A revolution might not be a dinner party, but its aftermath presents similar problems: someone has to clean up, someone else arrives tragically late, and someone who wasn’t there at all may still want to hold their own the next day. Olivier Assayas, whose last festival appearance was in Cannes in 2010 with Carlos, has now brought to Venice Apres Mai (which literally means "after May" but is internationally titled Something in the Air), looking back to his formative years in 1971 France—when the 70s still looked like the 60s, and a new generation of teenagers was starting to come into its own in a world in which the idea of the revolution was no longer a chimera; in fact, it was an ongoing process.
With his semi-autobiographical focus on the character of Gilles, still in high school but more concerned about painting and politics than class lectures, Assayas strikes an impressive balance between nostalgic understanding and critical assessment of high school students' hopes and aspirations. This young cast of virtually-unknown actors slips with ease into their perfect costumes ("I remember every single shirt," gasped an older critic next to me) as they play characters who are collectively stuck in a very crowded no-man’s land. In many ways, they are the ones truly in contact with the time, having been born into it. And yet their "revolution" is already a second-hand struggle. Those who were there in May ‘68 disagree with their methods, foreshadowing the nasty consequences of one of their raids on police barracks. The older generation remains light-years away.
Instead of applying their own cultural and political education to the revolutionary business, these kids have no choice but to dive into action first, trying to make sense of it only later. Après Mai is punctuated with references, influences, mentions, with allusions ranging from literature to philosophy, from music to cinema—but the winning card up Assayas’ sleeve is the uncanny ability to let these references float softly around the characters, never bringing them to the foreground. You only see them as reflections in their eyes, parts of a confused sentimental education without boundaries.
Where Bertolucci’s The Dreamers was reverent, Après Mai opts for a healthy dose of relativism. Where Garrell’s Les Amants réguliers felt a little one-dimensional, Assayas covers all grounds, moulding characters who are believable when they fight, when they love each other, when they learn, and when they make stupid mistakes. This is not a studious placement of pieces on a board, like Michele Placido’s borderline-offensive Il Grande sogno. There’s no need to assign "functions" to characters in order to correctly recreate a conflicted period.
With its free-flowing narration and gentle directorial style, this strong entry in the Venice Competition has the relaxed confidence its protagonists have, with the ability to be many things at once. It’s about political commitment—Assayas casts his generation’s journey in a melancholic light—just as much as it is about the process of creation. It even finds a way to discuss the necessity of a "revolutionary syntax" in cinema. This is all a bit tongue-in-cheek, but ultimately the movie creates a rich, ambivalent, and heartfelt portrait of a generation who arrived too late at the dinner party and must now decide where to go next.
Tommaso Tocci is an Italian film critic, copywriter and translator. Follow him on Twitter.