LATE AUGUST, EARLY SEPTEMBER (Fin août, début septembre) A
France (112 mi) 1998 d: Olivier Assayas
After writing film criticism for Cahiers du Cinéma between 1979 and 1985, much like the New Wave directors had done in the 50’s, Olivier Assayas emerged as a prominent filmmaker during the second half of the 1980’s. Not only learning to articulate cinematic ideas and choices, Assayas also experimented with short films while writing screenplays for André Téchiné, like RENDEZ-VOUS (1985), SCENE OF THE CRIME (1986), and ALICE AND MARTIN (1998), where the critical success of his first screenplay is how he was able to get his first feature financed. Like many great artists, Assayas has been able to keep a close circle of artistic collaborators with him throughout his career: Denis Lenoir and Éric Gautier (cinematography), Luc Barnier (editing), William Flageollet (sound mixing), Françoise Clavel (costume design), and François-Renaud Labarthe (art direction/production design), all of whom worked on this film, except Gautier, who collaborated on eight other films beginning with Irma Vep (1996). Similarly, a stable of recurring actors has followed as well, including Virginie Ledoyen, Nathalie Richard, and Jeanne Balibar seen here, also in minor roles Elli Medeiros, Alex Descas (still working with Claire Denis), and Arsinée Khanjian (married to Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan). The stellar ensemble cast assembled for this film is a coterie of young French actors that later became major French film stars, but these are their early years, very much like the parts they play in the film, Parisian friends in their 30’s, most all at a midway point in their lives, where they are at an age when they’re settling down and becoming respectable, a time when money and a career are a necessity, as they can’t pay rent on youthful idealism. The story revolves around the lives of six people, where money is a constant worry, but especially for Adrien (François Cluzet), the only one to reach forty, a critically respected writer who has already written three novels, but none were a success, becoming unfailingly critical of his own failings. He develops an unknown sickness that nearly costs him his life, where the film plays out like THE BIG CHILL (1983), where a group of friends grow increasingly concerned, but it’s not his death, but their own mortality that is suddenly challenged, beautifully conveyed with a probing, novelistic density.
After becoming familiar with the work of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, Assayas, in a 1999 interview in ArtForum, believed he has “a particular way of describing time, of describing the progression of action: you’ll have fragments of the same reality, and sometimes time is not moving.” In this case, the center of the film is an ailing man, but the narrative structure is developed from eliciting a series of personal reactions to his sickness, including characters sharing thoughts and recollections, who are also involved in their own personal connections, both present and past, all of which add complexity to their lives, as the audience is able to develop a greater understanding of all the characters through a series of interconnected relationships. The film is divided into six chapter headings that only slightly advance the story, such as a week later, or two months later, reflecting a passing of time, yet the connections between the characters are only slightly altered, yet over time, this change, both in time and subjectivity, becomes more significantly noticeable. Gabriel, Mathieu Amalric, always nervous and insecure, is a book editor that admires Adrien and looks up to him, who undergoes a pronounced change when the usually stoic Adrien starts revealing personal feelings about himself and his life, such as his illness. Gabriel has a highly volatile but extremely attractive younger girlfriend, Virginie Ledoyen as Anne, but he’s not yet ready to commit, which only angers her, often disrupting things for the worse. Gabriel is selling his former apartment with his ex-girlfriend, Jenny, Jeanne Balibar, exposed and vulnerable. In a case where truth is stranger than fiction, these two in real life were involved romantically at the time, and their scenes together as ex-lovers couldn’t feel more natural, as you can sense their still thriving but not acted upon attraction, though both are two of the most gifted actors working in France. Adrien also has a secret teenage love with the 16-year old Vera, Mia Hansen-Løve, currently married in real life to the director, and a director in her own right, though only 17 at the time, while Arsinée Khanjian is his old flame, still bitter about their breakup.
The film is shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm, where part of the artistic vision is achieved by the masterful hand-held cinematography by Denis Lenoir, much as he did in Cold Water (L’eau Froide) (1994), using long, unbroken takes, where the constant camera movement reflects the continuing restless anxiety of the characters. The episodic structure, divided into segments like chapter titles, emphasizes the effect of time and the way people drift in and out of each other’s lives, where often weeks or months pass between visits, yet the viewer has a deep sense of each character, where it’s interestingly a time when writing letters was how absent lovers expressed themselves, where a passage of time would have to occur before there was a response. The film often skips a step and jumps ahead, where the relationship has already shifted, expressed by a glance, or a few words, such as the advancing illness of Adrien, where the change has a noticeable effect on each one of them. Much like the Ozu title suggests, the movie is filled with ordinary moments, yet when strung together it leads to remarkable lives. Without an ounce of sentimentality, we get a sense of changing seasons and time passing, where throughout Assayas scrutinizes personal relationships and changing perspectives, including the role of sex, family, career, and friendships, not to mention how each of us responds differently when facing mortality. The film is an impressionistic mosaic of interconnecting lives, where the social drive for honesty and truthfulness with one another is a surprisingly tender notion often lacking in modern era films, which, despite the improvements of social media, are more often defined by alienation and distance. This is a film that beautifully expresses the subtlety in relationships, where Gabriel and Anne visit his brother (Eric Elmosino) and wife (Nathalie Richard) at their home in the country with family and close friends, including Gabriel’s ex-lover Jenny. As they all try to come to terms with the seriousness of Adrien’s condition, they are intensely expressing their grief while the younger Anne, still seen sitting off to the side, quietly withdraws into herself, completely excluded from the intensity of this adult world, literally unable to comprehend this entire chapter of Gabriel’s life. Similarly, the way Adrien’s friends discuss the teenage girl Vera after he dies is heartbreakingly cruel, where she’s largely seen on the periphery of the screen, saying little, where she remains an entity unknown to them, so she is excluded from what rightfully belongs to her when dividing up Adrien’s artworks and personal possessions, as she’s not viewed as a mature person. Unknowingly, they are disconnecting what we already understand to be a loving relationship. The beauty of the film, however, is the ease in which relationships form and split apart, only to reconnect again in a completely unexpected context, becoming a brilliant character study where relationships are never static, but continually adapt to the changing world around them.