“There was this sense of the ground shaking under our feet,” director Olivier Assayas tells me in the swank calm of a Beverly Hills hotel. He’s remembering the turmoil of the Paris Revolt of 1968. “All of a sudden, the grown-ups were scared. Something was happening at a very deep level in society. Something was changing. We had no idea what.”
Assayas was 13 when Paris was devastated by the May, ’68 riots. France was brought to a standstill by students and workers spewing violence so intense that president Charles De Gaulle fled the country.
Three years later, the revolution reignited. That’s where Assayas’ latest film, “Something In The Air,” begins. We talked about the times, how a cast of young non-pros could pull off its ethos, and the film’s relevance for today.
It opens in Los Angeles May 3. The trailer...
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LINDER: The chaos of 1971 is captured in the riveting, opening scenes of “Something In The Air.” Your is camera is continuously running with student protesters on a mission, armed with posters and firebombs, taking a second shot at overturning the French establishment. We very much become a part of the movement.
ASSAYAS: Yes, it is precisely inscribed into early 1971, which was a very violent period. There was a succession of violent demonstrations that were brutally repressed, but they were brutally repressed also because the students were armed and it was really about guerilla fighting in the street much more than demonstrating. It was riots.
May ’68 was perceived as a failed revolution. It came that close and then it was over, and the old world seemingly had taken over again. But the thing is that we were certain that if we had pushed a bit more... so the early 70s was really about structuring the leftist movement for the coming revolution that would be successful.
LINDER: Against a soundtrack drawn from folk music and psychedelic songs of the era, your young protesters, accused of injuring an officer, flee to Italy where their real education begins. It’s the odyssey of 70s youth, fumbling through explorations of sex, drugs and mysticism. Your protagonist, Gilles, is not Candide, he does not see the best of all possible worlds unfolding before him, but neither is he a hardcore revolutionary. A lot of young people were caught in that gray, undefined area.
ASSAYAS: OLIVIER ASSAYAS: Oh, yes. Absolutely. And specifically, those my age because the leaders were older than us. They are the guys who made May 1968, who created the political leftist groups, but they used us as foot soldiers and we were experimenting with our own life.
So many kids went all the way in terms of political involvement, some of them decided to create communes in the countryside and live from whatever they grew, some of them went to India or to Nepal or wherever. Everything was good enough to try because we did not believe in a career, we did not believe in education, we did not believe in creating a family, we did not believe in keeping time with our own families.
We had this complete freedom which was, of course, very scary at the same time, but there was something very naïve about it — about adopting the new values and dosing the new world and just, you know, going for it.
LINDER: The actors that you have chosen — kids just out of high school, not professional actors. You have done this in the past, but I suspect you wanted to capture that naïveté with a certain realism.
ASSAYAS: I wanted new faces, but I was really looking for something that was very different from what actors could have given me in the sense that there is something rebellious kids of any generation have in common and it’s not something that can be acted. It has to come from the inside.
So I just needed to find kids who had in them something of the energies of the 1970s, and then I had to figure out if they could act or not, but, you know, they had to carry some of the flame of those times within them.
LINDER: How did you prepare them for a role like this?
ASSAYAS: I did not do much. I did not want to give them the weight — to put on their back the weight of recreating the 1970s or understanding politics that just [were] just basically alien to them. I recreated the world around them as precisely as I could, and I tried to keep it as a game as much as I could.
Being involved in the film, watching the film, made them somehow involved in what was going on in that that time. It just gave them a more nuanced notion of the contradictions, of the conflicts, of the spirit of the time. You know, I hope it can do the same for kids in the audience.
LINDER: Some of those kids in the audience may share that 70s spirit as part of today’s Occupy movement. And though theirs, for the most part, is a non-violent protest, the similarities give “Something In The Air” an eerie sense of déjà vu.
ASSAYAS: Today, they are grouping again. They trust again some kind of collective energy of youth that you see in the Occupy movements and similar movements around the world.
LINDER: They are looking out for the poor, the underprivileged, the underclass. We haven’t seen that in this country or perhaps not in France in recent years.
ASSAYAS: No, of course not. No, no. That’s the beauty of it. They’re values are just so right and they’re reacting to the ugly way society has evolved. The society we were fighting in the 1970s was nowhere as ugly as what it has become. Today, the world has become so tough on the underprivileged.
When you read what the Occupy movements say, it’s such common sense. Maybe it’s in the hands of the minority, and maybe it’s the minority who should have a shot at it — which was what the 70s were about. That’s certainly what the present radical movements have in common with the 70s.