Shortly after seeing Olivier Assayas’s semi-autobiographical film Something in the Air, one of the people I was with declared that it had been “very French.” While that can mean a lot of things, and not all of them good, one of the “very French” things about the movie that charmed me was its focus on the relationship between aesthetics and politics. Since Something in the Air is about a politically charged young artist coming of age in the early 1970s who is growing disillusioned with the Left, it should be no surprise that the film comes back to this relationship again and again, most pointedly in a scene where some self-proclaimed revolutionary filmmakers have screened their most recent documentary (they don’t use their film equipment for fiction, one of them declares with disdain). Afterward, during a Q & A session, a spectator asks the filmmakers, “Shouldn’t revolutionary cinema employ revolutionary syntax?” They reply that since their intended audience is the proletariat, for whom a “revolutionary syntax” might be off-putting, they employ a traditional cinematic syntax instead. It’s a version of an argument I’ve been hearing in the States for years now, where difficult works of art and a concern for aesthetics are seen as elitist, even reactionary. It’s an argument with which I adamantly disagree. Instead, I agree with Gilles, Assayas’s alter ego, who summed up the filmmakers and their movies concisely: “Boring films, primitive politics.” Transparent, “easy” art usually doesn’t allow for the depth of thinking needed for nuanced political insight. I say: Don’t dumb it down. Make it interesting. Make it thorny. Trust your audience, and shake them up.
Any particular argument aside, though, I simply enjoyed seeing a film that pondered such issues. Granted, brushing aesthetics up against politics is less rare in French than American films. I remember one of my favorite scenes from Jean-Pierre Melville’s gripping film about the French Resistance, Army of Shadows. Right in the middle of that story, when the stakes were life and death, several of the main characters, on an important trip to London, take time out to see Gone with the Wind. Now that’s a commitment to aesthetics! But if aesthetic issues aren’t discussed much in American movies, they still matter here. Sophisticated politics require sophisticated art, not the opposite. Then again, that is an understanding that is so very French.