Après Mai – Something in the Air

Après Mai – Something in the Air

Postby CAP » Mon Dec 02, 2013 5:43 pm

This is an intensely guilty pleasure. While I might only score it five or six with some sobriety, any film that details a painter’s seduction into the film industry in the early seventies and includes scenes like queuing outside The Electric Cinema in Portobello Road for an obscure late show/ all-nighter and sitting mindlessly by an edge-numbering machine in editing rooms for hours, cannot help but appeal. Okay, it’s French and involves student activism, hippy mysticism and broken hearts which I cannot really share, but since the director, Olivier Assayas, is almost my age and recounts a largely autobiographical tale, so much about the era strikes home in unexpected and slightly embarrassing ways. It’s what happens when you get old, I suppose.

The French title suggests the story will document the political disillusionment that follows the riots of May 1968, but this is actually tangential. The story tracks the fortunes of Gilles (Clément Métayer) a high school student on the outskirts of Paris in 1971, aspiring to be a painter and attend the Academy of Fine Arts but sidetracked by peer loyalties, politics, fashion and romance. He’s your basic crazy mixed-up kid, in other words. The title may as well be After The Sixties for that matter. Something In The Air better captures the general ambience and infectious excitement. Indeed, the sound track might usefully have included Thunderclap Newman’s hit of that title rather than the older and less appropriate Green Onions by Booker T and the MGs that accompanies scenes of Gilles and friends as they flee Paris. As with earlier work by the director, it is often an ensemble or circle of friends and family that is the real focus, the story bouncing from one member or couple to others to chart dynamics, comic and tragic and resulting in a diffuse but rich story. Part of the problem for Après Mai is that Gilles is not much more than a pivot for his various acquaintances as they decide on one career path or another, one relationship or another. We never really discover much about his ideas about art for example, although it’s his painting that seems to sustain him throughout the early seventies, as girlfriends come and go, the political scene in Paris stabilises or becomes more institutionalised. But we don’t see Gilles making the gallery circuit or even reading much about it.

It no doubt reflects something about Assayas that the hero is more of a follower than an explorer, is essentially reactive, ultimately non-committal to deeper or more drastic changes. Gilles is looking for an identity, an artistic voice but cannot quite take the plunge that might grant him one and instead spreads his commitments, shops around. It’s familiar territory in stories about students and usually turns on some deeper romance but Gilles never quite meets the right girl either. His first love, Laure (Carole Combes), a vision in flowing hippy chic, is steered by her mother to trendier circles, fatally drawn into a drug scene, although Gilles does not seem too put out by her demise. In fact the movie is stoic at best, elliptical to the point of evasion, on this melodramatic turn. Gilles begins an affair with Christine (the beautiful Lola Créton) another activist, when they flee together to Italy, but Christine wants to pursue political film making and a communal lifestyle, while Gilles still has the Academy of Fine Arts in his sights. Deep down he is ‘a straight’ as we used to say. Later Christine reappears in Paris, now trapped in the hell that was communal households (don’t get me started) and still missing Gilles. His artist friend Alain (Félix Armand) points out that she is looking for ‘a relationship’ and in a rare moment of insight Gilles explains that the offers come when he is never quite ready. Well that’s life really. And things don’t work out much better for Alain, when his flaky American girlfriend Leslie (India Salvor Menuez) a sometime dancer, pulls out of their relationship to return to America and apply for (i.e. buy her way into) a respected dance school in New York. That says it all. Ultimately it is a pretty cosy, middleclass milieu. Alain could have accompanied her, at some cost to his pride perhaps, but he too makes sacrifices. It’s just a shame his art isn’t better. If only Assayas could have used someone like Marc Desgrandchamps’s early work for Alain (roughly a contemporary), maybe he wouldn’t have seemed such a loser.

Gilles’ father turns out to be a hack TV producer, knocking out a weekly series of Inspector Maigret murder mysteries, based on the novels by Georges Simenon. Apparently there was a French series of Maigret mysteries made in the mid-seventies, but I was unable to track it very far. Anyway, Gilles’ father is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and needs an assistant to help with the scripts and Gilles is reluctantly drawn into the world of TV drama. Gilles despises his father’s tastes and seems a little insensitive to his predicament. Again, there is a problem here, as Gilles looms as just a smug and selfish dilettante. Philip French finds these scenes amusing, but they struck me as just the usual generational friction over tastes and customs. We next find Gilles picking up a job as a production assistant at Pinewood Studios, bizarrely. Quite how that worked in an era when ACTT membership and control over employment was at its peak is unexplained, much less that he later does the work of an assistant editor. Demarcations chaps! Even then it was all about connections I suppose. As French notes, the parody of a certain kind of fantasy film, such as The Land That Time Forgot is surprisingly accurate, but I was also reminded of Godard’s Passion, (1982) with its absurd studio tableaux and a more pervasive influence for that generation, surely. The deft confluence is typical of Assayas, one of the advantages of second-guessing one’s peers, moving in the right circles. If Gilles still seems a little unformed by the end, as he dreams about Laure, sitting in The Electric Cinema, it is because we still have no sense of him finding his calling, committing to something. He might just as easily return to Paris and work in graphics or television or almost anything. Assayas knows he will not, unfortunately this is not something he can share with the audience. Perhaps there will be a sequel. Perhaps Gilles will turn into his Antoine Doinel.
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