With “Something in the Air,” French director Olivier Assayas (“Carlos,” “Summer Hours,” “Irma Vep,” “Cold Water”) turned in his most autobiographical work to date. A coming-of-age tale set against a backdrop of radical student politics, sex and drugs in 1970s France, we reviewed the film out of Venice and then caught up with the director at NYFF to talk about it. All of which meant when we recently got to meet him again, at the Göteborg International Film Festival, we could afford the luxury of letting the conversation range off-topic from the revolutionary politics of the film’s era to the idea of storytelling in film as an act of rebellion, to the problems in film criticism (Assayas himself wrote for Cahiers du Cinema) and even briefly to the Beatles vs the Stones.
Like your protagonist, you were a teenager in the early 1970s. How much do you feel that the non-conformity of the time was actually part of a desire to be accepted by your peers, in a sense to conform?
Well, yes, in the early '70s in France being a leftist was part of being pretty much in conformity with what was expected. But then you could be involved more or less…
The thing that everybody shared, not as ideology but as fact, was that [the protests and strikes of] May ‘68 had happened, not long before, meaning there had been something that came close to being a revolution, which was at the time not seen as the high point of the era, it was perceived as the beginning of the era, and much bigger things were to come. There was this common perception of that something was coming, and you wanted to part of it -- it would have been absurd not to be a part of it.
Then either you could be in the mild politics of it -- "it’s a wake up call for change and reform" -- some kids who were influenced by their parents or whatever had that kind of take on it. You had leftists who thought “next time it will succeed because now we’re building the plan.” And then you had the wild kids who were just into the anarchy of it, and who were into rebellion in general, and I was closer to those kids....arguments [between these factions] would be happening non-stop, so there was a sense of questioning the conformity of leftism.
Tell us a little about the female characters in the film: they seem to somewhat represent some of these different aspects of the culture of the time.
The girls in the film are very much taken from real life. The character of Christine is painfully real. I really based her entirely on one character who was my girlfriend at the time -- down to the smallest anecdotes really. Then of course the character of Laure, she is this kind of archetypal '70s cool, stoned, crazy girl which was the other feminine image of the time. And inspired by another close friend. But to me it was really the two archetypal models.
They’re very much seen through Gilles’ eyes...
Oh yes, completely. Although in the case of Christine, I really emphasized at a specific moment how much leftism was macho, which was a sad fact, and girls often basically were shopping and cooking and tending to the material needs of their politically informed boyfriends. So I kind of underlined that aspect also, which is really what modern feminism came out of.
I started with memory, I started to reconstruct elements. But the movie took shape and really happened when I got rid of memory. I realised I had to accumulate elements taken from memory and at some point it has to become fiction. Memory is tiny weird things that only you value -- sometimes we forget about the big things. I tried to patch together very specific memories, solid factual memories of this and that so I had something I could build on. And then I reshuffled everything, so those elements are there but they are differently organised.
How different is that from your usual writing practise on non-autobiographical films?
It depends on the movie. For example, the movie I will be shooting in the spring started with one character and an image. And somehow I had no idea of how they connected, but the whole process of writing was just understanding why they connected so strongly in my imagination, which I ended up making sense of, in a certain way.
That film is “Since Maria” starring Juliette Binoche?
Yes, we will shoot it in English and we’ll be filming mostly in Switzerland and Germany. It’s a contemporary story and there will be an American and German cast.
And how about the “Summer Hours” remake that Tom Hanks was supposedly mounting? What do you think of that idea?
Oof, [laughs] I heard about that at some point and it faded. Once in a while it resurfaces but at this point I haven’t heard about it for a while. If I don’t have to watch it I’m fine!