The Conversational Intimacies of Late August, Early September

| August 1, 1999

“Late August, Early September,” is a new French film that, with seemingly offhand ease, chronicles the elliptical nature of friendship among a group of intelligent people, mostly in their early thirties, who have known each other for so long that each conversation they have now refers to every conversation they’ve ever had before.
Each of the characters in the film has artistic ambitions, but they spend most of their time doing menial creative jobs like translating or editing, rather than writing. They are selling out, but none are doing particularly well financially. The Paris depicted in “Late August, Early September” is a city of small, yet horribly overpriced apartments with boxes yet to be unpacked.
Director Olivier Assayas, best known in America for the flamboyant “Irma Vep,” here uses 16mm film and hand-held cameras to capture a sense of daily intimacies. There is no exposition provided for the audience, except for title cards to reveal the passage of time over a sixteen-month period; we in the audience learn about the characters through eavesdropping.
In the first scene Gabriel (Mathieu Almaric) and his ex-girlfriend Jenny (Jeanne Balibar) are trying to sell the apartment in Paris they used to live in together. After the prospective buyers leave, Jenny says that they liked the place, while Gabriel believes that they weren’t interested in it at all.
Both Gabriel and Jenny need the money from the sale of the apartment, but they are having trouble letting go of each other. Jenny flirts with him, telling him they ought to live together again, because they are spending too much money living apart.
Gabriel has a new girlfriend, but at the same time he never really says no to Jenny’s flirtations. He couldn’t really get away from her if he wanted to, because they share the same friends.
Almaric, as Gabriel, has the boyish handsomeness of an aging rock star. Almaric’s performance is muted and subtle, which is crucial because his character is the emotional center of the film; we meet the other major characters through him. Gabriel is a kind and decent man who is often abashed even when he’s trying to do a good deed.
Gabriel is working on a documentary with his friend Adrien (Fran├žois Cluzet), a somewhat successful writer. They are going to return to Adrien’s home town, and Adrien will reminisce about his formative years.
On the train, Adrien tells Gabriel that he hasn’t been feeling well, that he will soon be entering the hospital for tests. Gabriel’s relationship with Adrien is complicated; he admires Adrien, but believes that Adrien has never confided in him.
When Gabriel accepts a job in an office, editing a literary reference work, Adrien remarks that this is the first real job that Gabriel has ever had. He tells Gabriel that he’s never had one either. Later, when Gabriel is in a position to offer Adrien work, Gabriel is uncomfortable with offering it, Adrien is uncomfortable with refusing it, even though he needs the money.
Adrien’s new lover, Vera (Mia Hansen-Løve) is about to turn 16; he is about to turn 40. He doesn’t tell his friends about her; she lies to her parents about where she’s going to conceal her relationship with him. He feels guilty about his relationship with such a young woman in almost an abstract way. He toys with her without really meaning to: he wonders whether her affection for him is really sincere.
Gabriel’s new lover, Anne (Virginie Ledoyen) remains on the periphery of his life; he refuses to move in with her, and his friends sometimes ignore her in conversation. She, in return, often disappears for days at a time, only to return when he doesn’t want her to come, because she’s won a small sum on a lottery ticket. They are a couple who spend all of their time together fighting or making love; in one scene Anne gets angry while Gabriel is kissing her and smashes all the glass in the living room, cutting her arm so badly that she has to go to the hospital, causing Gabriel to miss an important phone call.
Ledoyen’s Anne is simultaneously proud and abashed at the trouble she causes. She tells him that he will be attracted to her difficult behavior at first, but will soon tire of her, but she says it in a way that is both challenging and self-pitying. The hand-held camera pans around the room quickly whenever Ledoyen is on screen, trying to keep up with her character’s frantic energy.
Ledoyen has been a captivating presence in films such as Assayas’ “Cold Water,” “Jeanne and the Perfect Guy,” and “A Single Girl.” Her next film will be “The Beach,” co-starring with Leonardo DiCaprio.
When Anne goes with Gabriel to meet his brother’s family, the film is wise and subtle in its depiction of the ways in which a younger lover is slighted by her lover’s older friends, even while being accepted on the surface. All of the anecdotes exchanged at the table are about events that happened long before she arrived, and no one stops to make an explanation. We also see her uncertainty in the car on the way, wondering whether what she’s wearing is too provocative.
Assayas also captures the mundane resentments of long-time friends: a conversation in which one friend is getting entirely too drunk, the griping of smokers exiled from a friend’s house on a cold night. (Almost every character smokes.)
In most films time seems to be compressed and speeded-up; the screenwriter skips over the in-between conversations. “Late August, Early September” is about such in-between conversations and requires the audience to listen closely, as if a friend is about to reveal a closely-held secret.
The film is quite moving in the end because time has passed. Each of the characters in “Late August, Early September” are decent, but ambivalent people. They have reached an age where everything is bittersweet, even love. When the film ends on a note of hope, it is all the more poignant for its tentativeness.

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