October 10, 2012

NYFF 2012: Critic's Notebook #2

by Vadim Rizov

Something in the Air

A recent cluster of films tackle directors' memories of non-American revolutionary student movements of the late '60s and their curdled '70s dissolution into the realm of insular myth. Regarding France, titles include Bernardo Bertolucci's amusing, silly and self-regarding 2003 The Dreamers, which beatified its subjects as gorgeously doomed cineastes, and Philippe Garrel's tougher-minded and more ambivalent (but still PYT-besotted) 2005 Regular Lovers. From Japan, Koji Wakamatsu's insanely violent 2007 United Red Army recreated the activist/terrorist movement of the same name, whose tear-it-down-and-start-again inclinations ended in self-inflicted death, the logical culmination of a movement so obsessed with self-criticism there wasn't even a chance to attack the outside world.

Olivier Assayas' Something in the Air lies somewhere in the center of the three. It's romantic about pretty young people blathering about their desire to paint and make art (but it's not unamused about their pretensions), and it has violence committed by callow youth who don't understand the fallout (but without fatal consequences). Ostensibly it's a story about Gilles (Clément Métayer), a French high schooler who moves from committed revolutionary to confused film world aspirant, the witness to a loss of political momentum. The original title is Apres Mai, or After May, as in May 1968, the peak date for the French student movement. Something begins three years later with high schoolers arguing about revolutionary strategies and having angry meetings about their ideological underpinnings, a parodic echo of a confused moment during which they were teenagers.

Something in the Air

After a nighttime unscheduled conflict with school guards ends with one of the authorities in a concussion, Gilles and friends skip town for summer vacation, spreading out across the continent. Meeting more people doesn't make Gilles feel more plugged into a sub-culture. Just the opposite: the more fellow travelers he meets, the less he wants to be involved with any of them. "Boring films," he sneers. "Primitive politics." Nearly equal time is granted to Gilles' fellow travelers: first love Laure (Carole Combes), replacement girlfriend Christine (Lola Créton), sullen aspiring painter Alain (Félix Armand) and his American squeeze Leslie (India Salvor Menuez). Their travails are familiar at this point, if not from memory then to viewers of the films mentioned above, where po-faced discussions about finding revolutionary syntax for revolutionary cinema and so on are faithfully recreated.

"It's very hard to be nostalgic about the '70s because I was so happy when they were over," Assayas said during his New York Film Festival press conference. Gilles' path closely mirrors his own, forming one steady retreat from politics into the film industry. Unlike many recaps of the era, sex and radical activism are decidedly severed. There's a party sequence halfway through that explicitly summons memories of Assayas' previous '70s-childhood-recap, 1994's Cold Water, but the good drug vibes of that film's bonfires and records gathering have curdled into a pit of unpleasant, jabbering faces. Gilles leaves in a sulk; it's no longer his scene, and the house is shortly consumed by flames thereafter, confirming his wisdom in moving on.

Something in the Air

"Don't balk at the phrasing," a high school teacher tells his class before declaiming Blaise Pascal. "It's from another era." The same idea applies to viewers: embrace and understand the past as a foreign country, don't worry about words, names and factional splits you don't grasp. The overall thematics move beyond such specifics, as signaled in the opening classroom scene. While the teacher declaims Pascal, the students stare with expressions ranging from blank disengagement to open hostility. Pascal's words—"Between us and heaven and hell there is only life, which is the frailest thing in the world"—seem painfully irrelevant to kids planning to storm the streets after class.

That broad, somewhat unspecific humanism (Assayas' own, from his middle-aged perspective) places Something closer in spirit to the last film by Assayas' wife Mia Hansen-Løve, Goodbye First Love. Assayas swipes actress Créton and British songwriter Johnny Flynn, here promoted from soundtrack duties to singing a Phil Ochs song onscreen. Like Goodbye, Something is overtly autobiographical ("It's a lot of me in this film, including the worst" Assayas not-quite-joked during the conference) and likewise barrels through months and years with minimal signposting. Assayas seems far more preoccupied by the index's worth of album covers, literary citations and his usual music cues than the politics, mirroring Gilles' own withdrawal as he withdraws from his over-familiar circles to consider how he can turn his cinematic ambitions into a reality he can live with. He ends up at England's Pinewood Studios as a production assistant, watching in disbelief on the set of a shoddy monster movie combining German military men, a submarine, a shrieking starlet in distress who keeps flubbing her blocking and dinosaurs. The revolution settles into schlock parody of history, firm proof that his movement's labors—at least for the moment—haven't made a dent.


NYFF coverage concentrates largely on screenings of new films, so a few words on one of the festival's more remarkable sidebar screenings are in order. Bahram Bayzai's 1972 Downpour was suppressed by Iranian authorities after the fall of the Shah. The restoration shown by NYFF was made from the sole known surviving print (Bayzai's own), whose English subtitles are sometimes inadequate, splotchy, and provide a constant reminder of how lucky we are to have a copy at all.

The push-pull tension driving Downpour is what can and can't be articulated about gender and class tensions. Protagonist Hekmati (Parviz Fanizadah) is the new teacher in town. His young male charges are first-day nightmares. When he asks if they have any questions, they explode with malicious glee into a barrage of unanswerable queries: "Which existed first, the hen or the egg?" "Which is bigger, a rectangle or an octagon?" "What happened to the earth yesterday?" Hekmati kicks out one of the worst offenders, only to bring his beautiful sister Atiyeh (Parvaneh Massoumi) in protest.


Left alone in the principal's office, their meeting's far from scandalous, but leads to rumor. Fellow teachers snicker, Atiyeh's little brother glowers in fury at ensuing playground taunts, and Hekmati nearly loses his mind trying to find the right balance between respecting proprieties that hadn't occurred to him and pursuing the lovely lady. Atiyeh isn't sure how to feel, torn between feelings for Hekmati and her obligations to her bratty brother and obdurate mother, who refuses to utter a word the entire movie. If she marries Hekmati, she'll have to move away. "What'll happen to us?" her brother asks. "No one asks what's going to happen to me," she muses in response.

Atiyeh's muted despair is one element of a raucous movie whose tone most resembles Arnaud Desplechin's work in films like 2008's A Christmas Tale and 1996's My Sex Life... or How I Got Into an Argument, where frenzied Mathieu Amalric swings way beyond bipolar extremes and the narrative flexes and meanders with him. At a sprawling two-plus hours, Downpour encompasses drunk bonding sessions with Hakmati's romantic nemesis, the teacher's frenzied attempts to clean up a would-be auditorium so overwhelmingly covered with overturned desks and chairs it's like looking at a post-combat still life battle scene, and many more disparate sequences. Shots are sometimes cut dazzlingly fast, juggling romantic frissons with unspoken class and social tensions, and story elements are added up to the last second. A major restoration, Downpour switches narrative gears so fast it's exhilarating to keep up, another recapturing of a '70s past more obscure to Western viewers: a pre-Revolution Iran whose tension between intellectuals and religious fundamentalists is already evident, with women the greatest casualty of combat.

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Posted by ahillis at October 10, 2012 4:39 PM