Olivier Assayas’ Après Mai (After May) has undergone a titular re-branding: in the US it was released as Something in the Air, since the current trend with English translations is to achieve connotative rather than literal meaning. In this instance, in addition to clearing up some potential temporal confusion (the opening sequence establishes that the scenario is set in 1971), Something in the Air is a title that offers the viewer a direct gateway to those often-elusive cognisant elements: meaning and intent.
Narratively, the film is about a group of intelligent and artistic adolescents standing on the precipice: finishing school, selecting careers, lovers, passions and politics. It’s also a work of biography, adapted from Assayas’ 2005 memoir, Une adolescence dans l’après-Mai (An Adolescent After May). As you would expect from knowing anything of Assayas’ history as a filmmaker and critic, it’s also a delightfully indulgent romp into another era through a self-aware lens that constantly shifts focus from escapism to interrogation. Assayas wraps the viewer in his own critical blanket, allowing – nay, encouraging – absolute indulgence in viewing the past through the contemporary filter of nostalgia. Critical of himself, and his own practise of indulging in nostalgia, Assayas removes responsibility from the viewer, and the result is the most guiltless, blissful and problematic viewing experience I’ve had, twice, this year.
The following restrictions and tensions are systematically removed: authority, capitalism, poverty, inequality, middle-class guilt, responsibility, peer and familial pressures. The central cast repeatedly obstruct and deliberately break the official rules of society without any real or weighty consequences. Their absolution, in turn, allows the viewer a safe engagement in anti-establishment allegiance. There’s nothing wrong with this dalliance except for that no real conviction is ever asked or expected in return. Nostalgia refuses to create a dialogue and acts like a mask that the viewer can try on, wear secretly for 122 minutes, and remove before returning to their every day existence.
There is a scene where the kids graffiti and poster their school buildings with revolutionary propaganda. The sting in this exciting, subversive act is that the school they attack is the very institution that teaches them to think as freely as they perceive they do. In the scene immediately following their protest/vandalism, we see them being schooled on German philosopher Max Stirner. The audience is now at a third layer remove from the act: 1) the kids’ actions are considered a product of adolescence rather than revolution; 2) there are no consequences in watching and supporting those actions from the safety of a cinema seat in 2013; 3) their rebellion is against a system that teaches them postmodern, existential, anarchic philosophy, which, for all its irony, feels for the viewer like a wonderful time to choose your convictions, and to be young and naïve.
As well as giving permission to revel in naiveté, Assayas assembles a cast of unfathomably good-looking youths, who are almost incomprehensibly well dressed in what I can’t help but view now as ‘vintage’ clothing, against a luscious backdrop of French countryside and opulent, rustic housing. It is impossible – through Assayas’ own partly autobiographical eyes – not to see these things as suspended in time, immortalised in celluloid. Sitting on the grass with strangers, speaking to kids from all over the world while listening to a bright young thing wax lyrical to the tunes of a ukulele while dropping acid wasn’t a postmodern hipster affectation in 1971. Or was it? In an age where they could never be recreated without being so culturally, historically and socially loaded, it’s only natural to see such actions as holding a kernel of honesty, sincerity – or even truthfulness – that the present can’t possibly live up to. It’s also a vision of freedom that only the upper middle-class can even imagine. Living in a communal chateau, proudly, beautifully and unselfconsciously half naked, healthy, in love, and free to express oneself artistically without worrying about losing day-jobs or being unable to pay bills is a luxury unique to the bourgeoisie – the audience to whom this film is pitched. In a sense the film is like a high gloss billboard advertisement. At first it looks as though the product is revolution, politics and social awareness – but these issues are just the hook.
Actually, it’s an advertisement for nostalgia.
At every turn Assayas lets himself, and us, off that hook. There are very few morally or ethically confronting moments in the film, and those that do crop up are dealt with by acknowledging that the actions of adolescence will eventually belong to the past, so they are committed to whimsy or folly before they have an opportunity to really exist. This temporal loop that feeds back into itself is only possible through a nostalgic filter. Assayas also lets himself off the hook stylistically. Including, of course, the catalysts that lead to his own career as a filmmaker, Assayas cannot help but comment on the bourgeois and first cinema aesthetics that are often lent – perhaps patronisingly – to the plight of the working class.
In their manifesto Towards a Third Cinema, Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino – inspired by Frantz Fanon – denounced the aesthetic and ideology of first and second cinema (Hollywood/bourgeois and European auteurist cinema respectively) in favour of a cinema that required an active audience and invited them to be a part of a collective movement. One of the main contentions was to revolt against the passive escapist cinema of spectacle and character. One character in Assayas’ film says ‘You can’t make entertainment in revolutionary times’. Perhaps this is the first sign of admitting that the revolution is over and that the system has reappropriated its subjects. Assayas’ protagonist – his own stand-in – rejects the cinema of revolution in favour of a job as a gopher on B-grade studio sets.
The film concludes with him settling into a cinema seat to escape everything and submit to spectacle. Assayas admits the path he has chosen and at this final moment he invites the viewer to join him. It is an advertisement for nostalgia. It bears the quality of cinematic spectacle through its stunning mise-en-scene and careful cinematography; it is filled with identifiable, engaging characters.
Olivier Assayas is a contemporary European auteurist, and a very highly acclaimed one at that. Even through his intelligent interrogation of his own motivations and shortcomings, Apres Mai amounts to a sentimental memoir. Long after May, and when those two hours are up, all that’s left is something in the air.