for him. He is trying, looking, experimenting, and he’s attracted to movies but not sure what kind of movies or how to appreciate them. He ends up confronted with militant filmmakers who have little to say to him, or he ends up doing some very basic job in the film industry—as I did in those years—and he feels completely out of place. Ultimately, the one moment when things open up, is when he’s in this experimental movie theater and he understands that through this notion, films made in the first person, something was happening that was speaking directly to him, where all of a sudden he understood that movies had this power to touch him deeply and at the most sensitive point. Then all of a sudden the whole path makes sense, all of a sudden he understands that’s what he was looking for, that’s what he was attracted to, and that’s where his path starts.
The female characters were very interesting because they represented two sides of himself. Christine gave him a love that he needed but was also very radical and strong, whereas Laure was more effervescent and was the creative impetus for everything he did.
In many ways they are archetypal of those times; they are really two 1970s types, but both of them existed, both of them are based pretty closely on real life characters. Also, when you are a boy and you’re a teenager, the painful truth is that girls are always a little but ahead you—they’re more mature, they’re already women when you’re a boy—and Christine and Laure, they go much further than Gilles. Gilles had this desire to go into movies and politics but he stays on the threshold whereas Christine goes all the way and she lives through it. With Laure, she really lives the life Gilles would love to live, she has this connection to art and to the zeitgeist but Laure is more of a muse, she’s really the poetic voice of his calling.
How did you go about finding these three?
When you make this kind of film, the casting’s pretty much the key. You have to trust kids with no experience. I did not want to work with professional actors anyway, so I really had to do what I usually do and cast individuals. I was not casting actors, I was looking for people who could be believable in the context of the 1970s, which is really the toughest part of it. We saw so many teenagers and they were interesting but a lot of them, they were so much of today, they had the energy, way of talking and thinking of today and they would were unthinkable in the 1970s. So it was a long journey, but in the end I realized that what I was looking for, what they all had in common was that they were artistic and they wanted to be artists—painters, musicians, filmmakers, writers—and they had these artistic ambitions that made them different, they had something deeper than other kids their age because they had more imagination, more of an inner life and it showed and transmitted to something the camera captured. I tried to protect them from the weight the film, of the responsibility of it, I tried to keep it as much of a game as I could. I took the weight on my shoulders. They would walk on the set and really walk into frame; I tried to make it as simple and casual as possible and somehow it protected something about their innocence or spontaneity, which was what I cared for the most.
Were you thinking about how teenagers seeing this nowadays would react and how it would impact them?
Obviously when you make films, you make films for a younger audience—that’s the movie crowd, it’s young. Especially when you make a movie like this, a movie that deals with youth, you hope that whatever your experience, you can transmit it, you can share it. And you don’t want to share it with people from your generation because they know of that, they went through it; you just hope that something from your experience can be meaningful or understandable to youth from another time and generation. I obviously had a first-hand experience on set because the actors in the film were ultimately very similar to the kids in the theater, so I really listened a lot to what they had to say. I was very careful to integrate their reaction, their view of those times and to understand what they got and what they did not get and what part of those years was meaningful for them. I constantly adjusted the film listening to the actors. There was some stuff I ended up cutting out because they just did not understand it; so much of the critical language of those times is just a foreign tongue to them.
Was making a second film that revisited your youth a cathartic thing for you now that so much time has and you can really reflect upon it?
I’m sure that I did learn stuff on the way and I’m sure that I’ve become a little bit more aware of what I’m doing. But again, I’m trying not to be self-conscious. I’m trying to protect the naivety of a very spontaneous approach to cinema. I suppose it’s also one of the reasons why I constantly go back to movies with teenagers and young actors because, to me, it’s a way of going back.
A way of being reborn.
Yes and eventually being reborn as a different person—at least not losing touch with the desire and with the initial dream that attracted me to this art form. I just don’t want to envision myself as some professional filmmaker; I want to remain an individual who makes movies and the part of being an individual being foremost and essential. I don’t think it’s good when you get too skilled, you have to follow your instinct and intuition and you have to be daring when you can. Ultimately, technique is dangerous, that’s the way I’ve always seen it; so I always try to break that.
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