It is Paris in the fall. A group of literary Parisians is gathered around an obscure author named Adrien Willer (Francois Cluzet). His personality, which once was mercurial and difficult, has undergone a transformation since his surgery for a serious illness. Each of the people in his circle idolizes him in their own way. As it becomes obvious that Adrien has not recovered completely from the operation, each now reevaluates those feelings. As his ex-wife says: "He’s too nice now. I can’t trust him."
Gabriel (Mathieu Amalric) is having the toughest time. He idolizes Adrien, for reasons that seem to have more to do with Gabriel’s dissatisfaction with his own career than with Adrien’s writing. Gabriel is breaking up with Jenny (Jeanne Balibar), and having an affair with the younger Anne (Virginie Ledoyen). Jenny, meanwhile, has become attracted to Adrien, even as Adrien himself is carrying on an affair with fifteen-year old Vera (Mia Hansen-Love). When Adrien’s illness takes its inevitable course, all are left to pick up the pieces of their own lives.
There are no surprises, and this seems intentional. Director Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep, L’eau Froide) is determined to make Late August, Early September a slice of life, serious and without embellishment. Perhaps he succeeds too well. We observe with some detachment the marvelous ensemble acting, excellent camera work and crisp editing. Although we cannot take our eyes off Ms. Balibar, whose performance is remarkable in its understated range of emotion, she is the only character with whom we can connect.
The reasons behind Vera’s teen aged buoyancy, Gabriel’s thirty-something angst, and Adrien’s forty-year-old crises are kept as they would be in reality – partially hidden, deeply personal. When Jenny hits the screen with her emotions on her sleeve, it’s hard to understand how Gabriel could ever want to leave this woman behind. Perhaps if we understood more we could care more.
In his thirteen films since 1979 Assayas has built a reputation for honest examination of complex emotional issues. Jeremy (Alex Descas) says: "I can find fulfillment in bitterness." Anne, who loves Gabriel, still craves tougher sex with another man in the circle. We’d like to know why. We wish Assayas had gone further. In the end we don’t know any more about these characters than we did in the beginning.
Adrien, the central figure in this circle, is less than satisfying. Francois Cluzet is able to give us everything but fury. He does it all well, but his refusal to be at least a little bit angry, either about his health or his stalled literary career, is bothersome. His performance is no doubt exactly as the director wanted, but would be more believable with energy instead of resignation.
The music is first-rate – North African tinged instrumentals and vocals by Ali Faraka Toure. It conveys perfectly the sense of being strangers that all of these characters feel, strangers both to themselves and to their newly discovered mortality.