OLIVIER ASSAYAS HAS SHORT t gray hair, is slim, of medium height, and dresses casually. He speaks deliberately, intently, in accented English, but he laughs easily. The 1968 student-worker mass strike in Paris had a profound influence on the French filmmaker. He explores the after-effects of this uprising in his latest movie, Apres Mai (After May), which is entitled Something in the Air for its American release this spring, naturally.
He describes for me the sixty-eighters' ethos: "There was a sense of hope," he says. "There was a belief in the future. There was this hatred and suspicion of the present." People expected that the revolution was happening right then, he adds. "Everything was political."
Something in the Air follows the bouncing ball of revolutionary zeal to 1971 when a ragtag group of ardent, helmeted, but outgunned high school militants desperately fought vicious voltigeurs (armed motorcycle riot police), who banned their demonstration, then hunted them down. Air traces the trajectory of these French youths as they wend their ways through this tumult, when it seemed there was still a world to win.
Assay as stresses the extraordinary involvement of young people in politics at that time, saying, with a laugh, that it "seems like science fiction when seen from the perspective of today."
His film revolves around Gilles (Clement Metayer), a pupil with artistic aspirations who dispenses Tout, the newspaper of the Vive la Revolution anarchist group, outside his school. Gilles's life intertwines with various friends, comrades, and his lovers, Laure (Carole Combes) and Christine (Lola Creton). Along the way, we see direct actions, conflict in the street (including the use of Molotov cocktails), and the factional infighting among those who spout the slogan "workers of the world unite."
"By the 1970s, leftism was extremely structured in tiny political groups, which hated each other," Assayas explains to me. "You had four different brands of Trotskyism, different versions of Maoism, you had some anarchists, and those debates were everywhere."
The pro-Moscow, bureaucratic PCF (French Communist Party) is in the background, while the counterculture is very much in the forefront. Air has a superb period soundtrack, with songs Assayas described as "time capsules" by Phil Ochs, the Incredible String Band, Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, and Tangerine Dream. And we even get to see Blind Faith's original album cover, with its controversial art of a nude adolescent girl. Jean-Pierre (Hugo Conzelmann) and Leslie (India Salvor Menuez), an American diplomat's daughter, pursue mysticism, making the journey to the East, seeking enlightenment and what Leslie calls "the sacred dance." Meanwhile, Gilles's first girlfriend, Laure, succumbs to substance abuse.
During his personal odyssey, Gilles experiences psychedelic light shows, hedonistic parties, underground newspapers, and Maoist documentarians. The arty Gilles criticizes these filmmakers for their trite techniques, questioning how revolutionary art can be created using conventional movie methods. Here Assayas seems to be knocking Jean-Luc Godard during his Maoist phase. The independent-minded Gilles resists ideological dogmatism, just as he denounces the bourgeois productions his screenwriter father pens, as the prodigal son inexorably continues on his quest to make indie films.
Assayas's father was the screenwriter Jacques Remy, so I ask Assayas if Gilles is his alter ego.
"Yes, yes. I've been saying this," he acknowledges. "It's really something that's ultimately very important for me in terms of this film. I loved my father; I did. But I had violent conflicts with him. Similar to the one I represent in the film--extremely similar. But sometimes even worse than that."
Laughing, he adds: "With the perspective of time, I can understand the difficulty he had dealing with the kind of teenager I was. …