Friday August 20, 1999

     "Late August, Early September" is involving and intimate as only other people's lives deftly observed can be. An insightful film that takes us on a nuanced emotional journey with a group of friends trying to make sense of the romantic choices they've made, it has the sympathy and psychological acuity we've come to recognize as the hallmark of French cinema at its best.
     "Late August" is the seventh feature for 44-year-old writer-director Olivier Assayas, but only the second (after the very different "Irma Vep") to find commercial distribution in this country. Its title refers not to a specific time on the calendar but to a time in life, when the easy indolence of youth is ending and it's necessary to get serious, to figure out where you are and what you want to do.
     At the center of the film's circle of acquaintances is the oldest of the group, author Adrien Willner (the Dustin Hoffmanish Francois Cluzet). His four novels have given him something of a cult status, but at 40, Adrien feels at a crossroads, not sure if he's done the right things with his life, worrying about never having gotten through to a wider public.
     Though he can be distracted and difficult, Adrien has the force of personality necessary to dominate his little circle, which is consequently shocked when he announces that an unnamed illness is going to put him in the hospital and possibly threaten his life.
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     Most affected is Gabriel, the film's co-protagonist and Adrien's disciple. As played by Mathieu Amalric (who has an urchin-like Dead End Kid look and previously starred in Arnaud Desplechin's "How I Got Into an Argument . . . My Sex Life"), the uncertain and insecure Gabriel feels both close to and intimidated by his mentor.
     Gabriel is introduced at an awkward moment; he's trying to sell the Parisian apartment belonging to him and his former girlfriend. She is Jenny (Jeanne Balibar), a lively woman with a crooked grin, who agreed to the split but is more regretful than Gabriel that it's occurred.
     That's because Gabriel already has a new girlfriend, the beautiful Anne ("A Single Girl's" Virginie Ledoyen), a clothing designer who is both younger and more impulsive than the rest of Gabriel's friends, a situation that Assayas underlines by shooting most of her scenes with a hand-held camera.
     Because character and emotions are his main concerns, Assayas and Denis Lenoir, his director of photography, employ a lot of close-ups that increase the film's sense of intimacy. But there is also room for the fluid cinematography that is the director's trademark, including some lightning moves that camera buffs are going to want to play back again and again once the film comes to video.
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     Assayas uses on-screen titles to break his story up into segments, like chapters in a novel, offering us glimpses of relationships in transit as his characters navigate through crises both real and imaginary. Over the course of a year, they worry about the boundaries of friendship and love, the pain of romance and possible death, struggling to make the best of their situations while balancing the needs and neuroses that inevitably get in the way.
     In a film like this, it's the journey as much as the destination that affords pleasure, as people change and new characters--as well as new revelations about old characters--gradually get added to the mix. Almost imperceptibly, "Late August, Early September" accumulates an emotional impact that is both powerful and unexpected.
     Beautifully made (including exquisite use of the haunting guitar work of Mali's legendary Ali Farka Toure), this confident, accomplished work gains by being part of the great tradition of Gallic cinema. As Andre Desplechin said a few years ago when he introduced "How I Got Into an Argument" at the New York Film Festival, "for a French guy, this sort of film is like a western for Americans."


Late August, Early September, 1999. Unrated. A Dacia Films & Cinea co-production, with the participation of Canal Plus, the Centre National de la Cinematographie, Soficas Sofinergie and Sofigram, released by Zeitgeist Films. Director Olivier Assayas. Producers Georges Benayoun, Philippe Carcassonne. Screenplay Olivier Assayas. Cinematographer Denis Lenoir. Editor Luc Barnier. Costumes Francois Clavel. Production design Francois Renaud Labarthe. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes. Mathieu Amalric as Gabriel. Virginie Ledoyen as Anne. Francois Cluzet as Adrien. Jeanne Balibar as Jenny.