With a plot as imprecise as its title, Late August, Early September solidifies writer-director Olivier Assayas’ reputation as a worthy heir of the French New Wave of the ‘60s. Less emotionally detached than his earlier slice-of-life feature, Cold Water (1994), and more rooted in the quotidian than his playfully surreal meditation on filmmaking, Irma Vep (1996), Late is something of a breakthrough film for Assayas, his formalist experiments yielding, finally, some deeper emotional resonance.
The film’s central character, though not necessarily the one with the most on-screen time, is Adrien Willer (François Cluzet), a 40-something experimental novelist whose books, as one admirer says, avoid plot and depict the world as he sees it. Adrien is suffering from an unspecified ailment, possibly brought on by some spiritual malaise — his books don’t sell and he has the perpetually disappointed demeanor of someone whose spent passion has not yielded the expected results.
What encouragement Adrien receives during his midlife crisis — apart from a surprisingly touching affair with a 15-year-old girl — comes from his young friend Gabriel (Mathieu Amalric), an aspiring writer who’s working as an editor and taking on various hack assignments to get by. Gabriel tries to help Adrien by sending some work his way, but he’s hardly in a position to do more since his own life is a mess. Aside from the drag of financial distractions, he’s in a constant state of befuddlement over his relationship with his mercurial girlfriend, Anne (Virginie Ledoyen). For her part, Anne finds relief from her indecisiveness about Gabriel by indulging in bouts of kinky sex with a former boyfriend.
Assayas films most of this with a hand-held immediacy which feels as deceptively random as his story line. Almaric, who was so impressive in Arnauld Desplechin’s My Sex Life ... or How I Got Into an Argument, gives a good impression of someone who’s still waiting for life to begin, alternating dazzled eagerness with a watchful restraint. When tragedy strikes, he’s shaken to the core. Life may seem virtually plotless, but it’s still a story and one which he hopes to make it through.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at email@example.com.