Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas. Films reviewed: Something in the Air, Cold Water, Late August, Early September

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 1990s, Drama, Experimental Film, France, Politics, Protest, Romance by CulturalMining.com on June 23, 2017

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Olivier Assayas is a leading French filmmaker in mid-career whose current work is some of his best. He was born in 1955 and came of age amidst the violent uprisings of 1968.  Assayas is a devotee of Guy Debord,  whose Situationist International, which combined avant-garde art and architecture with revolution is said to have been instrumental in 1968.

He was born in the business of movie making. His father, Jacques Remy, was a famous screenwriter. I first heard of Assayas in the 1990s, but somehow never saw his movies until recently with Clouds of Sils Maria (review here) and Personal Shopper (review here). Both star Kristen Stewart as a young woman working among ultra-rich celebrities. In these films the characters are introspective and detached, more apt to observe events than participate in them.

Now there’s a comprehensive retrospective playing through August that lets you see his lesser-known works. They totally change how I thought of him. This week, I’m looking at three of his movies showing at Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas. Two of them are based on memories of his adolescence and one about family and friends in their forties.

Something in the Air (2012)

It’s the late 1960s/early 70s in France. Gilles (Clément Métayer) is an upper middle class high school student in a town where chickens still peck on the street. His father adapts scripts for Inspector Maigret movies. But Gilles feels more at home on the streets of a Paris, where student protesters are violently clashing with police. Gilles has two passions: Art – he wants to be a painter – and politics — he’s a non-communist leftist, inclined toward anarchism. His third passion used to be a beautiful woman named Laure, also an artist. They would meet in the woods off country roads to smooch and read beat poetry. Until she dumped him.

His teachers want him to read French classics, but Gilles craves direct action. So he and some friends crank out sexy posters on a gestetner, grab some spray paint and set out on a graffiti trip in the middle of the night. But something goes wrong. As they run away they injure a security guard who falls into a coma. Does he know who threw the rock?

Gilles and his friends decide to get the hell out of there, and drive off to Italy in a VW van with a film collective. On the way, he debates China’s Cultural Revolution, and whether films should shock the masses with experimental, new techniques or educate them with “things they’ll understand”.

Meanwhile he smokes hash, and falls for a young woman named Christine but refuses to commit to everlasting love. Will he remain true to his artistic and political ideals? Or follow his father’s profession?

Cold Water (1994)

It’s the late 60s/ early 70s in France in a small town outside Paris. Christine and Gilles (Virginie Ledoyen, Cyprien Fouquet) are young lovers both from divorced parents. He comes from an upperclass family with a Hungarian housekeeper and a frustrated dad. Christine lives with her Scientologist mom, her Egyptian soccer playing stepdad. Her birth father owns a corner store. Gilles and Christine hang out and do daring and impulsive things together, like shoplifting from a record store. She makes a commotion and is tackled by security guards while he runs away with the loot. But the scheme falls though. The police get involved and hand Christine to her despised father who immediately commits to a mental hospital called Beausoleil. Gilles meanwhile is physically thrown out of class by an angry prof. And for some reason Gilles secreteky buys ten sticks of dynamite. What is he planning?

Gilles and Christine manage to meet again with friends at an outdoor party by an abandoned house, listening to loud radio music, smoking hash and dancing like Wickerman devotees around a huge bonfire. But can they stay together despite all the forces set against them?

Cold Water and Something in the Air are both semi-autobiographical works about Assayas’s adolescence, but made 20 years apart. I watched them in quick succession which is a mind-blowing experience. The two films have a lot in common. They both feature Gilles and Christine as young runaways but with very different results. In both films Gilles deals with a disapproving school teacher and a disappointed father, which suggests they are based on important events in his life. Bonfires, beat poetry, and period American music also play crucial roles in both films.

Maybe because Assayas is so much older now, Something in the Air can look back at the politics and visual details of the era with a cynical eye. Of the two films, I found Cold Water much more passionate, more gutsy. It’s imbued with a nihilistic punk streak, missing from the later film.

Although called semi-autobiographical, Something in the Air places Gilles and Christine in the student uprisings in Paris in 1968, while in Cold Water they dance to music from 1972. (Born in 1955, Assayas would have been 13 in 1968, 17 in ’72.) I guess that’s where the “semi-” comes from.

Late August, Early September (1998)

Gabriel and Adrien (Mathieu Amalric, François Cluzet) are close friends in their forties in an unequal relationship. Adrien is a famous writer committed to his craft. He once spent his last centime on a small work by Joseph Beuys. But how he’s broke and his star has dimmed. Gabriel works as a literary editor. He idolizes Adrien and everything about him even while he has a clandestine affair with a beautiful but impulsive young woman named Anne (Virginie Ledoyen). He recently broke up with long-time partner Jenny (Jeanne Balibar) who is also close to Adrien. But things take a turn for the worse.

Adrien has cancer and publishers have rejected his latest book. Gabriel, meanwhile, has risen to a high-ranked position at a magazine, high enough that he can hire Adrien to do paid gruntwork. And unknown to most of them, Adrien is having a clandestine, though non-sexual, relationship with a teenaged girl named Vera.

The film follows all of them, as well as a much wider circle of family, friends and ex-partners, each with past loves and unsettled grudges.

Like Assayas’ other movies, this is not a plot-heavy film, it’s a realistic slice of life of Parisian intellectuals. I didn’t immediately love this movie, but it’s the kind of film that gradually grows on you, leaving a lot to think about afterwards.

One remarkable thing: this might be the first movie I’ve ever seen where the biggest shock comes in the closing credits. Vera (Adrien’s much younger girlfriend) is a minor character, but crucial to the plot. The last line in the film, “On verra” (“we’ll see”, a pun on her name), is spoken by Gabriel who interrupts a conversation when he glimpses Vera through a window. Vera is played by none other than Mia Hansen-Løve, who eventually became Assayas’s own much-younger wife. This film was her first appearance on the screen; she is now a well-regarded Danish director.

Late August, Early September, Something in the Air and Cold Water are all playing through August at the Tiff Bell Lightbox in Toronto as part of the Olivier Assayas retrospective. The director appears in person at some screenings; go to tiff.net for details.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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