A kaleidoscopic but engrossing study of the shifting sands of friendship among a group of Parisians, “Late August, Early September” reps a major advance by writer-director Olivier Assayas in warmth and maturity of observation. Shot in a slightly grainy, elliptical style but buoyed by terrific ensemble playing from its varied cast, this tres Gallic relationships pic will appeal to upscale auds on the arthouse circuit but will need strong critical support to make much of a theatrical dent outside France, given the lack of star names and hooks to mark it out from the mass of similar movies.
The picture is very different from Assayas’ previous, jokey feature, “Irma Vep,” and for those who have followed Assayas’ movies (little known outside France and the fest circuit), reps a quantum leap in accessibility: His previously somewhat remote and one-dimensional approach is here replaced by considerable depth. At age 43, Assayas has made his first really mature movie.
Though the characters are occasionally infuriating, often self-absorbed and almost always victims of their own egoism and mistakes, as observed here over the course of a year — from late August to early September — they emerge as fully rounded people, viewed from all angles, not simply constructs of dramatic convenience. And though the protagonists are younger and less bourgeois, and the setting is the less forgiving ’90s, pic strongly recalls in tone Claude Sautet’s great ’70s ensemble movies with its emotional generosity, admission that things change, lack of easy heroes and villains and the powerful influence of death in redefining friendships.
Central quartet comprises Gabriel (Mathieu Amalric), his ex-partner Jenny (Jeanne Balibar), his best friend Adrien (Francois Cluzet) and his new g.f. Anne (Virginie Ledoyen), a young designer.
Adrien, a former bestselling author, is suddenly faced with the reappearance of an illness that is now terminal, which opens up self-doubts about his worth as a writer and his longtime friendship with Gabriel. Unlike Adrien, Gabriel is not a risk-taker: His career path as an editor at a publishing house is steady and secure, and he’s still in emotional indecision over his split with the somewhat loopy Jenny and his new relationship with the younger, all-or-nothing Anne.
Jenny still misses Gabriel but finds a kind of safety net in her friendship with Adrien. He, however, has entered a kamikaze affair with a 15-year-old schoolgirl, Vera (Mia Hansen-Love). As Jenny slowly rebounds into a relationship with another man (Alex Descas), all of the characters’ feelings are thrown back in the blender by the death of Adrien. Pic’s final 40 minutes develop into a moving re-examination of the ties that bind the group and the new directions in which their lives are headed.
Assayas’ approach of dipping into his characters’ lives at key moments, rather than developing a sustained narrative, is a high-risk one and a hard trick to pull off. It’s down to his actors’ capabilities and his consistent ability to come up with new insights that he mostly succeeds in holding the viewer’s attention.
Boyish-looking Amalric, best known overseas from Arnaud Desplechin’s ensembler “How I Got Into an Argument,” is well cast as the acceptable face of male indecision and plays off well against Cluzet’s more battered and cynical Adrien. As the disorganized, somewhat air-headed Jenny, Balibar (also from the Desplechin pic) is a total delight, funny, likable and finally touching. (Thesp won Best Actress at the San Sebastian fest for her performance.) The magical Ledoyen is perfectly cast as the highly-sexed Anne and shows surprising depth in film’s latter stages.
Like most of its genre, pic is an endless roundelay of scenes in bars, bedrooms and workplaces — character- and dialogue-driven sequences separated by rapid fades and given an edgy feel by Denis Lenoir’s hand-held camera and bleached colors. Occasional music is well placed, kicking in to enhance mood. Minimal tightening of the final half-hour would not have hurt, but by the film’s end the viewer is still left with a desire to follow these people on in what is clearly an unfinished story.