Late August, Early September (The Cornfield #42)

Virginie Ledoyen, Mathieu Amalric: Late August, Early September

From the Sep./Oct. 1999 issue of Film Comment. I was going to run this in late August or early September, and it’s now Sep. 18. Alors.

Do the French make jokes about “French movies?” Roll their eyes at yet another film about young people chatting their way through a procession of cafés and love affairs? I hope not, because there are those of us who pray the “French movie” will never wane, that the garrulous spirit of Masculin-Feminin and The Mother and the Whore will always inform a certain percentage of Gallic exports.

Olivier Assayas’ Late August, Early September is one of those French movies, yet it stakes out its own distinct territory—or texture, to be more precise. As the title gently suggests (and almost everything in this movie is gently suggested), the subject of the film is the moment in life when youth has suddenly, inexplicably shifted into something like the first reluctant steps of middle age, a good-paying job no longer seems like such a sell-out, and mortality is the guest at the party who won’t leave at a decent hour. Although the center of the movie is 30-ish Gabriel (Mathieu Amalric), most of the events are triggered by the illness of his friend, a 40-year-old writer named Adrien (François Cluzet, looking more like Dustin Hoffman as he gets older). Adrien, a self-absorbed novelist whose books have found only narrow acceptance, is now dying of an unnamed malady.

Adrien is tended by many of the film’s characters, and he also carries on a secret affair with a 15-year-old girl named Vera (Mia Hansen-Love). The older writer has a curious relationship with Gabriel, as a hands-off mentor and a confidant who doesn’t confide very much. We don’t see anything of Adrien before he is ill, but Cluzet’s marvelous performance suggests the thaw of a distracted intellectual confronted with death—not as a sentimental story arc, but in his own quirky, still remote way.

Gabriel’s love life is mixed up with a younger girlfriend, Anne (Virginie Ledoyen), and an ex, Jenny (Jeanne Balibar), with whom he still sometimes falls into a snuggle. He’s in the midst of what might be described as a kind of passionate float. Mathieu Amalric, an actor who performed similar duties in Arnaud Desplechin’s How I Got Into an Argument… (My Sex Life)–a gloriously “French movie” if ever there was one–conveys the perfect sense of this; not quite handsome or forceful enough to be the star of his own life, he has a humorous passivity that we can believe attracts the beautiful women of those films, and his monkey eyes are alert, quick, eyes that register everything around him. (You want to call him an Antoine Doinel for the Nineties, but there is something unfinished and feral about him that also invokes Truffaut’s Wild Child.)

Gabriel keeps seeing Jenny because they once bought an apartment together and are now trying to sell it; she misses him, he likes kissing her, things almost happen. Assayas has a wonderfully wise feel for the way practical matters, even mundane things, have a way of shaping and defining our lives—were it not for the issues of peddling their flat and signing contracts, they would not see each other so often, and Gabriel might be moving forward in his relationship with the mercurial Anne. Late in the film, Gabriel and Jenny are leaving a funeral, and it is settled that Gabriel will give Jenny a ride to her place. It’s a funeral, and both are emotional, and for a moment we watch them walk along, their eyes darting nervously. We foresee the reunion that is about to happen, a road about to be taken…but then a couple of other characters come along, offering rides, and Gabriel and Jenny go their separate ways. The logic of saving time and saving gas averts a potential life event.

That sequence is realized in a single, loose shot, and throughout the film Assayas covers the action in plain, often handheld, simplicity. (The same purified, clean feel Eric Rohmer has in An Autumn Tale, and Assayas is only 43 years old.) The approach never strains for its naturalism, however, and what we see feels as crafted and selected as, say, an Ozu movie, although Assayas’ restless camera could not be farther from Ozu’s stationary gaze. That title does sound Ozu-esque, come to think of it.

Like the thoughtful progress of Gabriel, the film’s style might be described as a passionate float, as each scene evolves only to disappear in a soft, swift fade to black. It’s as though the movie is embarrassed about nudging up to melodrama, and thus withdraws discreetly. This is never more apparent, or more effective, than when we learn the fate of a Joseph Beuys sketch that has great meaning to Adrien. Assayas lets us glimpse the destiny of the sketch for just an eye-blink before fading out. In the context of the plot, this is the heart-stopping moment, but Assayas comes close to tossing it off—which makes it all the sweeter.

