Set in the early 1970s, Gilles (Clément Metayer) is a high school student in Paris, swept up in the political fever of the time. Yet his real dream is to paint and make films, something that his freinds and even his girlfriend (Lola Créton) cannot understand. For them, politics is everything: the social struggle all-consuming. But Gilles gradually becomes more comfortable with his life choices and learns to feel at ease in this new society.

A powerful look at the passion of revolutionary fervour.

Gilles (Clement Metayer) has a tall, slight, slender physique worthy of a rock star. He’s got a mop of dark hair coiffed like Sticky Fingers period Keith Richards. Gilles doesn’t talk much, but he believes in direct action. At 17 he’s an aspiring artist. When we first meet him Gilles is in a political science class. While his teacher quotes Pascal Gilles is carving the anarchist symbol – a circle with an 'A’ inside it – the horizontal line that completes the image a defiant slash like an indelible scar. At least I remember it was Gilles, but then in this lot it could have been any one of them, which is a big part of the story this movie tells. The American and British title of this extraordinarily good picture, the new feature from the supremely gifted writer director Olivier Assayas (Carlos) was Something in the Air. It’s an apt moniker that sums up what the film so brilliantly describes; the excitement – and confusion – of being caught up in a cultural moment, something more than politics, or ideology. That title is almost certainly a nod to Thunderclap Newman’s 1969 hit single that captured the pop-culture zeitgeist of urgent rebellion: 'Hand out the arms and ammo/We're going to blast our way through here/We've got to get together sooner or later/because the revolution is here/and you know its right.’

it feels absolutely authentic

This is the Paris suburbs’ in 1971 and Gilles and his high school pals, amongst them the sour Alain (Felix Armand) and the tough Christine (Lola Creton), have big-scale graffiti crimes in mind. Everyone we meet here are into revolutionary politics in their own way and their passions – some of it angry, some of it an unfocused sense of turmoil – gives off a ferocious energy. Listening to their dialogue – a brutal short hand of slogans, put-downs, and arguments over strategy, purpose and aims – is the equivalent of watching opponents trade blows. Violence is part of the gig. Protests become pitch battles. Everyone seems to know how to mix a Molotov cocktail. Any casualties the 'enemy’ might sustain are justified by the ends; say a slogan on a high-school building. That kind of conviction takes a special kind of courage. When these kids attack and wound a security guard they hide behind a wall of privilege – Gilles amongst them – and escape to Italy, a way of 'lying low’ and avoiding possible prosecution.

Après mai or After May is that rare thing; it feels absolutely authentic, but in ways that go deeper than surface verisimilitude. I wasn’t there, but Assayas who is pushing 60, was. His script derives from a memoir he published in 2005, Une adolescence dans l’après-Mai.

His title pays homage to the 'revolutionary spirit’ that swept through his country in the northern summer of 1968, when the Left, workers and students combined to bring France to a standstill in the face of what they understood to be a repressive regime.
After May then, contains something of a wistful regret, one quite impossible to resolve. That’s because as Assayas so delicately outlines here his generation arrived too late. None of them seem to have a clue of where the front line of revolution might be. So they undertake a relentless search for a compelling philosophy, sampling sex, travel, the Situationists, Mao, Marx, agit-prop filmmaking and avant-garde art strategies along the way... Through it all Gilles remains a fully engaged but political agnostic. There’s a genuinely thoughtful kid behind the blank look.

After May plays both true and truthful. Truthful in that Assayas is smart enough to view these characters through a well-earned ironic prism – 'every time reality knocks," says Gilles, 'I don’t answer." And yet there’s a degree of compassion that fortifies the dignity of their questing that goes beyond seeing it as rampant ego or more cynically, fashion. It’s 'true’, in its exquisite attention to details. My favourite bits in the movie all have to do with the way Assayas finds a way to convey the period and the sensibility of the characters via incidental details rather than right-on melodrama; like Gilles’ choice of reading matter, a book that critiques Mao, a collected volume of Orwell or his very splendid record collection that includes pointedly Syd Barrett’s 'The Madcap Laughs’. Some of this stuff is very witty; there’s a scene where Gilles and his mates are drinking coke and talking Marx, which for Assayas, a former Cathiers critic, has got to be a pun on Godard’s famous aphorism from Masculine/Feminine (1966).

I haven’t outlined plot in detail for a good reason. It’s doesn’t seem that important. What is significant is the style; it’s all mood swings, grit and summery light. Like the characters, the screen pulses with adrenaline as Eric Gautier’s camera swoops, glides and digs into the action; a street fight, a nocturnal commando-like graffiti raid on a high school or a boat ride along some silvery Italian coastline. The technique itself says a lot about these kids and the erotic allure of protest.

Assayas has been kicked for electing to approach his characters in a low key; bland figures moving inside an exciting moviescape. But I liked the understated acting and the characters aren’t weighed down with any phony psychology. Metayer is fine and he gets strong support from the cast, especially Carole Combes who plays Gilles’ flinty off-again, on-again girlfriend who experiments with older men and drugs; and Creton, whose Christine offers him a tough love that has a hint of genuine romance.

Gilles ends up working in French TV and later in London in features, working as a bottom-feeder studio assistant, just as Assayas did (and the director’s parodies of assembly line filmmaking are hilarious). Ultimately Gilles discovers that the personal really is the political and I was reminded of the Pascal quote heard at the beginning of the movie: "Between us and heaven and hell there is only life, which is the frailest thing in the world."