Gilles (Clément Mayer) is a teenage student in the Paris of 1971, where the uprising of three years ago has cast a long shadow over the city, and still continues in pockets of resistance from the increasingly fractured left wing counterculture which continues to believe a revolution is right around the corner. For his part, when he's not carving anarchy symbols into the desks of his classrooms, Gilles sells underground newspapers at the gates, and goes further by taking part in demonstrations which are savagely put down by the police, leading to pitched battles in the streets. He has faith in the ideas of the tracts he reads, and that his artworks will contribute to real change...
Although when his highest profile art tends to be spray painted graffiti, maybe he should set his sights a little higher. Gilles was the surrogate for a certain Monsieur Olivier Assayas, cult auteur extraordinaire, who with this effort was in reflective mood as he looked back to his youth which was much like the way his protagonist lived in the early seventies. But this was no mere rose tinted wallow in nostalgia, as Assayas was considering what he got up to back then and whether he was right to do what he did, no matter if it set him on the journey to where he was, successful movie director, as he had become at the point he was when he made Something in the Air, or Après Mai as it was originally known, referring to the May '68 student unrest.
Essentially he was musing over not only how his decisions in the past affected his future, but more importantly the question developing in his mind was "Was I right?" You might have thought he had done well enough in his career not to suffer many regrets, but that did not appear to be the case as Gilles is not depicted with warmth and affection, and indeed not much was as the seriousness of trying to spark the revolution sapped the fun out of those times dramatically. He wasn't willing to meet the audience halfway, as either you knew what he was on about or you didn't, which led more than one observer to point out to appreciate this you really had to be there, and that would seem to put the viewers and their number to a dwindling significance.
But this was no spaced out "You weren't there man!" hippy casualty ramble, as Assayas made sure to engage with the issues his younger self was wrestling with, even as he found that person of so long ago wanting. Although Gilles channels his passions for politics into his art, it seems the art wins out over the politics ultimately as he questions precisely how committed he was to the cause, just as he is questioned by one of his best friends in the movement. Gilles is by no means a sympathetic character which does make it seem as if the director is being too hard on himself for too much of the running time, and you do wonder if Assayas couldn't have injected a degree of humour into his approach as unless you did something really awful it is possible to regard the follies of your youth with a laugh.
Not so here, which renders the proceedings overserious, even when the characters are letting their hair down, whether going on holidays (Gilles doesn't half get around, hopping around Europe quite the gadabout) or making love, as our hero has a girlfriend in Laure (Carole Combes) who exits early on to England and druggy oblivion, then hooks up with fellow student and revolutionary Christine (Lola Créton) who seems even more committed than he is. Meanwhile pal Alain (Felix Armand) gets together with American student Leslie (India Menuez) who he eventually gets pregnant, necessitating an abortion which brings about the more sombre conclusions of the last act. Essentially, when the women aren't impressed anymore then it's time to move on and try something different, or in Gilles' case find more meaning in art and filmmaking than he does as a Trotskyite firebrand, which the film isn't wholly sure he was in the first place. With some fine recreations of the era - the light show with the band is a really nice scene - overall this was chilly contemplation rather than fun memories.