Born in 1955, Olivier Assayas was 13 when the wave of revolt swept across Europe in 1968. In writings and interviews, he has always credited the experience of growing up as a teenager in the aftermath of ’68 as the formative period that unexpectedly led him to cinema. With Après mai (Something in the Air) he revisits these crucial years, the same era he so wonderfully portrayed in his 1994 masterpiece, L’eau froide (Cold Water), this time using his personal trajectory to shed light on the fervour, the conflicts and ultimately the failure that defined the 1970s. Après mai shares many of its predecessor’s strengths, conveying the disorientation of the post-68 generation with the same ethereal cinematography, which though steeped in reverential romanticism, nonetheless achieves a majestic evocation of the tempestuous spirit of a youth at a time when everything seemed possible.
Après mai is in large part autobiographical. To what extent is it based on your personal experiences?
From one angle, the film is based on memories, on facts, on things that I observed; there is extremely little fiction in this film. At the same time, everything is fictionalised, in a way or another, because it’s a movie, and in a movie you can’t really deal with the specificity of autobiography. The whole logic of filmmaking is the opposite of autobiography. The process of casting, choosing the sets, condensing in a screenplay the experience of a few years… it’s something that is very similar to the process of fiction, so I think it’s a fictionalized autobiography. But in the end, it’s also closer to collective history than to personal history. I think it’s the one movie I have made where I represent myself as being part of something bigger than myself, which is the collective history of my generation. So, paradoxically, it’s a movie where I use very specific personal elements but ultimately it all fades, it all mingles, into something that is the history of a generation.
If there is something that is specifically personal, it’s the weird path that took me to filmmaking. If you want to sum up a movie like Après mai, it’s really about a kid who throws ink on a piece of paper and gradually gets reconciled with the notion of cinema as a way of filming real life and the face of a real person. So yes, it’s the strange path that took me from the abstraction of painting to the figuration, the representation of cinema. But of course it’s a story that has no sense if it’s not embedded in the collective history of my generation, because what is specific and personal, obviously, is the path of Gilles. The other characters are based on friends and usually it’s the condensation of one or two characters, but their history, their path is what gives some kind of… I mean, the story of Gilles would have been impossible in another context. It’s completely defined by his surroundings.
This is the second time that you revisit this period of your adolescence through film. What did you want to explore this time around, which you felt you hadn’t with L’eau froide?
Since I made L’eau froide I’ve had this frustration. As much as I love the film and I was really proud of it when I made it, I stayed with the frustration that I did not represent the specificities. I mean, L’eau froide was a more poetic version of the 1970s and I did not describe the specificities of the high school politics of that time, I did not represent what the counterculture was about at the time, and of course I didn’t represent what was essential for me at that time, which was some kind of artistic vocation. And this is a frustration that dates back to when I made L’eau froide and I was not sure I was ever going to make this film, I was never sure I would find a solution to deal with this frustration. But it stayed with me and in the end I made this movie, which deals with the same times, but from a very different perspective.
In your writings, you’ve argued that film can’t capture the truth of reality but that it can put loss in perspective. What is the perspective that you intended to gain or offer with Après mai?
One element of it is certainly that the 70s have always been misrepresented – they are majorly misrepresented, because they’re either caricatured or idealized, and both are wrong. It’s very easy to make fun of the 70s because they were extreme, they were crazy, over the top… But nothing of it was ridiculous because it all involved questioning the materialistic values of the time and it was really about cutting with the society that was becoming archaic, that was archaic. And on the other hand, they’re idealized, you know, “Oh, the 70s were great, because you were involved politically and now blah blah…” I think that the politics of the 70s were complex – they were conflicted, they were not simple.
What I’m also trying to represent is that you had very antagonistic poles. In the sense that you had counterculture on one side and the dynamic of the counterculture was about transforming the very fabric of society, the values of society – the good questions: how to conquer individual freedom in a society that had very stiff values? And on the other side you had dogmatic leftism, which was opposed to everything that had to do with transforming the fabric of society. The dogmatic leftism was anti sexual liberation, anti soft drugs, anti Rock’n’Roll, anti whatever you wanted. They considered that all that distracted the working class goal, which was the social revolution. But in the memory we have of the 70s it’s one and the same thing. It’s not; it was extremely violent, extremely antagonistic.
This antagonism is very present in the characters’ debates about the relation between aesthetics and truth in cinema – does Après mai represent your solution to this debate?
Yes and no. Every filmmaker has to define his own position. What I am saying in this film is that I grew up in the 1970s and the 1970s were defined by those questions, which are questions that date back to the early 20th century. It’s like the discussion between avant-garde and social realism or something – that’s what it boils down to, really. The 70s were obsessed with those aesthetic questions, which are now completely forgotten. I’m not saying I am ready to take a position on one side or the other, what I am saying is that I come from a world when you had to define yourself based on those questions – you had to acknowledge the existence of those questions. After that, you know, you do whatever you have in yourself. I’ve made 13 films; I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m on the side of narration and a solid belief that movies are about representing the real world. But still, whatever I am asserting in the way I am making my films is my answer to those questions. But you can’t ignore the fact that those questions do exist. If I am making Après mai in the way I’m doing it, it’s because of an evolution of style, but the origin of that style are those questions.
