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VENICE – In his darkly poetic 1994 feature, Cold Water, Olivier Assayas revisited his early-70s adolescence in a town near Paris via a youth named Gilles and his troubled girlfriend Christine. The French writer-director returns to that time and place, with leads again named Gilles and Christine, in the exquisite, semi-autobiographical Something in the Air (Apres mai). While the earlier drama was notable for its absence of politics, the new film is virtually bursting with revolutionary ferment, albeit viewed with reflective detachment.
That shouldn’t suggest a distancing approach. This is a beautifully crafted work and an acute evocation of its period both in look and attitude, and it’s no less deeply absorbing for being somewhat muted in tone.
The radical leftist spirit that lingered long after the May 1968 Paris student protests has been the subject of countless European films, usually romanticized with that softening glaze of middle-aged nostalgia for youthful convictions. But Assayas refreshingly considers that legacy – “after May,” as the original French title indicates – from a clear-headed distance and with a certain amount of wry cynicism.
The passionate commitment of the time toward revolution is amply conveyed here, but it’s also depicted as cripplingly diffuse. The big-picture ideology that called for sweeping change was fragmented by countless micro-ideologies in irreconcilable conflict. That caused the political energy to wane and eventually evaporate. In the case of Gilles (Clement Metayer) and many others it was channeled into art instead.
While Assayas makes clear that the rabblerousing was a necessary phase of the countercultural movement, he rightly questions its effectiveness in achieving many of the immediate goals. That gives his film a melancholy texture that sets it apart from most screen forays into this territory. It also provides a certain flipside kinship with the director’s 2010 epic Carlos, which was set partly in the same period but with a contrasting illustration of revolutionary zeal put into galvanizing action.
Starting when Gilles is a high school senior, the film charts his increasing pull between radicalism and self-expression as an artist, first as a painter and then via his curious early steps into the film industry. It also takes in his failed romances with free-spirited Laure (Carole Combes) and later the more grounded Chrstine (Lola Creton), both of whom display a self-knowledge that eludes him.
The opening scenes that recreate a violent clash between riot police and activists in 1971 are visceral, breathless and tremendously unsettling. Initially, there’s a sense of heady purposefulness as Gilles and his group are mobilized, gathering materials for daring nighttime graffiti raids in which they plaster the school buildings with anti-establishment posters and slogans. But when a security guard is injured, Gilles and a handful of others escape the heat by going to Italy for the summer.
Idyllic as much of their time there is, fissures begin to form, notably between Gilles and Christine. She wants them to continue traveling with an agitprop filmmaking collective, but Gilles finds the group’s craft uninspired and their politics primitive. His close comrade Alain (Felix Armand) and the latter’s American girlfriend Leslie (India Salvor Menuez) also are bound for other destinations, causing Gilles to head back to Paris, stung by his first taste of disillusionment.
That sensation is steadily amplified as his commitment to radicalism starts to ebb and he struggles with the direction his future should take. Some half-hearted involvement with his father on a television detective series follows, cementing his disdain for bourgeois convention. Only by venturing far into the absurd, with a hilarious scene at a Pinewood Studios shoot in London involving Nazis, a voluptuous cavewoman and a fire-breathing prehistoric reptile, does Gilles find what appears to be his path forward.
Shot by Eric Gautier with an uncharacteristic composure that makes the natural beauty of the outdoor scenes especially beguiling, the film has a loose, almost collage-like feel, its flow enhanced by the gentle fades of Luc Barnier and Mathilde Van de Moortel’s editing. One of the most visually striking scenes – as well as one of the film’s most haunting – is a country-house party with a bonfire at which Gilles re-encounter’s Laure, now romantically attached to a wealthy heroin addict. Full of dreamy detours, this is a direct echo of the party that takes up a large chunk of Cold Water’s running time.
Performances by the mostly unknown cast are low-key and ultra-naturalistic, with Metayer providing a quietly intense center and soulful support from Creton and Armand.
The detailed yet remarkably unfussy work of production designer Francois-Renaud Labarthe and costumer Jurgen Doering cannot be praised enough in recreating the period without a single false note. Even potentially kitsch touches like the long white earth-mother gown in which Laure meets Gilles in the woods feel utterly of the moment. And as always with Assayas, the extensive use of music is impeccable, notably a stirring rendition of “Ballad of William Worthy,” one of the antiwar folk anthems of Phil Ochs, performed by Johnny Flynn in a lovely nod to the protest movement of a decade earlier.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (In Competition)
Production companies: MK2, France 3 Cinema, Vortex Sutra
Cast: Clement Metayer, Lola Creton, Felix Armand, Carole Combes, India Salvor Menuez, Hugo Conzelmann, Mathias Renou, Lea Rougeron, Martin Loizillon, Andre Marcon, Johnny Flynn, Dolores Chaplin
Director-screenwriter: Olivier Assayas
Producer: Nathanael Karmitz, Charles Gillibert
Director of photography: Eric Gautier
Production designer: Francois-Renaud Labarthe
Costume designer: Jurgen Doering
Editors: Luc Barnier, Mathilde Van de Moortel
No rating, 122 minutes
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