Olivier Assayas’ last film, “Irma Vep,” was one of
the decade’s great movies. A playful meditation on the divisiveness that has crept into filmmaking
even as movies themselves cross borders of geography and genre and time, “Irma Vep” was an expression of faith that there are great movies still to be made, that the false barriers that separate “art” from “entertainment” can
be traversed by filmmakers with passion and energy.
The experience of making “Irma Vep” would appear to have put Assayas in direct contact with his emotions in a way that wasn’t always apparent in the rigorous, nearly clinical dramas that preceded it. And though
melodramatic and sometimes shocking things happened in those pictures,
Assayas’ even-handedness seemed to resist assigning the events dramatic weight.
Assayas’ new film, the ensemble drama “Late August, Early September,”
is not in the same league as “Irma Vep,” but still, I think, it is a breakthrough for
him. It’s not that the subject matter — a year in the life of a group of
friends in their mid- to late-30s who are taking the last steps out of their
extended adolescence — is so far removed from that of his “Paris at Dawn” or
“A New Life,” or the superb coming-of-age drama “Cold Water” (one of the
best foreign films yet to be released in this country). It’s that “Late August,
Early September” is warm and direct in a way that’s new to Assayas’ work.
He is reaching for that rare place where judgment isn’t precluded, but
informed by understanding. We don’t feel close to all the characters — like the
self-involved Gabriel (Mathieu Amalric) who lacks the guts to define his
romantic relationships and whose admiration for his friend, the ailing
novelist Adrien (Frangois Cluzet), is marbled with feelings of both inferiority
and jealousy — but I don’t think there’s a moment when Assayas doesn’t put
us inside his characters’ heads.
Essentially, Assayas is trying to reinvent himself as a humanist filmmaker while staying true to the spirit of his generation and class of Parisians. The characters in “Late August, Early September” have reached the age where
their youthful idealism is no longer enough to keep them from
acknowledging the privations and limitations their choices have entailed.
(As Liz Phair put it on her “whitechocolatespaceegg” album, “It’s nice to be liked/but it’s better by far to
get paid.”) Adrien mocks Gabriel’s promise that Adrien’s books, which don’t sell, will be judged well by history. To Adrien, for whom money is a constant worry (as it is for all the characters), the judgment that will come after his death is cold comfort. In “Late August,
Early September,” the characters are constantly tempted by both bitterness
and guilt. Assayas understands those temptations, but he doesn’t give in to
them. The cautious hopefulness of the film lies in the characters’ realization
that there is a life to be lived — a good life — beyond the compromises we are all forced to make.
Shooting in 16mm and often using a hand-held camera and long, unbroken
takes, Assayas and his cinematographer, Denis Lenoir, have given the film a
Assayas’ work with the characters or the nuanced detailing of their
relationships. Offhand, I can’t think of any movie relationship as precise as
the one between Gabriel and Jenny (Jeanne Balibar, who gives a
performance that is both wised-up and unprotected) on the way a couple’s
sexual connection becomes strongest when they’re breaking up. Amalric
and Balibar make you feel how familiar their temptation to have sex is, as well as the disappointment they feel for even considering giving in to that impulse.
In his starring role in the French film “My Sex Life,” Amalric displayed a callowness that shut out the audience. Assayas keys
right in to that quality to uncover the uncertainty and selfishness underneath, and also the dawning of a self-awareness that, in the touching
final scene, suggests he is moving beyond it. Similarly, as Gabriel’s new
girlfriend, Anne, Virginie Ledoyen (best known to American filmgoers as
the star of Benont Jacquot’s “A Single Girl”) uses the brittle self-absorption
that has characterized her other performances to get at a singular mixture of
arrogance and self-loathing. Without softening Anne, Ledoyen gets at the
pain beneath the surface of someone who, in her social encounters, seems determined not to yield.
There’s good acting everywhere you look in “Late
August, Early September.” Arsinie Khanjian shows up for a few emotionally raw scenes as Adrien’s ex-lover; and as Gabriel’s sister-in-law, the
wonderful Nathalie Richard (who was the ditzy costume girl in “Irma Vep”)
gets the essence of a type I’ve encountered in real life but never in the
movies: the “enlightened” passive-aggressive version of those ’50s women
who congratulated themselves on their ability to raise a family and keep
house. A colleague of mine said you just know she’s the type of woman
who claims that everyone is welcome in her house, but only if they obey her
rules. Cluzet conveys not just the physical pain that wracks Adrien
but the larger terror his illness makes him prey to. And as Vira,
the 16-year-old girl Adrien has fallen in love with, Mia Hansen-Lxve has a face that opens completely to
the camera. It would be the easiest temptation for Assayas to sentimentalize
Vira, who has yet to face the disappointments the other characters are going
through, as a symbol of youthful hope. Instead she becomes both an
example of the egalitarian impulse that has always characterized Assayas’
approach to character and the barometer of the tenderness that suffuses the
film. The ability to recognize the freshness of her emotions, even though
they may feel exiled from that immediacy, becomes a measure of the
“Late August, Early September” opens at New York’s Film Forum
Wednesday for a two-week run and will make its way around the country in what are
likely to be limited runs. There’s no way this movie will get the publicity
push or the press attention paid to “big-name”
foreign films, but I hope that
people who care about movies will seek it out. At one point, defending
Adrien’s novels to a detractor who claims they don’t tell stories, Gabriel says,
“He depicts the world he sees.” That may be Assayas poking fun at his own
anecdotal, character-driven approach. But movies that manage to be as alive
and rich as “Late August, Early September” can provide different sorts of
satisfactions. Assayas’ triumph here is in making sense of confusion and
emotional drift — bringing his characters gently forward into life, and making
the film feel full and rounded while still resisting easy resolution. It is, in
many ways, a modest film. But a director who offers glimpses of life that are recognizable in both detail and texture isn’t so common that we can afford to overlook what he has achieved here.
Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.More Charles Taylor.