‘Late August, Early September’ will be shown at the University of Chicago’s Doc Films Thursday night program of Olivier Assayas films on Thursday, October 24th at 7:00 p.m.
Olivier Assayas’ Late August, Early September (Fin Août, Début Septembre) (France, 1998) is one of the more consistently involving examples of the Big Chill-style ensemble drama, employing Robert Altman’s initial experiments with overlapping and intertwined stories (i.e. Nashville or Short Cuts) with an emphasis on the narrative accumulating shape from the actions of the characters, rather than the standard motif of the characters being revealed through their participation in the overlying story. When the characters, and, inevitably, the performances of the actors, don’t take advantage of the expressive license they've been given, these films can settle quickly into earnest soap-opera. But when the actors have a good script, a director they have confidence in, and the wherewithal to take creative risks with the roles they've been given, then you end up with wonderful films like this. But don’t let these performances lead you to sell Assayas short, either - the structure of his good script, and Assayas’ loose but insistent directorial hand, leave no doubt that everything expressed here is exactly what he wants to show you.
The film opens with Gabriel (Mathieu Amalric) and Jenny (Jeanne Balibar), a former couple who are still close friends, in the course of selling the apartment they previously shared. Jenny seems ambivalent about selling, but Gabriel absolutely needs the money. He’s an in-between guy occupationally – he does a little editing, a little translating, some television and film advising, but he doesn't seem to be interested in generating his own unique creative work. Gabriel’s current girlfriend is Anne (Virginie Ledoyen), a young and mercurial free-lancing fashion designer. His current gig is acting as an interviewer / moderator for a proposed film study of his (and Jenny’s) mutual friend Adrian (François Cluzet), a published author and close but eccentric friend. Adrian keeps a few secrets – he’s romantically seeing Véra (sometime actress and excellent filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve), a fetching, tomboyish 15-year-old; and he’s being treated for a mysterious malady that, despite his discretion, starts to become too involved to keep from his friends.
But rather than focusing on Adrian’s issues, or Gabriel’s work, or the present specifics of each friendship or romance, Assayas’ film is almost exclusively concerned with the transitional circumstances of each character; Gabriel hasn't completely left Jenny (even though, as a couple, they’re clearly done), nor will he make a real commitment to Anne – he’s reluctant to close off any options. Adrian is dissatisfied with his meager success as a writer, but awkwardly rejects some practical work offered to him by Gabriel. Despite clearly hinting that she’d like to take back up with Gabriel, Jenny is resigned to Gabriel’s moving on without her; yet they have all of the same mutual friends, and she’s a fixture in most of the social interactions of the film. There are no beginnings or ends to the characters’ involvements, only the constant middle, the constant present. Late August, Early September’s title calls to mind the earthly transition from summer to autumn, but also indicates the autumnal tone that all of these intertwining friendships, romances and business dealings take on, as each character, in their own unique way, seems to become sadder but wiser before our eyes through the course of the film.
And yet there’s a great deal of humor and positive energy to all of these characters, and the Assayas is cagey about the ebb and flow of which characters he follows through the motions of the narrative. Amalric is a fascinating actor under the right circumstances - like here, as opposed to a James Bond bad guy (Quantum Of Solace) - and Balibar and Ledoyen are both superb here; Balibar is endearingly eccentric throughout, but Ledoyen works a more rigorous character arc, especially in the film’s later portions. Assayas plays with these dynamics in a more familial context in his equally successful later film, Summer Hours (L'heure D'Èté), but this early effort is impressive. The film is exemplary of a style that many other French and European filmmakers have employed effectively – Arnaud Desplechins, Cédric Klapisch, the aforementioned Mia Hansen-Løve, and, most recently, Abdellatif Kechiche in the must-see Blue Is The Warmest Color. American filmmakers, save Altman and Altman-protégé Alan Rudolph among very few others, aren't nearly as adept at the characters-create-the-plot game, but when executed as well as it has been here, it can be revelatory. This isn’t a film that shows up on the big screen very often – it’s worth the trip to Hyde Park to see it there. But it’s well worth seeking out otherwise in whichever form you can find it in.