Late August, Early September
By Joe Leydon

July 7, 1999 | Olivier Assayas' Late August, Early September is an affectingly melancholy drama that addresses us in the soft yet insistent tone of someone sharing intimate secrets. This French-produced import focuses on a small circle of friends in the Paris literary world over the course of a year or so. But the title refers not so much to the calendar as to a state of existence -- that epiphanous period in your life when you realize you're not a kid anymore, and some long-cherished dreams may never be fulfilled without a lot of heavy lifting.

For Adrien Willner (Francois Cluzet), a 40-year-old novelist with a small but devoted following, the passing of time has become especially worrisome. Recently diagnosed with an unnamed but probably fatal illness, he is forced to take stock of his life and work, and to consider his position as a critically acclaimed writer whose books have never reached a wide readership. He's not exactly isolated in his deep blue funk - this is, after all, a French movie, so you can be sure he has a fawning young beauty to provide some sexual divertissement - but even his few close friends can't do much to lighten his mood. "You're all alone," he matter-of-factly remarks, "with what goes on inside your body."

Gabriel (Mathieu Amalric) is profoundly troubled by Adrien's ill health, and not just because he has long viewed his slightly older acquaintance as a mentor. Thoughts of mortality and limitations force him to take a closer look at his own personal and professional discontents. Recently split from a girlfriend (Jeanne Balibar) who's having painful second thoughts about their break-up, he's trying to get his life in order - and, just as important, sell the apartment he used to share with his ex-lover - before committing to a new relationship with a beautiful young clothing designer (Virginie Ledoyen). He senses that he is just treading water while working as a mid-level publishing executive. And he worries about resolving his conflicting feelings of sympathy and envy -- and, perhaps, resentment -- in regard to Adrien.

Late August, Early September glides at an unhurried pace through the day-to-day lives of Gabriel, Adrien and the people in their orbit. Appropriately enough for a movie about literary types, Assayas breaks his loosely plotted story into segments, like chapters in a novel. As the interlocking episodes unfold, people contemplate the limits of friendship, the evanescence of love and the durability of art -- and try not to appear afraid as they maneuver through emotional minefields.

Although the characters and their milieu are specifically rendered, the movie effortlessly achieves a universal resonance. The ensemble cast is flawless across the board, further enhancing the movie's ability to stealthily trigger shocks of recognition. At times, you may find surprise yourself while noting: "I know that guy!" At other times, you may startle yourself while realizing, "I am that guy!"