RECENTLY A FRIEND MENTIONED A TRIP FROM HIS PAST, spent with friends and a woman he'd loved, and called it a Paris Trance moment, using the title of the Geoff Dyer novel to describe this preciously remembered weekend. In the Dyer book, the moment stretches across a summer when four young friends travel to a brokedown country house for a visit. The hero of the novel has been living in the present tense with a vengeance; for him, it's been enough to live in Paris with a dead-end job, a group of friends, endless movies and druggy nights out, as well as the beautiful woman he loves. The joy and the pain of the novel are in the revelation of just how right he is, and how wrong, a revelation that circumscribes not just the summer but the book's greater point about living life as a dream. Dyer calls his novel "a romance," you suspect, not only because it's about two pairs of lovers, but because it is, finally and without irony, a romance with youth itself and that stunningly brief moment before responsibility.
French director Olivier Assayas' Late August, Early September is very much a Paris Trance movie, a hazy, ingeniously constructed story about a group of young friends captured during a flashpoint in their common lives. At the center of the film is Gabriel (Mathieu Amalric), an unemployed, younger friend to Adrien (François Cluzet), a novelist on the brink of turning 40 who's been diagnosed with a serious illness. When the film opens, Gabriel and his ex-girlfriend Jenny (Jeanne Balibar) are trying to sell their apartment to a couple not particularly interested in the shabby rooms where the former lovers were once happy. The other major character in the drama is Gabriel's new girlfriend, Anne (Virginie Ledoyen), a designer with a violent temper and a taste for rough sex. Edging around these four are various other friends and acquaintances, among them Adrien's wistful teenage girlfriend Vera (Mia Hansen-Løve), his former lover Lucie (Arsinée Khanjian) and close friend Jeremie (Alex Descas), all of whom, like Gabriel and Jenny, wear the novelist's influence like an imprint.
The most startlingly original aspect of the film is that while Assayas devotes much of the story to Gabriel, he's given Adrien the rich emotional reality seemingly missing from his friend. More than any of the novelist's other intimates, Gabriel is the one who most emphatically mirrors him, and everything we come to know about each man is discovered through the other. But it is a strangely distorting mirror, for even as Adrien recedes into sickness and from the story itself, Gabriel is brought more sharply into focus, taking on the very life fast escaping his friend. In the process, Gabriel doesn't so much become Adrien as become his own person, finally able to see himself clearly, his image no longer blurred by his friend's influence or his own anxiety. Assayas has become justly known for narrative sleights of hands such as this one, for bold formalist moves that invest his work with mystery and nominal depth. (One of his most celebrated films, Une Nouvelle Vie, contains a breathtaking edit that abruptly delivers its lead character from one emotional and psychological state into another.) If only his characters were as imaginatively conceived as his narratives, no matter how self-conscious and unlived-in they sometimes feel.
This is the seventh feature written and directed by the former film critic, whose last to be released in the United States was an intoxicating love poem to the movies, Irma Vep. Assayas enjoys a loyal cult following in his country, but his work has always seemed too calculating for the sort of praise he's racked up. (He's a perpetual darling of the New York Film Festival, which screened this film last year). Many of Assayas' movies, this one included, feel like the work of a gifted, well-schooled cineaste rather than a natural talent, unlike those of his peer Arnaud Desplechin, whose dazzling How I Got Into an Argument (My Sex Life) is this film's obvious inspiration, even down to the casting of Amalric and Balibar. Still, there's much to admire in Late August, Early September -- the restless camerawork, lyrical editing and deceptively casual framing, and especially a thrilling scene that begins hot and ends cold in which Ledoyen's character describes her need for sex without love. The scene's intense eroticism lasts only a few minutes, but its blunt emotional truth hangs over the remainder of the film like a promise. By then, though, the story has almost run its course, as have Assayas' intentions, which are consistently more bewitching than his results.
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ROSIE IS A TOUGH NEW BELGIAN FILM ABOUT A TOUGH little girl lost. The eponymous waif lives with her young mother in a barren housing development in Antwerp. The mother, Irene (Sara De Roo), works as an X-ray technician and seems to be a hard-luck case when it comes to men: She had Rosie at about the same age her daughter is now, and soon after the film begins she's seen locking a naked, shivering boyfriend out of the house. Expressively played by Aranka Coppens, herself only 13 at the time, Rosie lives mainly in her own head, which seems primarily, and calamitously, stuffed with pop songs, sawdust and longing. Although she's addicted to trashy romance novels and harbors what seems like an unhealthy attachment to the drummer for the rock group the Police, what Rosie really yearns for is her mother's recognition. The frizzy-haired Irene, less a bad mother than a reluctant one, insists that Rosie call her "sister," a situation that's further complicated when Irene's gambler brother materializes with some ugly family secrets.
More skilled as a director than as a writer, newcomer Patrice Toye makes the most of a story that continually announces itself, intentionally and not. (Much of the film takes place in an extended flashback.) The actors are all real and unadorned (the movie wears its lack of affect almost too proudly), as are most of the characters. Ironically, the only character Toye fails to make fully convincing is Rosie herself, who remains a confusion of motivation and psychology, a creature only partially self-realized. That is no doubt crucial to the film's main point, but because Toye insists on dramatizing the miserable conditions of the girl's existence to the edge of bathos, it's hard not to feel at times more suckered than moved. It's a feeling that only worsens when Rosie begins flailing away in her own private hell, and Toye's camera comes off as less sympathetic than curious, almost clinical. Nature and nurture are each assigned fault in Rosie, but here it's the director who's mostly to blame.
LATE AUGUST, EARLY SEPTEMBER | Written and directed by OLIVIER ASSAYAS | Produced by GEORGES BENAYOUN and PHILIPPE CARCASSONE | Released by Zeitgeist Films | At Laemmle's Music Hall
ROSIE | Written and directed by PATRICE TOYE Produced by ANTONINO LOMBARDO | Released by New Yorker Films | At the Nuart