Olivier Assayas: Without the Past, There Is No Future
May, 1968, postscript: ‘Something in the Air’ director Olivier Assayas talks revolutionary fervor and its aftermath.
At 57, Olivier Assayas claims not to be a politically involved person anymore. But in his early teens, the critically acclaimed director and screenwriter of Irma Vep, Summer Hours and Carlos (and Jacques Rémy’s son) did have an affair with politics—one that was as passionate as only first love can be. His latest, Something in the Air, talks about this very period of time. Just three years after memorable Parisian student demonstrations of May, 1968, young opposition is still displeased with the government, full of ideas and eager for change. Hope for overthrowing the present system and making revolution a fact triggers serious political turmoil, which we watch through the eyes of an 18-year-old protagonist named Gilles and his friends. However socio-politically accurate and detailed it is, Something… is as much an appealingly told story about the universals of friendship, love and passion. The winner of this year’s Golden Osella for Best Screenplay at the 69th Venice Film Festival, Assayas talked with me about Occupy Wall Street, the very fragile relationships between past, present and future and why American politicians simply suck. Something… screens at the ongoing New York Film Festival.
Keyframe: Something in the Air must have required very precise, complex preparation. Has this idea been growing on you for a long time and what finally pulled the creative trigger?
Olivier Assayas: It is something I wanted to do for a while; it all goes back to the early ’90s, when I shot this movie called Cold Water that had these very similar characters. It was a very important film for me as an artist. But the very small scale of the project made the final outcome more an abstract and poetic take on the times depicted [the 1970s]. Since then I have been growing more and more certain that I wanted to expand it. There were still so many essential aspects of that period that I could not touch upon in Cold… because the narrative didn’t allow it, or I was simply not ready to do it. My intention wasn’t to make a sequel—rather a companion piece. Timing was always a problem—not only in personal sense, but also in terms of production. Something in the Air was a very complicated project to finance: There are no stars in it, yet the complexity of it is immense, plus logistical difficulties of a period piece, like costumes… It was made possible by Carlos. After that one I really wanted to look at the period from a very different perspective, a more intimate, personal, emotional one.
Keyframe: The original title has been changed for the purpose of American market. Why?
Assayas: It’s the conversation with the US distributor I had. He wasn’t sure if people would get what ‘After May’ stands for, that it means ‘after May 1968.’ He thought they won’t. In French it’s obvious. What happened after is exactly what the film is about.
Keyframe: Very often period pieces have a certain sense of theatricality to them. Yours is so effortless and natural: like a travel back in time. How did you achieve such result?
Assayas: I suppose it’s something I learned and was able to develop when working on Carlos. Here I worked with the same team, same art director, same costume designer. And we’ve been working together for ages, so we know our ways really well; we understand what is it we’re looking for, what is important. We’ve managed to fine-tune our approach to the 1970s before and we benefited from what we did in Carlos when making this film.
Keyframe: Something in the Air is not an autobiography yet it is very much linked with your personal experiences and life. Could we clarify this relationship a little bit?
Assayas: It’s a feature film, not a documentary. It obviously starts in a very autobiographical place, with a real life element, but then it becomes something else, a little broader than just a very personal and intimate account. Hopefully it is a story of those times, one I wanted to share.
Keyframe: How much is the main protagonist a reflection of yourself?
Assayas: It was inescapable. Some of the characters are based on actual people, some are combined features of character of guys I knew back then. Some of them are still here, others are gone… Like Gilles I also participated in the riots, and so did every kid I knew at that time. Well, maybe not every kid, as we think when, as usual, we end up fantasizing about those times. Truly it was always about an active minority so to speak. In the school I went to, most of my friends had no idea of what was going on. But there probably was an active group of militant kids in every single school basically everywhere in the world in those years. And they were the ones in the streets, participating in the riots and demonstrations.
I really wanted to look at the period from a very different perspective, a more intimate, personal, emotional one.
Keyframe: In the film we have two friends who, at a certain point, part ways; one chooses love over art and in the end fails. The other, who feels very close to you, chooses, or rather, is given, independence, and wins. Is this how you value life?
