WHEN FORMER LOVERS Gabriel and Jenny bicker, the argument is less about the present than recalling their past. "You always make me tense," Gabriel sputters. "Don't shout," Jenny shouts at him. Then they pause, look into each other's eyes, and embrace. After all, arguing is the only passionate act they have left.
LATE AUGUST, EARLY SEPTEMBER
directed by Olivier Assayas
starring Mathieu Amalric, Virginie Ledoyen, and Jeanne Balibar
plays August 27-September 2 at Varsity
As the title suggests, Late August, Early September is a story about transitions—particularly about going from one relationship to another. But the movie is just as much about aging, stepping up from the waning stage of youth to a more "adult" existence increasingly defined by money, career, and marriage. Lest that sound maudlin, director and screenwriter Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep) is not the kind of filmmaker who attempts to assure his viewers by neatly packaging large themes of love and adulthood, as so many in Hollywood are wont to do. Assayas' scenes are often left open-ended, suggesting a myriad of possibilities.
When the movie opens, 30-something Parisians Gabriel (Mathieu Amalric) and Jenny (Jeanne Balibar) have broken up after eight years of cohabitating. While Gabriel seems to have a head start on establishing a new life—he's taken up with beautiful nymph Anne (Virginie Ledoyne)—the ties and friendships formed during his relationship with Jenny keep pulling him back. The strongest of these forces is his older friend and novelist Adrien (Fran篩s Cluzet). Adrien tells Gabriel to go back to Jenny, that she still loves him. Gabriel replies, "She's idealizing the past. She stopped loving me when we were together. Everything I did annoyed her."
While Adrien is only slightly older than Gabriel, it appears on the surface that the two men are worlds apart. While Adrien's four novels have failed to "reach the public," he is a respected figure—at least to his circle of literary friends. Gabriel, who has yet to complete his first novel and is doing editorial "shit work," is Adrien's most ardent fan. Interestingly, the two figures work as younger and older mirrors of each other. Gabriel, scruffy and callow with unwashed hair, looks up to the more distinguished Adrien as a model. But Adrien, while good at giving advice, is hardly any more mature when it comes to love; he too has recently broken off a long-term relationship and is now involved with a 15-year-old girl.
While the film is devoted mostly to Gabriel, the influence of the older man is palpable even when he's not included in a scene. Early in the film, Gabriel explains to a critic of Adrien's writing, "He avoids stories. He presents the world as he sees it." When the critic argues that the best way into someone's viewpoint is through a story, Gabriel retorts, "But do stories really describe the world?" Similarly, the film, like Assayas' other works, avoids the usual trajectories of conventional storytelling. As a sort of antibildungsroman that follows a year of Gabriel's life after his breakup with Jenny, the story keeps relapsing into confusion, making no guarantees of happy endings or even of our protagonist's personal growth.
As if to emphasize that lack of certainty, the camera is held loose, its subjects coming in and out of focus according to the characters' moods. Shaky camera work can be annoying if done gratuitously, as in this summer's indie hit The Blair Witch Project, but cinematographer Denis Lenoir gives the right amount of jitter. When Gabriel and Anne fight, the camera shakes and pans around, capturing the volatile spirit. It does the same during their frenzied sex scenes, sweeping up and down Anne's body, just as Gabriel's hands and mouth would.
But the heart of this film lies in Jenny and Gabriel's relationship. The two provide some achingly beautiful moments, as wistful and longing as the background music provided by Mali guitarist Ali Farka Toure. And Jeanne Balibar as Jenny is so clever and alluring—even when she's talking about something as mundane as moving boxes—that you want to hit Gabriel over the head for leaving her. But then you realize that perhaps Assayas is idealizing her just as an old lover would.