Olivier Assayas’s After May (released elsewhere as Something in the Air) is a swooning and swirling but always level-headed study of the lives of a small group of suburban Parisian teenagers in the years soon after 1968. An ensemble drama with a pleasingly light touch, it looks back with warmth and candour at the lives of these young people as they confront their beliefs, their loves and their ambitions head-on. So it’s a coming-of-age story for all time in one sense, but the special ideas and idealism of the early 1970s mean that these characters’ horizons are forever expanding and their choices seemingly infinite. It’s a portrait of a time too intense to last forever, and brightly burning flames that must inevitably flicker or die altogether.
Assayas moves with ease among various young men and women, all friends fired by revolutionary idealism. They join demonstrations, work for the free press, hand out leaflets and graffiti their school with slogans by night. It’s a captivating and fresh snapshot of a well-documented time. But the writer-director of Summer Hours and Carlos keeps returning to Gilles (Clement Metayer), presumably an alter ego, who watches an older love, Laure (Carole Combes), betray him for hard drugs and an older man. A new love, Christine (the terrific Lola Créton, last seen in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye First Love, with which this film shares a similar tone and semi-autobiographical air), must choose between Gilles and radical cinema. Other friends embrace and reject esoteric niches of the political counterculture. Free of nostalgia and not overly critical in hindsight, it captures the immediacy of youth in hugely endearing fashion.