A fun experiment that perhaps one could have conducted at some hypothetical groovy multiplex earlier this year: Switch the digital prints on audiences waiting to see Olivier Assayas' Something in the Air (MPI DVD and streaming) and Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring (Lions Gate DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming). Both address the passions and foibles of youth in a particular time and place—late '60s/early '70s Western Europe and late '00s Southern California, respectively. Both find young men and women searching for identity, a path forward, and sometimes doing so on the wrong side of the law. Both are fun and depressing at turns, and neither is easily pinned down.
Assayas titled his film Après mai for its release in his native France, and that title better tips a critical clue: His script unfolds in the months after the uprisings of May 1968, during which France's students took to the street, clashing with police and fomenting capital-"R" Revolution. Within the first reel or so, Assayas plunges you into a kinetic mass demonstration, filled with running cops, fleeing protesters, flailing truncheons, and billowing tear gas. Mop-headed Gilles (Clément Métayer) and his friends also engage in clandestine actions, vandalizing their high school and battling steakhead security guards.
But as serious as Gilles and his cadre of mod comrades seem about Marxism and class struggle, they mostly belong to the class that owns scooters and can afford to enroll in art school in Italy. And while there's revolution in the air, it's also the late '60s, so there are other things in the air, too. Gilles' willowy hippie-star girlfriend Laure (Carole Combes) is off to London because her stepdad is doing a light show for the Soft Machine, and Gilles has to choose between pursuing his art while bumming around the continent or helping with the less solipsistic agitprop that his new girlfriend Christine (Lola Créton) is off to do. To put it bluntly, which the film is too adroit ever to do, Gilles is trying to figure out how much of the struggle that he and his friends so readily invoke is really his struggle as the '70s dawn.
At one point Gilles leisurely flips through a pile of period-appropriate LPs that will drive any vinyl hound or fan of the period's music to distraction. It's not hard to imagine that these are Assayas' own albums, or a reconstructed facsimile of his collection at least. He has acknowledged that Something in the Air is semi-autobiographical, which no doubt accounts for the sumptuous detail. But despite a few such indulgent moments and rampant evocations of hippie paradise (nude powerboating followed by a little I Ching, anyone?), Assayas is clear-eyed about the costs of free-spirit libertinism and the limits of well-meaning rhetoric. (In any scene involving food, it's the sisters who are cooking, serving, and clearing while the brothers sit around and spiel about liberating the oppressed workers.) Still, it feels like the flip side to the director's 2010 Carlos, warm and wise where its predecessor was stark and grim.
Like the song says, those were different times, and Sofia Coppola brings no nostalgia to The Bling Ring. In fact, it's like one of a handful of recent films that feel like they're defining something about our cruel young century, not just observing it (see also: Spring Breakers). After all, we live in an age when one need not aspire to be famous for something to be famous—when affluent Southern California teens Rebecca (Katie Chang), March (Israel Broussard), and Chloe (Claire Julien) talk about their dreams, having their own "lifestyle brand" draws nods of understanding and approval. After all, look at Paris Hilton. Of course, Coppola's based-on-actual-events tale follows Rebecca, Marc, and their friends as they try to attain something like Hilton's lifestyle by, in effect, stealing it out of her house when she's not home.
If there are no characters here likely to inspire anyone to do anything as quaint as root for them, neither is there much easy moralizing, though Coppola makes sure to include a hapless cheerleader parent (Leslie Mann) as if to illustrate the vacuum of good role models or guidance. And while the performances are mostly heartless, they're also heartbreaking in their self-conscious remove, and mostly very good—with the exception of Emma Watson, who somehow manages to convince that she's American but never manages to convince she's not acting.
The Bling Ring extends the anti-depressant detachment of Somewhere, Coppola's last film and her least well-received to date. And it's true, most people don't go to the movies for numbing effect. But it certainly is a neat trick that, in the end, Rebecca, Marc, and the rest wind up getting what they wish for.