After May, known as Something in the Air in the U.S. and certain other English-speaking countries, is the latest film from French auteur Olivier Assayas (Clean, Summer Hours). A semi-autobiographical work set in the late sixties and early seventies, the film follows Gilles (ClÃ©ment MÃ©tayer), a high school student and activist who sets off to see the world and discover himself after going too far with a protest back home. More than anything, Assayas aims to recreate the zeitgeist of his youth, romanticising the sense of freedom and discovery but ultimately concluding that we all have to grow up sometime. In capturing the tone of the time After May is definitely a success, but it’s a portrait painted without heart or character.
The writing is thin at best; Gilles’ conflict is extremely contrived and not one of the relationships in the film is capable of drawing audience investment. Character motivation is bafflingly absent throughout the film, especially during Gilles’ time as an activist in the first act. Perhaps Assayas assumes the audience will be familiar enough with the way his generation felt, and is more interested in providing a cinematic photo album than an accessible narrative. The dialogue is similarly hollow, with characters robotically explaining subtext and what they feel without ever really showing it on-screen. To be fair, it’s an issue that can easily creep up in translation, but given how pompous Assayas’ writing makes the protagonist, and the extremely indulgent discussions the characters are having, I’m betting the dialogue was pretty unnatural to begin with.
Gilles himself is a construction of vanity. Homogeneously cool and nonchalant no matter what the situation, it’s hard to imagine him ever being so impassioned to have joined up with these activists in the first place. Although he does seem the type to buy provocative t-shirts and obscure albums just to impress girls, so perhaps the fact that his motivation to fight ‘the man’ is never presented is more telling of the character than anything. A more likeable lead (perhaps something akin to wide-eyed William Miller from Almost Famous) could have done wonders for the film, but instead After May gives us an ambassador into the time of peace and love that is, for lack of a better word, a douchebag.
It’s not just Gilles though, the entire cast is a little too know-it-all, suffering from some severe inconsistencies in their maturity levels. Assayas seems to forget whether his characters are teenagers or in their late-twenties. Too old to be believable as high-school students and too young to be taken seriously as adults, you could easily mistake this for a student film where the director just rounded up his friends for the different roles. Sadly, that’s not the only component that comes across as amateurish. The god-awful throwaway subplot of Gilles’ first love, some really odd scene constructions, and one laughably embarrassing vignette all seem to be sold as stylistic, but just come off as lazy – a criticism unforgivable for a director as seasoned as Assayas.
To the film’s credit, a thesis does start to emerge as we approach the end, and I really can’t fault the clever misdirect that solidifies Gilles’ growth as a character. I just wish it could have been a natural progression, and not something that felt tacked on after the fact as a framing device.
All of that said, I do believe there’s an audience for this film (as long as they can withstand the crawling 122-minute running-time). I can see someone a bit younger, and with the right attitude, being able to overlook its flaws and really get into the celebration of youth and freedom. The rebellious graffiti culture in the film’s first act and the protagonist’s subsequent travels are a fantasy easily sold to high-schoolers desperately awaiting their independence. For them, After May is like a local band you go see just because your friend is in it; it’s not really all that good and deep-down you know it’s not going anywhere, but it speaks to what you’re about and you can’t help but indulge in the fantasy. But for everyone else, it’s just a load of self-indulgent noise.