Conversation with Olivier Assayas on Fin Aout, Debut Septembre

Article excerpt

In 1996's Irma Vep, the film that earned him a place in North American art cinemas, Olivier Assayas included a segment from the 1968 militant student film Class de lute to exemplify political purity through cinematic art. Even though the characters of his seventh film, Fin aout, debut septembre (Late August, Early September), are too young to have protested in Paris, they could have been student radicals, now semi-comfortable members of society, thirty years later.

In the decade since his own tenure on the editorial board of Cahiers du Cinema, Assayas has established himself as the leading stylist of a new generation of French auteurs, fluidly integrating stylistic tropes of directors like Bresson, Bergman and Tarkovsky in the context of his personal theme -- youths becoming adults by confronting society's cruelty. (1) In Fin aout, the issue is no longer exploring the conflict between ideals and reality, but coming to terms with the contemporary world while remaining faithful to the values one continually is choosing to assume as one's own.

As the 43-year-old Assayas argues in Fin aout, this process is fragmentary and elliptical, a mix of the real and the abstract, putting character above action and reality over plot. It's hard to summarize because Assayas' unrelenting focus on the quotidian gives equal value to almost every scene.

Most of all, Fin aout is a relationship film, observing the everyday interactions of a system of well-educated friends and the choices they confront in their personal and professional lives over a year's time. It begins with the breakup of Gabriel (Mathieu Amalric) and Jenny (Jeanne Balibar), continuing with the illness, affair (with the much younger Vera) and eventual death of author Adrien (Francois Cluzet), and ending with Gabriel's acceptance of his new relationship with Anne (Virginie Ledoyen).

The film is divided into six chapters, comprised of fragments separated with fades-to-black that create a series of viewpoints around the present or absent Adrien. Each chapter's title refers to specific events within the part, but also applies to other events, and the film as a whole (e.g., "Gabriel's Real Estate Problems," "Admission," "Missed Opportunities"). This structure gathers moments, according to the director, "that, taken as a whole, complement each other, expanding and intensifying each other to give an idea of our experience in the world."

Like Assayas' earlier films, Fin aout has complex, malleable and real characters -- secure when in relations that s/he feels are under their control, yet equally weak when in the presence of stronger others; fluid, mobile visuals; and a connection between power, art, and ordinary life. At the core of Fin aout is a battle between the head and the heart, hearkening back to a scene in L'Eau froide where money, not love, becomes Rousseau's "ridiculous object."

Fin aout is the latest in a series of transitions for Assayas, especially in comparison to the devastating Une nouvelle vie, a severe, 35mm `Scope work. To that point, his films show a filmmaker very much concerned with "teenage problematics" in a tradition of French cinema from Truffaut to Pialat. The transition is exemplified by the title, applicable to the time of the film, the age of the characters, and both the time and age of the director. "Late August" refers to the stage of late adolescence the filmmaker Assayas is moving beyond, towards an early maturity -- or "Early September" -- clearly seen in his treatment of domesticity.

This also connects to Assayas' inescapability from influence, and as well as his dialectical method -- crucial for understanding why he made a self-critical, autobiographical film to express the diversity of human values, situated in the urbane world of the French intellectual. Within the film itself, the influence of friends has major importance to one's daily choices; just as an artist can't escape precursors' works and theories on creation, so often behave and make choices with other people in mind, on both conscious and unconscious levels. …