Assayas: It’s not exactly how I would sum it up. To me Alain chooses love and somehow gets on the right path to become a painter. Hopefully he will become one, even if he loses love in the process. But he makes a bold, courageous step and grows a lot. Whereas Gilles, who has chosen art, art school and not to quit on his life, will have a longer path to maturity. Maybe he was not ready to become an artist, maybe painting wasn’t really meant for him? Maybe his path, however long and more complex, was actually leading towards cinema? [Laughs.]
Keyframe: You were raised outside of Paris. Was there any difference between what was happening in the capital and everyday life in provincial France?
Assayas: Yes, very much. I grew up in the suburbs, and it was both far and near from Paris, that was a half hour train ride away. On one hand there was a strong connection to what was going on in the city, because it was within our reach. We could go there any time, and be a part of the political shakedown. But at the same time it was cut off from our reality. It was a quiet province with no militant kids running around.
Keyframe: You shot this film 40 years after the socio-political turmoil it portrays. What do you feel has changed over the course of all those years? Working on set with mostly teens, has anything struck you particularly?
Assayas: The main differences are basic, it’s kind of easy to sum them up in one sentence: In the ’70s people used to believed in the revolution coming up. They believed the world would change, they believed in the future, and put more hope and trust in it than in the present. To get the future right you also had to understand the past—that could help you avoid its mistakes. Now people don’t believe in the future, they don’t believe in the possible revolution, the overthrow of modern western society. And they don’t think we need to understand the past to deal with the present. The Occupy Wall Street movement was absolutely closest to whatever was going on in the ’70s, but from a very different perspective. I was in New York when it was happening and it impressed me how similar the feeling it caused was to what it was like forty years ago. It was the first time in ages I had a sense of something happening. But then there’s a question of how much will stick, how big will it grow… it’s very difficult to say.
Keyframe: Many of the films that are situated in the ’70s really romanticize this period. You don’t do that. Why?
Assayas: I lived in those times and I know there’s nothing to idealize. [Laughs.] I have to be ambivalent about those times, because the ideology was so oppressive in many ways. There was very little space to be yourself, you had to conform to the politics, define yourself—as a Trotskyist, Marxist, Leninist, an anarchist or what [have you]… but you had to fit into one of those types. The pressure of the ideology and politics was growing as the world was changing and the revolution was not happening, with people starting believing in violence, terrorism or whatever… it was all becoming scary.
Keyframe: What you’re saying is very far from the popular vision of the ’70s, depicted as the era of freedom, spontaneous sexuality, fun, music…
Assayas: That’s one side of it. But just keep in mind that the leftists hated this music you’re talking about. It was considered reactionary and petite-bourgeois. They hated the drugs, they hated the free love concept and so on and so forth… On one side you had counterculture, poetry, psychedelic substances, on the other, very rigid, dogmatic politics. There was a viable tension between those two teams, but at the same time they were two sides of the same coin.
Keyframe: Once we are close to the subject of music: you’ve chosen a very powerful, seductive score for your film.
Assayas: I never know exactly what kind of music I will use for the film, it’s a process of trial and error, that can go on for a while. In this case it was completely obvious, I just used the stuff that I was listening to myself at that age, even the most obscure things. I also have decided to use full songs whenever possible, instead of just throwing in clips and pieces.
Keyframe: Your films is an intertextual piece very rich in contexts and references, reaching out to many fields of art. Yet it is surprisingly easy to watch and very accessible. How did you make the impossible happen?
Assayas: It was not easy. What you have to keep in mind is that it was a pre-communication era, in the sense that in the ’70s you did not trust the mainstream media—press, TV and radio were all perceived as a part of bourgeoisie, therefore they were the enemy, a potential target. The means of communication were either the free press, underground records, beat generation poetry… it was fetishized as the only way of finding a common language with other like-minded kids all over the world. You had a sense of belonging. When I was traveling, my first concern after arrival was always: ‘Where’s the hip bookstore?’; ‘Where can I buy new records?’ That’s what determined my sense of geography in every new place I visited. It was very important to get all those intertextual elements right, because they were the means of communication in those times.
Keyframe: Was it difficult for your young, very often debuting cast, to get in-depth with this project?
Assayas: Ultimately the ’70s haven’t been much represented in film. They have mostly been fantasized about in press, fashion or music, that of course relate to certain, superficial aspects of it. But it’s very difficult for kids of today to understand the conflicts and the real dark side of it. Especially the complexity of politics is something truly alien to them. I had specific scenes of political conversations in the script that I had to drop, because to my young actors it was like speaking a foreign language—they could not understand their lines.
