Each month, the Indie Prof reviews a current film in the theater and a second film that is available on DVD or an instant-streaming service. Follow “Indie Prof” on Facebook for updates about film events.
Something in the Air (2013—Olivier Assayas)
Films about the late ’60s and early ’70s have been popular with filmmakers to frame coming-of-age stories. Most of these films tend to portray the characters as perfect idealists fighting hard-line conservatives, or ridiculous airheads who cannot face up to reality. Somewhere in between these poles lay the truth about the period, but it has never been portrayed as objectively as French director Olivier Assayas’ (Cold Water, Irma Vep, Summer Hours) new film, Something in the Air. Assayas is the rare filmmaker who makes the movies he wants to make and stays away from any studio control; he also writes criticism for the storied journal Cahiers du Cinema. He counts the great French director Robert Bresson (Pickpocket, A Man Escaped) as his major influence, and it shows: the fine craftsmanship and attention to detail of both men are obvious, and neither director panders to the audience.
Something in the Air begins as young Parisians sit in a classroom; Gilles sells revolutionary newspapers outside after class; he and his friends riot in the streets; they print flyers in a basement; meet to discuss politics; smoke; paint; make love; graffiti and poster the school; set fire to a guard post. This is all in the first 30 minutes of the film, and thus the film moves as blithely from one action to the next as do the subjects. As the film follows this group of aimless and restless souls, the one thing we never see is their soul: the film is mostly feeling and atmosphere. We are transported to the early ’70s, but we never really connect with it. And perhaps that is just the point: this period is inaccessible to us now, even incomprehensible. Even those—such as Assayas—who lived through the period have trouble defining it. And yet the beauty of the film unfolds in the interstices: the place between what we remember and what it really was.
The camera matches the content: documentary-style realism for the action scenes, and a classic voyeuristic camera for the contemplative scenes. The details are immaculate: the clothes, the hair, the scooters, the mimeograph. The editing also matches the content: fast and jump-cutting through the action sequences and a slower pacing when called for. In short, you should go to this film to see a master filmmaker at work, one who does not answer to a producer or a studio because he is so good at what he does. The only knock I have is the acting: it moves between indifference and listlessness. Perhaps this was by design too. On casting actors for the film, Assayas noted: “I had to find kids who fit the mold of that time. Today, kids have a more ironic sense of humor, a cynicism, and are more materialistic.” Ouch.
Starts May 10 at the Mayan.
You will like this film if you enjoyed: Taking Woodstock, The Baader-Meinhof Complex and Almost Famous.
In a Better World (2011—Susanne Bier)
The Danish cinema has a long and storied history, dating back to the invention of the art form and remaining strong through the silent era. Mostly supported by the Danish Film Institute, Denmark has produced some of the best international films of the last 20 years. While Lars von Trier sucks up most of the air, other Danish directors such as Susanna Bier and Nicholas Winding Refn have produced quality films and received worldwide critical acclaim. Bier’s In a Better World (2011), the winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, is one such film. It tells the story of two separate families, both dealing with their own tragedies and perhaps leading toward more tragedy together. The original Danish title of the film, Hævnen, is literally translated as “the revenge,” and may describe the film better than the English translation. No matter what the film is called, however, it is brilliant, expertly made and acted, and burns into our consciousness as a contemporary examination of a disaffected world.
Kids growing up too fast has long been a filmic convention: the Italian Neorealists used it as a plot device, and the French New Wave directors also found footing there. Both of these great movements influence In a Better World, and the children of current-day Denmark must do their share of growing up quickly. One family grieves the loss of their mother to cancer; the other family is dealing with a separation and the lingering effects of the father’s affair. The kids seem to pay the price. The performances are all very good, but the revelation here is William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen as Christian. Christian’s inner turmoil burns on his face; we feel his pain and worry for his demise throughout the course of the film—especially as he involves the young and impressionable Elias. Meanwhile, the action in Denmark cross-cuts between action in the Sudan, where Elias’ father Anton works as a doctor in a tiny village.
There is an underlying uneasiness and tension throughout the film, and most of it is presented realistically and honestly. The cinematography wanes between close-ups of faces and long shots of landscapes, displaying the inherent, and invented, contradictions of our world. In the end, we are rewarded for that tension, and not in the trite, easy-to-resolve Hollywood sort of way. Available on DVD.
You will enjoy this film if you liked: Babel, A Separation and After the Wedding.
Vincent Piturro, PhD, teaches Cinema Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.