Assayas might well object to Late August, Early September being described as having a “plot” at all. Early in the film, he whimsically includes a conversation in which Gabriel discusses Adrien’s obscure novels, and the question arises of how difficult it is to engage a work of art that refuses to allow the audience an easy way in, via the conventions of story. There’s a little bit of an apology in there from Assayas—not for being difficult, but for giving us something very close to a story. But this lovely movie need not apologize on that score: it puts just as much emphasis on the great matters of love and death as it does the frequent ordering of coffee and sandwiches. C’est la vie, after all.

Carlos (The Cornfield #5)

One of the scintillating issues about movies is the problem of villains: movies can officially disapprove of a character who does bad things, but if that character is played by an actor with great glamour or charisma and gets the best nasty lines in the script, we have a tendency to gravitate toward that person regardless of the film’s official stance. The issue is even thornier when the villain is the central figure, as in Bonnie and Clyde or the two versions of Scarface, although there are many films, Bonnie and Clyde among them, that consciously explore the problem.

Olivier Assayas is part of a generation of filmmakers who frequently try to drain their movies of traditional seductive melodrama, although he also knows how to turn that stuff on when he wants to. In the case of Carlos, Assayas has built a five and a half hour TV miniseries around the misadventures of the notorious and highly visible terrorist Carlos the Jackal, and the plain recounting of various facts (and some speculation) about Carlos’s life makes for a less than romantic take on the criminal career. Assayas emphasizes the more absurd interludes in the arc of this career, as well as Carlos’s egocentric taste for the glory of infamy, so that most viewers will be unlikely to come out of this movie impressed by the coolness of the villain.

It also helps that the actor who plays the central role (a heroic performance by any standard), Édgar Ramírez, has the broad, handsome, self-satisfied face of a born self-satisfier. You take one look at him and think, Man, what a dick, and Ramírez never lets that first impression fade – even if Carlos evinces a few apparently authentic true-believer-in-the-revolutionary-cause moments early in the film, he conveys no sense of reflection or gravity. More shark than jackal: just the kneejerk evolutionary promotion of the self, in whatever situation.

By portraying the levels within the terrorist antfarm, Assayas creates both gripping suspense and black comedy – the latter approaching the gold standard of the rivalries and internecine power struggles taking place between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea in Life of Brian. Along with Carlos’s father/son mindgames with Palestinian terror honcho Wadie Haddad (spellbinding performance by Ahmad Kaabour), the game of lethal Risk is best played out in the movie’s longest sustained sequence, the 1975 hostage-taking at an OPEC conference in Vienna, which becomes both terrifying and ludicrous.

Assayas automatically tilts toward the absurd and the Kubrickian (not in Kubrick’s style, but in attitude – Assayas still favors the handheld, seemingly casual approach to scene-covering, with his usual technique of cutting frames in mid-shot to jump things along); a large part of this world’s population would find all of this deadly serious, another large segment would find this all laughable. Assayas seems to have gone through a process similar to the one Kubrick went through on Dr. Strangelove: the more research he did, the more hilarious it all got. (See Four Lions for another application of terrorism’s realities to create pitch-black comedy.) Whether or not you find Carlos funny probably depends on which part of the population you belong to.

Even though Carlos (and Ramírez) has his rock-star moments, the accumulation of mundane detail works against any possible glamorization of the character. During Carlos’s endgame, as he packs on the pounds and spins his wheels in Yemen and the Sudan, he endures ongoing testicular pain while pondering liposuction. These things tend to detract a bit from the grandeur.

The five-hour running time wears away the appeal, too. You can’t come away from the film too jazzed about the sociopathic doofus whose life we have been viewing, especially as the engrossing strategic plays of the film’s first two sections give way to the disorganized action of the final section, a third act that tends to grind on. I like the movie, find it an admirable thing, but it is really long.

At one point Carlos, getting on in age now, is seen clowning around with a little kid, a scene that stirs memories of Brando goofing with his grandson in The Godfather. Now that’s a movie that creates warmth and nostalgia and plenty of movie-star glamour around its Mafia characters, contra its intended lessons about the bad decisions made by Michael Corleone and all that. Who can go against the idea of family and the fat, lovable Clemenza’s recipe for pasta sauce? Assayas and Carlos deserve some credit just for undercutting that kind of movie romance, and wearing you down with the banal and the dead.