SPOILERS: The end of the film is discussed at length.
Revolution. It is simultaneously a movement that is always new but always familiar. In our own age, we’re quick to speak of how media and technology are enabling a new form of revolution, one in which the ubiquity of cell phones and the Internet enable the voiceless to have a voice. And while that certainly changes some of the specifics of a revolution and how it is enabled, in some ways all revolutions are the same.
Something in the Air draws strong parallels between the Youthful French revolutionaries in the late ‘60s and our modern Occupy Wall Street movement. Both are movements with nebulous values and goals, mostly comprised of privileged, first world youth that are loosely organized. And yet writer/director Olivier Assayas is only tangentially interested in revolution. What Something in the Air is truly about is media and counterculture.
In this regard, a worthwhile examination must be contextualized by the Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni’s classic film piece “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism.” In this piece, they argue that the production and distribution of film promotes a capitalist system. There is no such thing as neutral media. Media is promoting ideas, and in the minds of Comolli and Narboni, these are ideas of harmful capitalist oppression. They outline a way in which a film can both technically and aesthetically subvert the capitalist system to make a truly counter-culture film.
Assayas is certainly aware of this piece as one sequence in his film has an audience member at a showing of revolutionary cinema inquire why the filmmakers are using the style of the bourgeois, the enemy they are trying to attack. It’s the closest the film comes to being self-aware of how it itself is structured as an enticing coming-of-age story built around the world of a counter-culture movement. Instead of ignoring the dissonance, Assayas embraces it.
Something in the Air is also a human drama, and one of the root conflicts of the film is how all the characters struggle with the conviction of their ideas against their desires to live a happy life. The young men amp up towards big revolutionary movements, but often get distracted by the pursuit of women. It’s not a condemnation; it’s just natural that one will always have to juggle the pursuit of personal life against the values of a movement.
What happens to the “revolution” of these French youth is the same thing that happened to the Occupy Wall Street movement: the personal lives of the members became more important than the battle. Assayas isn’t interested in the ethics of the movement or whether or not it was right or wrong, but that it fails to gain any real traction and why it fails to gain traction.
But it’s more than just the personal lives of its characters. Media must also be put into the equation. Posters, newsletters and films are used to promote the revolution, but the ultimate problem is that people aren’t seeking media to be shaken into revolution. There’s a delightfully funny scene where a sparse audience watches a piece of revolutionary cinema. As the light comes on, everyone quietly shuffles out of the room. Life goes on. After all, it’s just a movie.
The protagonist of the film ends up working on the set of a trashy sci-fi flick. Here is popular cinema: something loud, dumb and devoid of thought. This is what people want to see. They want to escape somewhere fantastical, somewhere safe where they can have an adventure without it challenging their assumptions about life.
While our hero is quick to smirk and think he’s above such pulp, this is after admitting he lives in fantasy. “When reality comes knocking,” he says, “I don’t open the door.” The film ends on his fantasy, an image projected on a cinema screen of a life he’ll never have. We want cinema to be that dream. Not to say that the dream is bad, but it fails to wake us up to reality. It further sinks us into wishing our lives were better instead of trying to do something about it.
© 2013 James Blake Ewing