September 11, 2012

SHOWBUZZDAILY @ TORONTO: “Something In the Air” and “Ginger and Rosa”

Toronto this year provided two notable portraits of teenagers growing up in a time of political turmoil, Olivier Assayas’s SOMETHING IN THE AIR and Sally Potter’s GINGER AND ROSA.

Assayas’s film is about the end of the end of a revolution that never happened.  (The French title, Apres Mai, specifically refers to the May 1968 unrest in and around Paris that led some to believe insurrection was genuinely at hand.)  It’s 3 years later when we meet Gilles (Clement Metayer), who aspires to be both an artist and a revolutionary.  He graffitis his high school with his friends, and eventually is involved in an (unintentionally) more serious action, which begins his travels in France and Italy.  He drifts in and out of relationships both with girls–Laure (Carole Combes) and Christine (Lola Creton)–and with political movements, and we can see that none of them will last.   While the Trotskyites fight with the Socialists and the Communists, and collectives question whether the form or the message of art is more important, society moves on, and the cataclysmic change they advocate will never come.

This is Assayas’s follow-up to his spectacular Carlos, and in a way the two films provide a diptych of 1970s radicalism.  At almost the same time that Carlos was embracing violent action and participating in the shift from protest to terrorism, Gilles is scaling back his political commitment, becoming (as Assayas himself did, of course) a filmmaker rather than a revolutionary.  Around him, some of his friends crash and burn, while others, too, segue into other paths of enlightenment.

Something In the Air is a much milder film than Carlos, with none of that epic’s cinematic pyrotechnics.  It flows smoothly from one episode to another, sometimes elliptically advancing the stories of the characters and moving its focus away from Gilles without any firm underlying structure  Eric Gautier’s photography is smooth and ungaudy, and the same could be said of the performances.  The unerring production design is testimony to the film being mmade by a man who was actually there at the time, rather than someone who just did research into the era, and there is wonderful use of period songs on the soundtrack.  The film isn’t as overwhelming as Carlos and isn’t trying to be–it’s the story of those people who may have shared the terrorist’s politics, but not his egotism or ruthlessness, and who ultimately made their way to their ordinary lives.  Or in Assayas’s case, a different kind of extraordinary one.

Potter’s Ginger and Rosa comes as a shock for those who’ve seen her earlier, narratively experimental films like Orlando and Yes, because it’s the most conventionally narrative story she’s ever told.  Ginger is a 17-year old (played, remarkably, by the then 11-year old Elle Fanning), so nicknamed because of her red hair, whose best friend has been Rosa (Alice Englert) since their mothers Natalie (Christina Hendricks) and Anoushka (Jodhi May) met at their birth.   The time is 1962, around the period of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the political movements that would peak before Something In the Air begins are nascent, as the girls attend Ban the Bomb rallies with Ginger’s father Roland (Alessandro Nivola).

Ginger adores her permissive, hipster father, but she’s in for a terrible shock, as she learns of the relationship that’s formed between Roland and Rosa.  Earlier, thinking of the Bomb, we had seen her recite the famous T.S. Eliot lines, and we know that this is the way her own world ends.  Although Ginger & Rosa leaves her there, it wouldn’t be too much of a leap to imagine Ginger, as the 60s continued, throwing her hurt, distrust and resentment into politics, and eventually becoming as dispirited and aimless as the characters in Something In the Air.  

Fanning, who like Jennifer Lawrence in The Silver-Linings Playbook is playing a character significantly older than she is, carries off the complicated emotions involved phenomenally well.   The rest of the cast is superb as well, with Hendricks, despite being in her Mad Men time zone, convincingly playing an utterly unglamorized woman of that era.  Nivola and Englert express the ambiguity of their genuine feelings for Ginger and yet their selfish willingness to cause her pain, and Annette Bening, Oliver Platt and Timothy Spall have smaller roles as friends of the girls.

Potter isn’t entirely comfortable with the conventions of narrative filmmaking, and there are times when Ginger & Rosa feels muffled and slow, swaddled in Robbie Ryan’s atmospheric cinematography.  In the end, though, thanks particularly to Fanning’s character and performance, Ginger’s pain at both her parents and her government shoot through.

There’s a sad weariness to both Something In the Air and Ginger & Rosa, a sense that change isn’t really possible and that corruption and hurt are inevitable.  As films, though, both are empowering, a reminder that art can express what politics only rarely and temporariliy can.


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About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."