Films about great writers are usually far from great themselves. Usually, they disappoint us terribly, making our souls cringe and crinkle like tin foil, and leaving a bad taste in our mouths for months. The one truth in the world is this: If the writer in the movie is mediocre (or a hack), then the movie is good (The Third Man, Barton Fink, Sunset Boulevard), but if the writer in the movie is magnificent, a genius, then the film is bad (The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Freud, Kafka, Total Eclipse). But Late August, Early September is a glorious freak of nature, defying laws and principles more powerful, more constant than those which govern the course of the planets and their obedient moons. And we must stand up and applaud, because this is by no means a small feat.
One of the reasons why this film is successful (and there are many) is that Assayas structures the movie in a way that looks like a book which the writer in his film, Adrien (François Cluzet), might have written. Though we never actually read or hear the writer recite any of his work, there are many discussions about the style and concerns of his books, the most important of which takes place early in the movie between Gabriel (Mathieu Amalric), a young intellectual who's making a documentary about the writer, and a prospective financier of his film project. When they are alone for a moment, the financier expresses his deep concerns about the profitability of the documentary, saying that he finds Adrien's books "muddled." With an exasperated tone, Gabriel (who has heard this complaint many times before), responds, "[Adrien] avoids stories, he depicts the world he sees." "We all have a vision," answers the unimpressed financier. "If he wants to interest me in his vision, I need a way in, and the best way in is a story." "Can stories really describe the world?" Gabriel finally asks. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Late August, Early September has no real plot, that filmmaker Assayas, like his writer, has not bothered to construct a coherent story, and that the film is, as the financier put it, "muddled."
Eschewing a discernible plot, Late August, Early September is composed of a set of almost self-contained moments -- glimpsed fragments from a small corner of Parisian life. We see the moment when the writer is with his close friend and devotee Gabriel, talking about how he now desires to make some kind of connection with the public, instead of being a neglected and esoteric novelist (a similar discussion is to be found in Assayas' previous and most well-known film, Irma Vep, a good film about a bad, or at least exhausted, filmmaker). We see the moment when Gabriel is breaking up with his old girlfriend, Jenny (Jeanne Balibar); the moment when he is meeting his new girlfriend, Anne (the ever delightful Virginie Ledoyen); the moments when he is fighting with his new girlfriend; and the moment when his new girlfriend is having "rough sex" with two strange men. Then there are moments when the great writer is secretly dating a hip 15-year-old girl (who encourages him to consume designer drugs and hard drinks), and moments when his devotee, Gabriel, is at work, wondering if he is wasting time, if he could be doing something serious and substantial like his hero, Adrien, who he believes is nothing less than the greatest writer of his age. All of these independent episodes are held together not so much by the great writer's presence, or by the city of Paris, but by the writer's sickness. In fact, if there is any story in this film, this is it: Adrien has a mysterious illness that is gradually killing him, and all of the film's collected moments and scenes gain relevance in the light of his sickness and eventual death.
When the great writer finally leaves this world for the next, everything falls apart; the moments lose their center and enter a dreamy void, and casually float to the film's incomplete end. There are not many directors, and maybe there is only one, who could have made this rare and marvelous film.