VENICE: French director Olivier Assayas says with his new film “Apres mai” (“Something in the Air”), he wanted to pay tribute to the freedom of the politically engaged 1970s of his youth.
The movie features a lot of smoking, a lot of hair and a lot of great music. It follows a group of French high school activists as they enter adulthood and offers a heady mix of tentative young love and leftist political passion.
The “May” of the film’s title is a reference to May 1968 – a landmark moment in French history when national strikes and violent protests forced President Charles de Gaulle to temporarily flee the country and nearly brought down his government.
The protagonists belong to “a generation that is discovering the world after it was rocked by 1968,” Assayas said in an interview in Venice, where the movie is one of 18 vying for the Golden Lion at the world’s oldest film festival.
“Nothing is stable anymore,” the 57-year-old said, “and there is this idea that everything can be transformed, that the revolution is tomorrow.”
In contrast to that “extraordinary time,” he added, today “what we have lost is the faith in the possibility of transforming the future in a positive way. There was a sort of faith in the future, in the possibility of transforming society.”
Assayas’ last work, “Carlos,” was an award-winning television drama-cum-film about the infamous 1970s militant and killer Carlos the Jackal.
The portrayal of the radical engagement of the film’s young protagonists has its comic moments – such as an intense discussion on the merits of China’s Cultural Revolution on a sunny drive through lush Italian countryside.
The constant talk about the workers’ struggle also clashes with the bourgeois surroundings of the distinctly non-working class young militants.
At one point the hero “Gilles” (19-year-old Clement Metayer) joins up with a group of itinerant filmmakers, who are showing earnest films about Laotian peasants in a bid to stir up revolution among small-town Italians.
Assayas found his actors with open casting and almost none of them are professionals. “They were chosen not so much as actors but as individuals,” he said, adding that “each one transformed the character in his or her image.”
Himself a student, Metayer said he could identify with the idealism of the 1970s. “We talk a lot about the 1970s today. It is a reference point. Everyone now longs for that freedom to create, to move, to change,” he said. “Everything was possible, or at least people thought everything was, which is not at all the case today.”
The ginger-haired Hugo Conzelmann, also 19, who plays the more-more militant “Jean-Pierre,” said the film showed “what radical engagement at the time meant, without the usual cliches ... Jean-Pierre has fixed convictions and lives them to the full.”
Nineteen-year-old India Salvor Menuez, a New Yorker, plays the part of “Leslie,” a U.S. diplomat’s daughter who studies sacred dance.
“There’s a lot of ideas still true to myself as a youth today and I think although the context is different in many ways, the people are the same in many ways,” she said. “So I didn’t feel too uncomfortable to shift into this idea of another period because time is so relative anyway.”
“Apres mai” is scheduled for general release in November.