Do you wish that those discussions were still important to today’s filmmakers?
The thing is that when those issues are discussed, the language of the time is abstract, is a bit crazy, but ultimately relevant in the context of the time. In the sense that in the 70s you didn’t have 100 TV channels, you didn’t have DVDs, you didn’t have the Internet. So what a lot of militant filmmaking was about, it made sense – this idea that there could be, that there should be an alternative information channel that could only exist through the work of militant filmmakers who would film the factories, film workers, film the struggles, which was the obvious thing, the one important historical thing happening at the time. Then again, their language was extremely dogmatic, it had its terrible limits, and so on and so forth. But at least it was something that was meaningful, because what they wanted to do no one else was doing. But then, because the times were dogmatic, there was this obsession that if you were doing this, you couldn’t be doing that. Meaning that if you were representing the world, doing some agitprop and representing the struggles of the time, you were not allowed to do fiction. Which obviously led to crazy exaggerations. For instance, the way a movie like La maman et la putain by Jean Eustache, which was really one of the masterpieces of the 1970s, was completely rejected by leftist filmmakers. It was considered bourgeois at the time. It’s a complex debate.
Your cast in this film was really young, all from a different generation than the one they portray. Did you feel that they understood these issues?
They did not get the politics. Honestly, they did not. And they’re very smart; they are smart kids and they want to do things and they define themselves as radicals, I suppose. But the politics of the time is something they have zero grasp on, which was fairly disturbing for me, because I did not realize to what extent they were ignorant of the social history of the 20th century. But what was even more disturbing – and surprising – for me was during a specific scene in the film, in the printing plant where Jean-Pierre works. At some point he’s part of a group discussion and they’re discussing what they will put in the next newspaper. For that discussion I used radical political militants in real life, guys who are doing agitprop in France now. The immaturity, the difficulty they had to understand the dialectics of the politics of the 1970s was stupefying to me. And again, they are smart, but the history and the nuances of Marxist ideology is something that is lost on that generation.
When you compare your generation to the youth of today, do you regret their lack of political convictions?
I mean, you can’t do better than your times. The 70s generation was nothing special, but it was carried by an energy that somehow… you know, in ’68 in France you had what was the closest to a revolution – it came close to overthrowing the French government. And you had this movement of youth in the whole world, so you felt you were pushed by something that was very powerful and that was connected to the social history of the 20th century. So yes, the kids in the 70s were politicized, but they were politicized because that was what their present was about and there was really the conviction that what was crystallizing around the movement of that time, the old world, would be overthrown. May ’68 was perceived as a failed revolution and there would be a successful revolution coming in the next few months, in the next year, two years at the most… So you felt this sweep of history and you wanted to identify with that history, so you read about the Russian revolution, you read about the Spanish Civil War, you read about the history of Marxism, whatever. Not so much because you were interested in history, but because the history informed the political nuances of your time, and it was only in learning about the mistakes of the past that you would get the coming revolution right. So there was this faith in the future, there was this interest in the past that defined a hope in the future, a belief in the future.
What is gone now is the hope in the future and the knowledge of the past. But you have a lot of youth who are interested in the politics of that time and it’s coming back. It’s coming back, but it’s very different from what was going on in the 70s because the 70s were utopian. The 70s only believed in overthrowing society, anything less than that was considered reformist and reformist was an insult. I would say that the politics of today are defined by reformism because they’re very pragmatic. Ultimately, if they can achieve something, if they will achieve something – which I hope – it’s because they are pragmatic. But it’s a different world and it’s a completely different metaphysic.
Do you feel that your generation is to blame for this evolution?
No, I don’t think so, I just believe in the wheel of history. I don’t think that it’s individuals who moved away from politics, I think it’s politics that moved away from people – at least that’s the way I perceived the end of the 1970s. In the 1970s a lot of people were there on their own. They were involved in the politics of the time and gradually the world was changing around them, and they were losing their grasp and they were left alone. I’m a filmmaker, I’m not a politician, but I think that the mistake of European leftism was dogmatism, gradual dogmatism. It was being extremely complacent with totalitarian ideologies, specifically in China and Russia. Leftists were anti-Communist but they were extremely shy of confronting the Communist Party on human right issues. And leftism at some point moved into terrorism, which scared everybody away, it freaked everybody out. I think the terrorism in Europe was the last disastrous act of the history of leftism, and in the end, it led to the failure of something that carried the hopes of so many.
Après mai (E: Something in the Air / D: Die Wilde Zeit) | Directed by Olivier Assayas (France 2012) with Clèment Métayer, Lola Créton, Felix Armand, Carol Combes. Opens June 6.
A shorter version of this interview was originally published in the June 2013 issue of Exberliner.