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August 27, 1999 2:00 AM
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REVIEWS: French Intellectuals Grow Up, "Scream" Writer Doesn't in Directing Debut

REVIEWS: French Intellectuals Grow Up, "Scream" Writer Doesn't in Directing Debut

by Danny Lorber



"Late August, Early September"


That nearly great French filmmaker Oliver Assayas' latest film, "Late August, Early September" is a deft character drama about how messy life can get, especially if you're a French intellectual. The film tells of Adrien, a narcissistic novelist who isn't feeling well and may be dying and a group of younger writers who deem him as their greatest influence.

These young writers live poorly and unhappily (in love, at least). They regard it as proof of their moral integrity that they are all just one translation or one freelance editing job away from economic ruin. Mathieu Amalric's Gabriel, Adrien's unsettled disciple and the film's central figure, is leading a chaotic life on several other fronts as well.


He has broken up with his wife, Jeanne Balibar's Jenny, whose credit card has been canceled and whose phone service is about to be cut off. Still, Jenny's eyes sparkle. A mere few lines into the film, it becomes obvious that she and Gabriel share a certain compatibility. For one thing, they are capable of jointly inhabiting a life of the mind, if not the same apartment. This is not the case with the new woman in Gabriel's life, Virginie Ledoyen's Anne. Gabriel is not in love with Anne's mind, but with her ability to make his life exciting. Sleeping with Anne is like sleeping with plutonium. It's not so much that she's kinky but that, as she herself glumly recognizes, she has a self-destructive streak. She's never far from meltdown. Naturally, Gabriel can't get enough of her.


Adrien, who may or may not be expiring, is something of a father figure to them all, especially the precocious but underage high school girl who is his lover. And while he harbors benevolent impulses toward them, he's also something of a manipulator and even a tyrant. Gabriel is fascinated by literature, but the most he can bring himself to attempt is ancillary jobs, like editing and other middleman activity. Psychologically, Adrien looms over Gabriel in an obviously longstanding relationship. While it devastates Gabriel to even think of losing Adrien, there's also a sneaky promise of liberation in the prospect, too, of Assayas' elliptical but (like his characters) always style-conscious film.


Amalric, a newcomer, has just the face to serve as an atlas of the instability that dogs them all, especially Gabriel. It's a bright ferret face, with eyes that dart everywhere, picking up everything, yet seldom knowing what to do, especially when it comes to women. His hopscotching from job to job, apartment to apartment, and girlfriend to girlfriend is emblematic of his life and the lives of them all. They smoke a lot, fret a lot, and, except for Anne, cook a lot, hoping irrationally that maybe the way to stay young is to keep repeating the mistakes of their youth.


Assayas could have taken the easy way out and mocked them, as they sometimes seem to mock themselves. Instead, he empathizes with them. His shaky, in-your-face, hand-held shooting style impels us to identify with their anguished flailings and failings and to persist in regarding them as sympathetic, if only because their self-absorption never quite succeeds in cutting them off from the world and from each other. The film's energies are those of reconciliation with the world. Assayas and his engaged, responsive cast finally beat the odds, subtly and beautifully enabling the film to genuinely be about a handful of friends approaching - not always easily or even gracefully but ultimately very touchingly - the September of their shared and individual lives.


"Teaching Mrs. Tingle"


"Scream" scripter Kevin Williamson sure wants to teach something in his directorial debut (titled "Killing Mrs. Tingle" before the Littleton massacre made high-school homicide déclassé). Something about integrity, or morality, or being true to oneself. But this effort is not true to Williamson's own penchant for trashy, cynical teen-slasher violence, and the result is a pathetic hodge-podge of sleaze and sanctimony.


Giving the picture backbone is Helen Mirren in the title role, a history teacher whose only apparent pleasure for the past 20 years has been flunking the best and brightest of Grandsboro High School -- such as Leigh Ann Watson (Katie Holmes), an A student from the other side of the tracks whom Tingle accuses of cheating. With her pals, dumb but hunky Luke (Barry Watson) and trampy wanna-be actress Jo Lynn (Marisa Coughlin, diverting in her re-creation of a scene from "The Exorcist"), Leigh Ann winds up holding Tingle hostage and unsure of what to do next. Blackmail? A bolt between the eyes from a crossbow? Williamson is similarly bewildered; his film isn't sure if it wants to be "Scream," a John Hughes movie or something a little nastier. Whatever it is, the result is bad taste and flat out miserable filmmaking.

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