Keyframe: Is the ‘foreign language’ reference judgmental? In the press kit you stated that the youth of today lives in a ‘shapeless present’ and ‘outside of history.’ It sounded kind of opinionated and harsh…
In the ’70s people used to believed in the revolution coming up. They believed the world would change, they believed in the future, and put more hope and trust in it than in the present. To get the future right you also had to understand the past—that could help you avoid its mistakes. Now people don’t believe in the future, they don’t believe in the possible revolution, the overthrow of modern western society. And they don’t think we need to understand the past to deal with the present.
Assayas: It’s not a judgment. I feel like it’s closer to an observation. What I am saying is that the ’70s, for better or for worse, people believed in history, had a notion of it, of how the world was changing. I don’t like using big words—but they really understood it in a Hegelian way. They perceived it just as Hegel did—as a process of transformation of society with all its dialectics. Today there’s rather a notion that we’re outside of the historical process. We don’t believe in the future anymore and we are, in a way, locked in the present. There’s some pragmatism in that, so it’s not all bad. But it also means that a certain dimension of the world is missing. The worth of a coherent world view.
Keyframe: The main protagonist is not all as one dimensional as ideology he flirts with. He constantly doubts the righteousness of his choices and has many ideological dilemmas.
Assayas: One of the themes of the film is how to think independently, how to develop your own views and ideas as opposed to just mechanically conforming to the codes of your generation. And the codes of my generation were very ideological, totalitarian even. It took a certain level of conviction, and even—watching it retrospectively—a form of courage, to question the values of those times, like for example the validity of Maoism. Looking back it’s laughable: The Maoist China was a disaster on an absurd scale, hundreds of millions of deaths, famine… and people were blind to it, they refused to see it. Instead, they were rhapsodizing about the beauties of the Chinese revolution. In some ways I was a bit of this kid in the Hans Christian Andersen tale, asking: ‘What are you saying?’ [in The Emperor's New Clothes.] He was blatantly saying what they couldn’t admit—that the emperor is naked. You need to remember that my parents were intellectuals, they had certain beliefs and above all they taught me how to think. I had access to the facts, I knew them, their non-ideologized version. But still, it was very tough to oppose those views of kids of my generation.
Keyframe: Referring to the ‘shapeless present’ you claim we’re living in: There were ideals and ideas, hope and energy… What do you think went wrong?
Assayas: Everything did. The idealism of the ’70s became ideological, oppressive and just blew up. Then came punk-rock, a form of revolution, but it failed again, which in a way opened the door for the ’80s greed that has been around ever since. The materialism of the ’80s, the obsession with making money, benefiting from the present, milking it. Occupy Wall Street might not be succeeding too much recently, but at least they put their foot in the door, they’ve said something. It was an attempt to have an influence on politics, which is such an obvious, basic thing! It’s just absurd that it’s not the main concern of the politicians. It has to do with the terrifying revolution of the American politics. These guys [Occupy] were saying the most obvious things, and yet the whole thing got this super-revolutionary tag in the media. It shows how fucked-up the whole system is, with the extremism of the Republicans, and cowardice of Democrats.
Keyframe: You are really harsh on politicians. What is the most disrupting element of their tactics?
Assayas: I think the politicians of today are projecting a disastrous image onto the younger generation. You’re growing up, watching TV, surfing on Internet, reading newspapers… and all you get are politicians who say: ‘We have no control over what’s going on’; ‘We want to do this and that, but we can’t’—because of the crisis or whatever. If they can’t, who can? Do they mean there is some kind of higher power, or that the economy is an abstraction we have no control of? Who are they fooling? It’s simply not true. It’s unbearable. No surprise people are desperate. Things are not going well and there’s apparently no way of fixing them. When, basically, fixing things is what politics is supposed to be about.
Keyframe: And, as a former wannabe-revolutionary, how do you feel about current French politics?
Assayas: I’m actually not a very political person. If I vote, I vote left, because I believe in social justice. Any government that can make things marginally better for those who suffer or are poor, I’m all for it. That’s why I vote. But without any major hope.